Starting Nov. 1, the future of a St. Louis favorite will be in Doug Stagner’s hands.
He’s the man a handful of Busch family members called to run Grant’s Farm when Anheuser-Busch stops next month, and he’s got big responsibilities: Keep the family’s ancestral estate in good order. Keep the south St. Louis County preserve it houses open to the public. And try to not to lose too much money on it all.
It’s no mean feat. The farm acquired by brewer August A. Busch Sr. in 1903 has long been run as more of a marketing operation than a business. Admission is free, as is some beer. There are costs for parking and optional activities, but a 2010 National Park Service study estimated it still loses $3.5 million to $4 million each year.
So Stagner is going to have to get creative.
He took a walk across the park Thursday, from the famed Bauernhof farmstead to the palatial Busch mansion, to talk about it. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Question • So you’ve run SeaWorlds on both coasts and worked on attractions in China. Why are you here in St. Louis?
Answer • I see a tremendous amount of potential and opportunity at Grant’s Farm. And with the family, one of the things that struck me is they’re looking long term. They’re asking, ‘How do we ensure that Grant’s Farm is an attraction and open to visitors for the next 50 years?’
Q • How do you do that?
A • I think it’s building upon the successes we’ve had here. It’s making sure we offer experiences and opportunities that appeal to all demographics, and it’s adding more events to get people to come to Grant’s Farm multiple times a year, rather than maybe once or twice.
Like this summer, they had Friday Nights at the Farm in the courtyard, and it was very popular — so let’s do more than Friday nights. Let’s make that “Summer Nights” at Grant’s Farm.
I think we could do a nice Oktoberfest event here, too. We’ve started Christmas and Halloween drive-thru programs. We can grow that. And the behind-the-scenes tours (with Clydesdales and other animals) are very popular and sell out — so let’s do more tours. Let’s give people more of what they want.
Q • The farm also recently began doing $350 private tours of Deer Park where you can get off of the tram path to see the water buffalo. How’s that going?
A • That’s very popular, that sells out as well. We’re going to add more of those experiences for people.
Q • What else could you do?
A • We’ve bounced around a ton of different ideas. Maybe a children’s playground. We’ve talked about other things like bluegrass weekends, Busch family heritage days. I really want to give people 5-10 reasons to come to Grant’s Farm every year.
We also want to expand our food and beverage offerings and tie that into festivals or events we do. We were talking about designing additional areas up here (at the Bauernhof). We could do ribs. Around Cinco de Mayo, we could be doing fajitas, fish tacos and beer pairings.
The Christmas light drive-thru this year will include the Busch Family Estate. That’s one of the things the family realizes — that there’s a lot of interest in the estate.
Q • Yeah, it’s usually behind the trees.
A • We’re going to trim trees. It won’t end up like the Biltmore Estate and a line of tourists every day through it, but we want to figure out how to appropriately give people that opportunity to see some of the estate and learn more about the Busch family history.
Q • I’m curious. What’s your favorite thing to do here?
A • I love it all. The Clydesdales are majestic. I love going on the tram tour and seeing the animals. And I like the diversity we have here. We’ve got zebras, ostriches, goats — it’s just a great family experience.
Q • OK. Now I have to ask: Bob Hermann Jr. said last month that the family ownership group’s goals are to preserve the farm, keep it open and “hopefully not lose too much money doing it.” How much of a concern is money?
A • I can’t speak to the past financial performance, but any business that wants to be successful long-term can’t lose money forever. So I’m really focused on growing the business, and the family is willing to invest in it.
Q • Do you think admission will remain free?
A • Yes, I think Grant’s Farm will always be free.
Q • And the free beer?
A • Yes.
Q • Why do you think the Busch family members are doing this?
A • I think it’s a sense of civic duty and pride. They really want to ensure that this place is around for decades to come. It’s going to take a little time to get on our feet, but I’m confident that with the support of the family we’ll get there and then we can really start dreaming.
Q • What’s that dream look like?
A • Really, the sky’s the limit. We’ve got 280 acres here, so there’s plenty of land. There’s a lot of interest not only in public events like we talked about but private events.
We’ve got a large wedding coming up in November in the Bauernhof courtyard, and that’s not a new thing, but it’s one of those things where I think we can do a better job just getting the word out about that.
Q • Can this place break even?
A • Absolutely. It can do better than break even.
Q • Last thing: You’ve had a long career and done a lot. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?
A • I think one of them came from August Busch III when I was working at SeaWorld Busch Gardens. It was, ‘Do your homework. Trust your gut.’ That always stuck with me.