Category Archives: The Journey

6 Months after opening – part 1

I just visited my blog again for the first time in about 6 months, and I was shocked to see that people are still visiting it, looking for information on starting a brewery.  I felt a little inspired so thought I would jot down a bunch of things that come to mind regarding running a brewery.  In no particular order, it would be the following:

  • Man you will be tired:  Unless you are flush with cash and you can afford to have extra staff around, you will be working like a dog.  Minimum 60 hour weeks, week-in and week-out.  Get ready for this, or if you are adverse to this kind of thing, get ready to hire additional staff to make life easy.
  • Cash flow:  People look at our brewery and see that we are doing well, and we are.  People love our beer, we have great tasting room staff, we love what we do, and craft beer in Vancouver and BC is on such a huge upswing.  However, cash flow is an ongoing challenge and something that needs constant attention.  The bigger you grow, the more of a buffer you need for working capital.  So know this:  The cash flow needs of your business will get worse over the first 6 months and not better.
  • Managing people:  I don’t say this in terms that it is an issue or a problem, just something that you need to be aware of.  When you are building your brewery, you manage yourself and a team of people that sooner or later will leave and move onto something else.  However, when you hire staff there is so much more to the relationship than a do this do that approach.  You must deal with peoples feelings, strive to make the staff get happiness from doing what they do, and strike a delicate balance between being the good cop and the bad cop.  There are many other small components as well, and to be honest there will be days you suck at being a boss and others that will come easily.  For me, I need to work on this part of my skill-set continuously.
  • Dealing with government:  Don’t know what else I can say here.  Just get ready for inspections, forms to fill out, paperwork, bureaucracy, bitting your bottom lip, and general frustration in this bucket.
  • Customer is always right:  We get lots of feedback from people on all sorts of things.  Mostly though, people who pass along feedback have found something they don’t like or think could be improved.  There are 2 ways to take this information:  Defensively or as constructive feedback.  As much as we may disagree with what people say and how they approach us, there is always value in taking this information and using it to make your business better.  You may not always do what a customer wants you to do, but you can always take a little from the conversation.  Moreover, if you don’t listen to your customers and they take their hard earned money elsewhere, you will have nothing.
  • Did I tell you this process is tiring:  Can’t overstate this enough.  Get your ass in shape, prepare people around you for the workload and find your release so you can stay sane.  For me its exercise … what about for you?
  • Not enough time in a day/week/month to get everything done:  You will need to prioritize on a daily basis as there is never enough time to get everything done.  The fulcrum is never in balance, just make sure you are always checking on where it should be.
  • Know when to hire and add staff:  Hand in hand with the point above, before you burn out, hire someone to help.  Each person has a different threshold for workload, stress and the ability to get things done.  So don’t judge a partner or employee for what they are or aren’t doing.  Just focus on getting your work complete, and help others where you can.  When the burden of your to-do list becomes too much, spend some money and hire someone.
  • Stick to your plan but detour when necessary:  This is a tough one, but certainly one that should not be lost.  There are times when you should stick to your plan and resist going off course, and there are others where you should do the opposite.  How you know which way to go?  For me, taking an extra day to make a decision is often one of the best ways to find my path.
  • More to come … I actually enjoyed writing these points.  Maybe I will start finding time on a weekly basis to fill this sheet in.
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Is this the end or just the beginning?

We did it!  With the help of countless individuals, family, friends, and our construction crew, we have successfully opened a craft brewery in Vancouver.  On Wednesday 17th, we had a non-posted (soft)opening and it was a huge success.  None of our systems crashed, our beer poured like it should, and we were able to see some close friends and family share in the room we created.  We opened for the weekend, and it went really well.  All our staff showed up for their shift, we didn’t piss anyone off, and our beer poured without any serious problems.

This is also the end of our journey in starting a craft brewery.  I do plan on continuing to blog about running a craft brewery, and what is happening at Strange Fellows, but how that looks and what that means is something that I am not quite sure of yet.  Without a doubt I will miss writing this blog. It gave me a chance to add to this amazing community of craft beer in BC, Canada and the world.  To know that we may have helped someone else avoid the errors and mistakes in starting a craft brewery is a very cool thought.  The blog also allowed me to express my feelings, so when I would have a bad day, have really great news or really bad news, I could blog about it and I would immediately feel better.

Opening a brewery of this size takes the effort and support of hundreds of individuals.  It would be impossible for us to name everyone that was involved in this process, but let me take a stab at it.

  • Disher Construction:  Graham, Jim, Darryl, Seamus, Shawn, Joey, Ed and the other helpers who were here day in and day out.  You are all amazing and have earned our praise on your efforts.
  • Simcic and Uhrich Architects:  Marko, Bill and the crew for pulling everything together and pulling strings when they needed to be tugged.
  • Meridian Plumbing:  Nathan and his amazing crew, your mechanical sub-trade was out of this world.
  • Clear Energy Electrical:  Matt, Will, Jordan, Adam and the rest of your crew.  You guys did a huge amount of work throughout the entire process and we are grateful.
  • Broadway Welding:  Nedda, Kyler and your crew.  Amazing work in the front of the house and back of house.  Amazing metal work that we love.
  • Cove Concrete:   Excellent job pouring all the floors and making things slope the correct way.
  • Amec Contracting:  Chris and the crew, outstanding work.
  • Luca Campagna and Crew:  Your structural welding was a huge part of getting our permits and approvals in a timely manner
  • Specialty Coatings:  Our floors work and look amazing thanks to you.
  • PS Drywall:  Thanks for finishing all our important spaces to glass like finish.
  • Roofing Matters:  Thanks for fixing our leaks and taking care of things as quickly as you did.
  • West Coast Slab Jacking:  Thanks for helping shore up the slab that made us so crazy for so long
  • Olnor Investments:  The best landlord we could ever ask for.
  • Jeff Lo (RBC Banker):  Without your help and guidance, we would have been up shit creek more than once
  • Jonathan Ronkai (Sun Ronkai Chartered Accountants):  You are the best … period.  If anyone is starting a brewery, they NEED to work with you.
  • BTM Lawyers:  Grant, Sam, Michael and the rest of the group, you guys are amazing.  Thanks for helping us set-up a company that we don’t have to worry about the back-end side of.
  • Bay City Brokers:  Manny was amazing at helping to bring in all our goods from outside Canada.
  • Coquitlam Concrete:  Thanks for bringing in all the crete for us on this job.
  • Greg Ven Huizen:  You are a most excellent Geotechnical Engineer.
  • Opal Engineering:  From the get-go you were responsive and accountable, which we really appreciate more than you know.
  • Fraser Valley Refrigeration:  We are thankful to you for keeping things cold that needed to be.
  • Structural Solutions:  Andrew it was an absolute blessing to have found you and work with you.  A million thank you’s from us.
  • Sterling Cooper Consultants:  You were so important to us figuring out what to put where in our space, and we are forever thankful to the great decisions you helped us make.
  • Superior Signs and Graphics:  So glad that the exterior sign finally came together.  Thanks for helping to make it so perfect.
  • Affordable Security:  Stuart, you and your crew helped us after our break-in, and have helped prevent it from happening again.
  • Dan Jonckheere, Michael Keffer, Tyler-Andrew Milne, Peter Thiersch, Ryan Bennett, Hill family kids, Jonckheere family kids, and a few others, you helped to do the small things that we really couldn’t get done on our own.
  • Adam Berson:  Thanks for your continued dropping in and finally helping us get all the moving parts together for creating our amazing tap handles.
  • Brody Stonehouse:  Not only a great insurance agent, but also our first ever paying customer.  You are definitely going to be remembered forever.
  • All the City of Vancouver workers who helped us get our permits and navigate the bureaucracy that is our local government.
  • Anchor Glass:  Thanks for making an amazing window for everyone to see into our brewhouse, and of course those double entry doors.
  • Ripley Stainless:  You helped us more than just with your brewhouse, but also with installation of other equipment.
  • Richard Cole:  Amazing work on finishing the drywall in the tasting room.  We look forward to your first show in the art gallery.
  • Dr John-Luke Edwards:  Helping us remove the evils spirits and protect ourselves for the future was an amazing thing.
  • Lawrence:  Your amazing mill and hard work exemplify the Canadian spirit
  • Nick Black and Kayin Fields:  Thanks for helping at the end of our build, and with the starting of our tasting room.  Being able to push all the work associated with running the front of house was so incredible, especially to you guys.  Would not be here without you!

