Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary was not a place you wanted to live. Until 2009, it was home to the hardest, worst criminals in the southeast, including the man who killed Martin Luther King Jr. In this nightmare of concrete and steel in the middle of the impassible, god-forsaken mountains of east Tennessee, many a man was left to rot in prison.

It costs $20 to tour. Visit the gift shop before you leave and be sure to sample some of the moonshine brewed on-site.

If you’re looking for a review of the Brushy Mountain tour, this post isn’t it. Sure, if you’re in Chattanooga or Knoxville, or passing through Tennessee on Highway 27, I think it’s worth stopping by.

I’m much more interested in how on earth this business model works. Until I stopped by Brushy Mountain, I was totally unaware of the concept of prison tours. When visiting, my mind was flooded with questions like “how is this business making money” and “are people really into this, or do they think it’s weird?”

That’s why in this article, I’m going to talk about why the Brushy Mountain business model works. As with so many topics I’ve discussed on this blog, it’s a mix of good branding, a working business model, and plain old product-market fit.

What is Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary?

Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary was a maximum-security prison located in Petros, Tennessee. It operated from 1896 to 2009 and was home to some of the worst people you could imagine. It’s a bleak monument of retribution where many hardened criminals lived out the rest of their days in harsh conditions. So much so that it was name-dropped in The Silence of the Lambs as a potential home for Hannibal Lecter (a fact which many a sign in the museum won’t let you forget).

It was initially in response to a violent labor uprising known as the Coal Creek War, in which miners and unpaid convicts worked alongside one another. The uprising happened because the miners felt very understandably threatened by the convicts. Eventually, the state of Tennessee abandoned the practice of “convict leasing” and ended up housing them in the newly built Brushy Mountain facility.

The tour is a haunting meditation on the soul-crushing existence of the imprisoned

It’s at this point that the raw facts don’t do the story of Brushy any justice. If you actually go to the place, you notice those mountains create a crushing sense of claustrophobia. Those who, in the parlance of Cool Hand Luke, “got rabbit in their blood” and tried to flee were either stopped by terrain, the gun-toting country folks of rural Tennessee, or the bullets of ever-present snipers. A video of a former prisoner at Brushy even outright states this, saying that Brushy Mountain was designed to create despair and hopelessness.

Walking through the courtyard, you can see where prisoners used to be flogged before the state outlawed the practice at some shockingly late year (as I recall, the 1950s or 1960s). The museum has a display case full of improvised shanks.

It was a violent place for violent men. This was not a place you went for having a dime bag of weed in your sock.

Being on the prison tour forces you to think about the right way to handle violent, unrepentant criminals. Do you punish them with what they dished out to others, or do you try to reform them? Brushy specialized in the former.

In 2018, Brushy Mountain opened up to the public and became a tourist trap in the process

For me, it’s hard to square this violent history with the idea of a for-profit museum and distillery. I can’t deny that it’s interesting to tour the place, or even that the liquor they sell is good. But it feels gross in a way that’s hard-to-describe. I wondered, is there truly a taste for this in the market? Would this harrowing place be offensive to the deeply conservative culture of Tennessee?

But truth be told, there’s a huge market for the macabre. When I checked TripAdvisor, I found no less than 34 pages of prison tours throughout the world. There are even more ghost tours than that in the US alone. Halloween spending in the US alone in 2021 was over $10 billion. Scary sells.

That’s why in 2014, the Brushy Mountain Development Group (BMDG) started working with the Tennessee State government. “You let us develop this land, we’ll get you sales tax revenue” was the basic outline of the arrangement. BMDG was able to make a strong case for the profitability of their venture, and got the approval to start work on the distillery while they worked with the state to make infrastructure improvements to the old Brushy Mountain facility.

Fast forward to 2018, and the BMDG opened up the Warden’s Table Restauraunt, End of the Line Moonshine Distillery, umuseum, gift shop, and concert and event venue. The state was pleased to hear that new jobs would be created a revenues generated.

And that’s how you open a tourist trap!

The response by the public has been surprisingly positive

A lot of tourist traps feel forced and lame. That’s how the phrase “tourist trap” became a part of the American lexicon in the first place, with heavy emphasis placed on upon the “trap” part.

But Brushy Mountain, despite being an intrinscially melancholy place with an undercurrent of horror, has been a smash hit on the review websites. Right now, it has a 4.5/5.0 on TripAdvisor with 177 reviews and is amusingly called the #1 of 1 things to do in Petros. That little bit of very faint praise aside, a 4.5 is a rock-solid score on TripAdvisor.

If you look to Google, you see a similarly positive response. Nearly 1,000 people have reviewed Brushy Mountain since visiting, leaving an average score of 4.7 out of 5.0. (It should be noted that this is slightly below the 5.0 score held by Brushy Mountain, the actual, literal mountain, which has been reviewed by just three people.)

