Ryan Jaeger’s annual weekend trips with his college buddies to his parents’ cabin were always nearly perfect: friends, time on the water and an ample supply of adult beverages.
Five years ago, Jaeger started thinking about how to combine all of those elements into a single activity.
“We were hanging out on the lake, and saying how cool would it be if we had a movable bar in the water that we could move around, but still see the shoreline,” he said. “So we said, ‘How do we create a movable bar?’ ”
He asked a local pedal pub manufacturer to build him a floating bar with enough room for a few a friends and a beverage cooler. That company referred him to one in Oregon that had already mastered the concept.
Jaeger flew to Oregon to have a look for himself. The concept was exactly what he had in mind, so he ordered one. It’s essentially a pontoon boat that is powered by two rows of riders who are seated along two inward-facing rows of pedal stations that encourage face-to-face interactions among the riders.
As the riders pedal (and, perhaps, drink), they propel a large paddle wheel at the back of the boat. The boats are steered by captains who are certified to operate a small passenger vessel, and are equipped with trough-style coolers down the center of the bar that enable riders easy access to food and drink.
Jaeger’s order was among the first for the manufacturer, which now has boats in dozens of cities across the country.
Back in the Twin Cities, Jaeger saw an opportunity to sell time on the boat to small groups. So he docked the boat, which he called the Paddle Tap, on Lake Minnetonka and ran most of the tours, which include lazy tours of the channels and shoreline with stops at local bars. As the business grew, he hired local college kids to run the tours and started shopping for a banker willing to finance an expansion. Jaeger, a full-time small-business banker, pitched the idea to several lenders.
“Four of the five just laughed and said it was too risky,” he said.
With an investor now on board, Jaeger added a second boat dubbed the Lazy Tap, a double-decker pontoon boat with more comfy seating and a bathroom. The Lazy Tap is powered by a 150 horsepower motor so riders don’t have to exert themselves.
The business was a big hit. Jaeger had no trouble hiring seasonal workers who wanted to spend their days on the water, but he quickly realized that the business was heavily dependent upon the weather, which meant his employees — and customers — were often left dockside.
Meanwhile, human-powered party bikes were becoming increasingly popular, especially in neighborhoods where riders can pedal their way from bar to bar, drinking along the way. A Minneapolis-based company called Pedal Pub, which calls itself the founder of the party-bike experience in the U.S., started franchising the concept. Last year, the company said it hopes to have 1,200 bikes in the U.S. and Canada operating by 2023.
Having watched that expansion, and mastering the booze-cruise concept, Jaeger realized that by offering a broader variety of land-based options that weren’t so weather dependent, he could serve his customers better and keep his employees busy by rebooking those who couldn’t get on the water because of weather-related cancellations.
So after three years of operating Paddle Tap, Jaeger started contacting local companies that offered complementary tours. Last year Jaeger acquired Amsterdam Pedals, which offers traditional pedal-pub style tours, and Hoppy Trolley, a company that does bus tours of local breweries.
Jaeger started marketing those three distinct tours under a new brand called UffDa Adventures, which caters to small groups that want a highly local experience. Consolidating those three distinct tours into one company enables him to save money by having one reservation system and a single management team.
“We’re all, in a sense, spinning the same wheels and competing,” he said. “This is a more streamlined approach.”
Jaeger said that he can handle groups from 14 to 30, and that most of his clients are ages 21 to 50. He doesn’t supply any of the beverages, enabling riders to keep costs low by bringing their own.
Jaeger said reservations for all three companies are already up 70% over the previous year, which means he is now serving 15,000 to 20,000 customers. He is also expanding nationally. Jaeger is launching a new Paddle Tap on White Bear Lake and on Lake Okoboji in Iowa. He’s also partnering with a similar company that does river tours in Milwaukee.
“We have people who rode last year, but want to do something different this year,” he said. “I’ve turned what had been a four-month business into a 11-month business.”