I know there are people and companies I have forgotten, but just know that you are always welcome at our business to come by for a beer and share a moment reliving the amazing experience that was this brewery.

There are 3 other people that I want to mention, as without their support, effort and passion, this project would not have come together.

My wife Deanne:  Allowing me to get up early, stay up late, not clean, cook or take care of my obligations around the house, all allowing me to focus my time and energy on the brewery is something that you did selflessly and I will always be thankful.  You are truly an amazing partner and an amazing mother, and it was so much fun sharing this experience with you.

My partners wife Christine:  Thank goodness you were part of this process.  The way you took the personalities of Iain and I, merged them into a brand is nothing short of amazing.  Working with you was an absolute pleasure, and your care and attention to the details never ceased to amaze me.  You were able to juggle 3 kids and our brand, which is nothing short of amazing.  Thank you from the bottom of my heart for helping make our dreams a reality.

My partner, Iain Hill: What can I say about someone who I see more than my own family and friends.  It has been an absolute pleasure working with you, and I respect and admire you more than you could ever imagine.  I have learned more from you, and gained a skill set I would not otherwise have, if we didn’t walk down this road together.  The next few years might be just as much work, but I think they will be just as much fun.

During the hard times and hard days, I always dreamed about writing this last blog post, and now that I am here, it is a very bittersweet moment.  While this is really the beginning, it is also the end.  And while i am optimistic about the future, I am also sad about the process of getting here being over.  People ask me what it was like to start a brewery, and honestly, it is impossible to sum up in a sentence or two, and for that reason I am thankful I have this blog to remind me of all the highs and lows of that process.

In the end, the journey of starting a brewery is completely worth all the sacrifices you make.  There are days that you want to quit, and days that you feel like you can do no wrong.  When I dreamed of starting a brewery, I selfishly thought of the day we would sell our beer and be open to the public.  I never realized how thoroughly the process of getting to that first day would change me and make me the person that I now am.  I don’t know if I would ever do this again, but I am so thankful that I did this in the first place.

So thats it for this blog and starting a brewery. I am sure I missed a bunch of things throughout the process, but in the end, no matter how much I write about it, most people just need to experience it for themselves.  Good luck on whatever path you decide to take, and no matter what you do, remember these 2 sayings:  Go confidently in the direction of your dreams & life is a journey not a destination.  Much love and respect to everyone.

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This could be on of the last posts on starting a brewery ….

Let me start by saying sorry for not posting more over the past few weeks.  We have been incredibly busy, and I just couldn’t find the effort or time to make repeated entries into this blog.  I have been taking notes, and hopefully one day we can update the entire process with the relevant information.

Most of the process has been really enjoyable as there are days with immense highs, and others will deep lows.  Overall the project has been one of the most satisfying things in my professional career filled with a plethora of incredible memories.  However, the last 2 weeks of the project has been a bit of grind.  Never do I believe in fast forwarding through life, as the details and minutiae are really important to developing the experience and perspective that age can bring. But this is one time that I kind of do wish I could have at least run in fast motion.

First let me start with some general news for other would-be craft brewery entrepreneurs.