I often hesitate to cite online reviews as proof of a business’s success, but given the local nature of the attraction and its success throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, a clear picture emerges. Local tourists really appreciate what Brushy Mountain has become, and the business is succeeding as a result.

Brushy Mountain became a venue for private events, car shows, and concerts

During the period of time between August 4 and October 8, 2018, the prison tour brought in just shy of $350,000. In just two months, prison tour revenue alone exceeded about a third of the expenses incurred by the BMDG and the State of Tennessee on infrastructure improvements. That’s pretty impressive!

But the new wardens of Brushy Mountain are really smart, and they’ve got multiple ways to monetize. If you have a big chunk of real estate like Brushy Mountain, why not use it as a venue for concerts and car shows?

The list of events that have been held at Brushy before is a long one. They host both public and private events and have even been used as a wedding venue.

When you account for concert revenues alone during that same August 4 to October 8, 2018 period, you find that almost $117,000 extra was raised. Combined with the prison tour revenue, that’s in striking distance of half the cost of the infrastructure improvement expenses…in just two months of operation.

Oh, and that’s not even considering the gift shop.

It’s also home to some surprisingly good liquor, including, in true Tennessee fashion, moonshine

I don’t have figures on the gift shop revenues. But just about anything you want, you can buy. T-shirts, mugs, postcards, and the like. But the real draw is the liquor, which you sample for $10.

The Brushy Mountain Distillery is quite diverse, making vodka, whiskey, mixers, and tons of flavors of moonshine. The bottles aren’t terribly expensive either, and many of the flavors taste great.

It should be noted that the liquor is not just available in the Brushy Mountain gift shop, but is rather in widespread distribution throughout the state as well. There’s no telling how much money Brushy Mountain is making off this liquor right now, and I secretly suspect – but sadly cannot confirm – that this is where the really money is coming in. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s bringing in millions every year.

Brushy Mountain is a powerful example of creating a brand around storytelling

While I personally have some mixed feelings about an old prison being turned into a tourist trap and a distillery, it’s undeniable that Brushy Mountain Development Group know what they’re doing here. Petros, Tennessee is really in the middle of nowhere. The closest population center, Knoxville, is an hour away. With such a remote location and such an unusual concept, getting tourists to show up in droves is a tall order. And yet Brushy Mountain has achieved regional fame despite this, much of which is owed to their really strong branding.

I mean, just take a look at this simple announcement image from their Instagram. There’s a slick logo along a couple of carefully chosen fonts. The signage is very consistent in terms of color, style, and tone of language. Every single flavor of moonshine and whiskey has a label that reinforces this sort of outlaw image (one of the 12 branding archetypes if you’re familiar with the concept). It’s easy-to-understand branding, very consistently applied.

With consistency and a simple message, you can turn just about anything into a tourist trap. We’re seeing this right now with the gas station chain, Buc-ee’s, which is known for their Costco-sized convenience stores. But in some ways, Brushy Mountain’s branding is even more impressive. Buc-ee’s is along roads you’re already traveling on and has a practical purpose – cheap gas and good road food. Brushy Mountain doesn’t have either of those advantages (though the food served at the Warden’s Table is good).

Visiting Brushy Mountain is an emotional experience, and that’s why it works as a business

Brushy as a business works because they lean into emotion. The men who called Brushy Mountain home prior to its closure in 2009 were hardened criminals – the worst of the worst. Violent criminials, many of whom were murders. They lived in sarcophagi of concrete and steel, surrounded almost entirely by steep mountains and gun-carrying country folk, save a slim isthmus of flat ground guarded at all times by trained snipers.

Brushy is haunted. That’s why they can put true stories on signs and videos and let the historical context pour onto the stark surroundings as you are filled with dread and sadness and anger. All these emotions creep from you as you meditate on the tortures visited upon the convicts in retribution for the tortures they visited upon their victims.

The business owners turned the jail into a living museum, creating an unforgettable experience. That’s why they can charge you for tickets, and then sell you merchandise and liquor. Say what you will of our consumer-driven culture, but that’s often how we feel things with complete earnestness – through the exchange of money for something memorable and something tangible.

Take away the prison tour, and here’s what you have:

  • A venue in the middle of nowhere
  • Decent but unremarkable moonshine and whiskey that gets lost in a sea of imitators in mason jars

Most of the money is almost certainly made outside of the prison tour. But all of the money is made because of the prison tour and the emotions it evokes.

A final thought for readers running businesses

Normally I conclude these articles with concrete tips on how you can take lessons from businesses and apply them to your own. But unless you’re renovating a maximum-security prison in your spare time, I think it will be tough to do that here. Nevertheless, let one thing be very clear: if you can tell a story, you can sell just about anything you can imagine. That includes jail time.

Featured Photo Credit: Michael Hodge from Wartburg, Tennessee, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons