Entrepreneur finds his niche

ST. JOSEPH — Ken Kozminski is planting hops in the beer garden of The Buck Burgers Brew in St. Joseph, a sign of the full-circle growth of his twin interests since he retired as president of IPC Print Services.

Kozminski has 550 hops plant growing at his True Hoppiness Farm near Sodus, an experimental stage to determine the best varieties for Michigan’s soil and climate.

“My goal was to get some varieties of hops to see which hops grow well in the region,” he says. “I’ll be looking to do an expansion of the hops farm. The thing that’s interesting is that at one time southwest Michigan used to be a hops growing region. Typically they can grow anywhere that grapes grow well. This can be a very strong region for growing hops.”

A year ago in April, Kozminski opened The Buck Burgers Brew in a building on State Street that he bought in 2011. He was named the 2012 Entrepreneur of the Year — Commercial Division from Cornerstone Chamber of Commerce.

“I saw there was an interesting niche here in our market, a very strong niche for a very affordable and fun venue, one that specialized in burgers and beer, hence the name Buck Burgers Brew,” he says.

“The goal was to provide a fun, affordable hospitality experience to fill a local niche, not just during our strong tourism season but also on a year-round basis — a place the locals would like to come and spend time and enjoy being there.”

Locals typically wait for the off-season rather than fighting the summer crowds in the 200-seat restaurant with upstairs and downstairs bars, he says, but the year-round draw is the craft draft beer selection — 74 draft beer tap handles, among the most in Michigan.

The selection represents some 25 breweries, with more than 55 local brands.

“We’ve been able to tap into this expanding local draft beer market,” says Kozminski, who also has live music some nights in the restaurant and invites brewers to take over taps with their brands for special events.

The food choices — burgers, salads, sandwiches, with gluten-free and vegetarian options — also focus on nearby ingredients, including Amish cheeses and locally baked buns.

Kozminski does not plan to brew beer with hops from his farm, but to sell it to local brewers who will brew it and perhaps supply some of the taps at The Buck.

“My goal with my hops farm is to build a sustainable crop that would be sold to local breweries,” he says. “They just happen to have the same theme of beer.

We’re building the decks to be more of a beer garden atmosphere. We’ll have beer hops growing on our outside seating area.”