  • Don’t forget about your business licence from the City you operate in and also an occupancy permit
  • Be prepared to work 7 days per week and every available hour during the last month.  It is non-stop and the list of things to do still doesn’t seem to be shortening
  • Encourage trades and contractors to spend extra time to get the project another finished task towards completion
  • Hiring staff is hugely important and can take a lot of time, so prepare for it
  • You will find yourself dusting the same thing over and over as the construction dust settles
  • Make sure all your marketing and advertising is ready, which will mean that it needs a lot of your attention and time to make sure it is print ready
  • Take help whenever you can get it.  If someone says they can come by the brewery and just chat, take them up on it, and when they arrive, hand them a broom or rag and have a working discussion
  • Delegate as much as you can.  Luckily for us, we hired some excellent staff that are willing to help us a little everyday, enabling us to focus on another fire requiring our attention
  • Working with the LDB, LCLB, Federal government, Provincial government, Municipal government, Coastal Health, Liquor inspectors, Permitting departments and others is a task for someone who is detail oriented, so make sure they are the ones dealing with it from the start
  • Failing an inspection is ok and not the end of the world.  Trust us on this one.  Expect this to happen and make sure you quickly remedy the situation as needed and get the inspector back in as soon as possible.  We have firmly believed it is better to get inspections early and fail, giving you time to complete the updates rather than waiting until you think everything is done, only to fail anyway
  • Don’t forget inquiring about whether its necessary or not to get an exterior sign permit.  In some cases you can’t put up and exterior sign without one
  • Don’t forget about getting your plans stamped by the Fire Department for occupancy load and location of fire extinguishers, etc
  • Estimate about $650 per month in costs for the following:  Weekly cleaning of your tasting room by a professional cleaning company, bar towels including cleaning, floor mats, glass washer chemicals, toilet paper, paper towels, soap for dispensers, and a few other things
  • Don’t forget about your signage around the brewery and tasting room
  • Keep on top of your financials if you are cutting things close like we are.  Running out of money is not an option, so knowing where you stand and how your invoices coming and outstanding are looking is hugely important

At this time as well, and I seem to keep writing about it, your family and friends become a distant memory.  Both Iain and I are doing our best to keep up with things on the home front, but really, it is impossible to do this.  We are having some issues at home as our kids are acting out a little bit, and its hard to imagine that its any reason other than my lack of attention.  Moreover, the burden of just about everything has fallen with my partner, and she has certainly come to the end of her rope with me a couple times.

So hopefully we are less than a week, though I feel like we have been saying this for some time now.  There are 5 big outstanding issues for us:

  • We need final our inspection and we need to pass it
  • We need our lounge endorsement from the LCLB
  • We need our architect to sign-off on everything we have done
  • We need our liquor inspector to approve everything
  • We need our products officially listed with the LDB

Once we get these 5 things completed, we can open our doors.  That means we have passed about 6 other inspections and completed a mountain of paperwork to get to this point.  Our final inspection happens on Friday, and if we get through that hurdle, the rest of the items will hopefully fall into place.

As such, we are hoping to be open about the middle of next week, but that really depends on so many things.  It is still an estimate and it is entirely possible that instead of being the last brewery to open in 2014, we might be the first brewery to open in 2015.  Gotta run, we need to keep painting today.

19 Days to Go … Anxiety has reared its ugly head again

I am worried.  Yes, worried about what the heck we are going to do in order to open successfully in less 3 weeks.  In short order, the list of things we have to do is huge, and we all have anxiety about the things we have to do, and not letting anything drop through the cracks.  The next week is especially huge as we have lots of major decisions that have to be made.  More about that later.  But the biggest thing is to not let anything major fall through the cracks.  Kind of like packing for a vacation:  Don’t forget the passports, camera, money, prescriptions and plane tickets …. the rest is kind of unimportant or can be bought.  We are the same, but a different set of things to not forget.

The biggest things I have anxiety has changed throughout the process.  At the start it was the big stuff:  Finding a warehouse, budgeting enough money, finding good construction crews, and making good choices on capital equipment purchases.  Now, about a month from opening, the list has changed to the details that make up some of the big decisions.  For instance, I have anxiety about actually opening on December 5th.  That is a big thing to push towards, but it is the multitude of items that make up this.  Like passing all the inspections, producing beer that is going to meet our standards and expectations, finishing the construction, etc.  There are a bunch of little things, many of which we have little to no control over, that are proving slow to overcome.

One of the other challenges is that you think you get past a hurdle, but somehow you get caught up when you thought you were free and clear.  Take our exterior sign for instance.  We thought it was going to be installed this past week, but the sign company dropped the sign and it broke in 2 pieces.  As such, they had to re-order and it will possibly be another week or 2 before it is ready.  Now that is cutting it close.  There is all sorts of stuff like this that can slow you down.

