20 under 40: Justin Keys finds success and happiness as Steamboat businessman
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Just a few short years ago, Justin Keys was living on the Front Range, working in a career he didn’t like and unhappy with what life was offering him.
“You can keep saying, ‘next year, next year, next year’ all you want. The truth is that you never really know if there is going to be a next one,” Keys said. “Life is too short, potentially really short, to be stuck doing something that you don’t want to be doing.”
So when his good friend Heath Jackson died unexpectedly, Keys, a construction manager for a company that built large industrial projects, knew his friend’s death was a sign.
“He was very young, and he was a successful entrepreneur that was always trying to push me toward opening my own business,” Keys said.
So, in 2016, Keys quit his job and came to Steamboat Springs to spend a few days with another childhood friend and her husband.
He had been reading books and talking with family and friends about his future and picking the brains of his former bosses and friends who were running their own businesses. He also took small business classes and wrote a business plan for opening a small brewery in a mountain town.
But while in Steamboat, Keys visited The Barley, and that decision altered the course of his life.
“I wrote up a whole different business plan,” Keys said. “I totally stole the idea of The Barley Tap & Tavern and planned to open a similar place in Denver. But when I talked to a friend who was a restaurateur in Denver, he mentioned he had some friends who were selling a bar that was very similar to the one I had described in my business plan. Then he asked if I would be down with moving to Steamboat.”
Name: Justin Keys
Profession: Owner of The Barley Tap & Tavern
Education: Bachelor’s degree in construction management, Colorado State University
Keys later learned that the bar his friend was referencing was The Barley.
“It was crazy,” Keys said. “You can’t make this stuff up.”
He met with the owners, and after some negotiating, Keys closed the deal and has no regrets.
“It’s a small community of people who really care,” Keys said when asked what he likes about doing business in Steamboat. “If you are genuine the people want to support you, and if they are genuine, you want to support them.”
He has made a huge impression in the community supporting organizations like Young Bloods Collective and the Young Professionals Network of Steamboat Springs. He is also a strong believer in buying local and supporting local businesses.
“I see him being a local leader as he spends more and more time in this town,” said Jamie Curcio, a previous 20 Under 40 honoree who nominated Keys for the award this year. “He has built incredible relationships with everyone. I don’t know a single person that doesn’t enjoy being around him or doesn’t like working with him.”
Most recently, Keys played a big role in helping Advocates of Routt County develop the Good Night Out program. He also wrote the training manual that will be used by local bars.
“Unlike a brewery, we can’t take our business on the road. We can only sell stuff here,” Keys said. “We always ask what we can do within our four walls? Sometimes, that’s fundraisers for local nonprofits, and other times, it’s supporting locals with things like the art wall where we invite a local artist to be featured in a solo show for two months.
“What I don’t have is a lot of money or time, but what I do have is a place,” Keys added. “It’s amazing how much you can do when you get people who care about something in the community into a place in the community for the purpose of helping someone else in the community.”
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.
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