When Flying Saucer Draught Emporium opened in Fort Worth on June 5, 1995, a line of thirsty people waiting to get in stretched around the building.
Restauranteur Shannon Wynne, founder of the neighboring 8.0 Restaurant and Bar, and partner Keith Schlabs had put brown paper up on the windows to conceal their masterpiece in Sundance Square, a craft beer bar that would set a new standard in the industry -- though they didn't know to what extent just yet.
Schlabs diligently checked the tap lines and refrigerators, while Wynne meticulously leveled and aligned hundreds of the pub's signature plates on the walls. The plates had to be perfect, Wynne thought. After all, he'd put in an immense amount of time sourcing them from antique shops and flea markets in the region and had carefully decided out which ones would go where.
These plates were the defining attribute of the Flying Saucer and a big part of the brand name. But when the clock struck 4 p.m. and the staff ripped the paper off the windows, patrons flooded the pub heading straight to the bar.
"They didn't give a sh** what I had put on the walls," Wynne recalls. "It's like they didn't even get it -- Flying Saucer."
In the decades since, Wynne has hung close to 16,000 plates at the business' 16 locations throughout the South and Midwest. This Sunday, he and Schlabs will celebrate their roots with a 20th anniversary party at the Fort Worth Flying Saucer that includes special beer releases and an all-day concert headlined by Texas blues band Black Joe Lewis.
Back in the day
Schlabs was an ambitious 27-year-old when he met Wynne -- perhaps a little too ambitious, as Wynne tells it. Coming off a stint as manager at Dallas' Yegua Creek Brewing Co., Schlabs was eyeing Fort Worth's historic Land Title Building where he wanted to start a brewpub, a newly legalized type of restaurant and bar that was all the rage.
"I went, 'Why do you want to do that?' " says Wynne. He later convinced his young-gun cohort that selling beer was much more profitable than brewing beer and the duo transformed the Land Title Building into the first Flying Saucer.
Enthusiasm for craft beer was growing, Schlabs remembers. But with 70 taps to fill, he relied heavily on imports to diversify the lineup. (There were only 858 American craft breweries in 1995 compared with more than 3,400 in 2014, according to the Brewers Association.)
Cultivating craft beer evangelists
Flying Saucer's loyalty program is one of the foundation blocks of the business. Known as the UFO Club, the program rewards drinkers by putting a plate inscribed with their name in the Ring of Honor after they've tried 200 different beers. Both Wynne and Schlabs admit they underestimated their crowd.
"We started the UFO Club on little index cards thinking maybe someday somebody would make it and try all 200 beers," Wynne says. "We have a guy in San Antonio that has 55, 56, 57 plates."
"We see him every day," Schlabs adds.
The UFO Club, which now has 70,000 active members, cultivated a devout following of craft beer evangelists who regularly come to try the new and rotating brews. (No wonder we named it one of the area's best craft beer bars.)
Flying Saucer "created a community through beer, a culture, rather," says Meddlesome Moth beer director Caitlin Mohon, who worked at Flying Saucer on the Lake in Garland for five and a half years. "Those people become your friends and family."
A growing indie empire
Much has changed since the Flying Saucer opened its doors in Fort Worth. Perhaps the most obvious is the location, since Flying Saucer took over the former 8.0 space in 2012. The craft beer landscape has also drastically changed, especially in North Texas where more than 30 independent breweries now reside.
Now the market is poised for new Flying Saucer locations, though that wasn't always the case. Wynne and Schlabs closed two locations -- one on Lower Greenville in 2001 and one in Arlington in 2003.
"We had a growth spurt in 1998, and it's hard to hire staff and bring beers into a market and train people to sell those beers and then maintain the rest of your restaurants," Schlabs says.
But they seem to have it down now. Aside from new concepts like Mudhen and Bird Café, and expanding eateries like Rodeo Goat, Wynne, Schlabs and partner Larry Richardson are also looking for new Saucer locations in San Antonio, the Woodlands outside Houston, Tulsa and maybe even Dallas again, according to Wynne.
And just like the rest of the family of restaurants, all will be owned and operated by 8.0 Management, the trio's parent company. If it sounds like a lot of work, that's because it is. But Wynne attests he wouldn't have it any other way.
"We could have made a bucket of money franchising, but ya know, life's kind of not worth living if all you're doing is running around checking in on franchisees," Wynne says.
Plus, who would hang the plates?