We really feel like we are at a point where we are right there.  We can see the opening day coming quickly, but while we are so close, it does feel so far away.  Off the top of my mind, here are some of the big and small things we don’t yet have complete:

  • tap handles
  • 750ml bottle design
  • painting of interior walls in packaging area
  • a pass of all the inspections
  • painting
  • finishing of the tasting  room
  • exterior work on the new entrance and canopy
  • securing of a loan for additional cash into business
  • AV in tasting room
  • art gallery submission process
  • the fellowship
  • website
  • t-shirts, hats and other merchandise
  • overhead doors in warehouse
  • exterior sign
  • hiring staff for tasting room
  • hiring staff for production
  • tent and associated equipment for tastings
  • PR kits for various groups

As you can see, there is a lot to think about and keep a person up at night.  Without a doubt, there is so much to be done, that we are looking to just make decisions on things and pass the buck to someone else.  On that note, time to get cracking as I think the best way to deal with stress is to tackle the things that are giving you stress.

 

 

21 Days to go …. The Importance of an Amazing Team

This post is key for everyone that is looking to start a brewery.  Get a kick ass team around you.  Don’t make quick decisions on these areas, and I would focus on the following as key:

  • Electrician
  • Mechanical
  • Engineer (Structural, Electrical and Mechanical)
  • General Contractor
  • Architect
  • Accountant
  • Lawyer
  • Banker
  • Landlord
  • Business Partner
  • Graphic Designer
  • Equipment Suppliers

Of all these things on the list 1 stands out as the most important.  Can you guess which one it is?  Of course you know its the business partner.  Having a great partner can make everything else seem like nothing much or something substantial.  For us, we only screwed up on one of these major categories, and it really came back to bite us in the rear-end.  I would hate to think if we made bad decisions on more than one of these.  Our lives would have easily gone from manageable to a nightmare very quickly.

At various times throughout this process, we have been supported by these people.  The true sign of a great team member, is someone who is honest, supports you when you need the help, and is willing to work with a changing job.  You will change direction thousands of times throughout the process.  Having a group of trades people that is understanding of this and won’t gouge you is really important.  There will be change orders, and its how they are dealt with that really matter.

There is one person not on the list that one could say is even more important than a good business partner, and that is a good life partner.  Having someone who supports you when you need it, kicks you in the ass at other times, is huge.   My wife has supported me in every way imaginable throughout this process.  Without her, I can’t imagine what I would have done.  Hopefully you have someone like this in your life, as it is crucial to success IMO.

So kind of a fluffy post today, but I didn’t really have any other option, as I am falling asleep at the computer here.  Off to bed very shortly and up 4am to get cracking at our bookkeeping.  Not the most glamorous thing in the world, but pretty darn important.

26 Days to Go …. Inspection, We’re Hiring (Soon) and Marketing

On Friday of last week, we had our contact from the Liquor Control and Licensing branch pop in for an inspection.  This is a super important moment, as they are essentially the eyes and ears of the government arm responsible for allowing us to make beer (a manufacturers licence).  Our inspection went well, at least we think, and we should be getting some answers this week, so we can legally start brewing beer in the next week.  That is a big if, and should we get this license, we are on schedule for a early December opening.  If not, we can kiss goodbye an early December opening.

Iain has promised he can brew beer that takes about 3 weeks to go from brewhouse to glass, though it will be a lot less time than he hoped, it is possible.  We are definitely going to swing open the doors and have a beer line-up that is not necessarily reflective of our exact wishes, but we wouldn’t be the first or last to do this.  Over time, we will brew a larger armamentarium of beers that will make beer lovers and newcomers to craft beer happy.

With this eventuality, we have many other things to do, not the least of which is to hire staff for the front of the house.  We expect that we are going to need to hire about 10 – 15 people to work in the tasting room, depending on the number of shifts each person is looking to work each week.  If you are interested in working with us, prepare for a call for resumes in the very near future.

We are also busy working on the marketing material and information for our brand.  While many of the major items have been decided on (like logo, can design, business cards, beer glasses, growlers, etc) there is a seemingly endless list of small things to do.  Items like pricing of all items, food in the tasting room, an artists call for submissions, meeting with neighbours who may visit our brewery, sales calls to resellers, video, photography, getting exterior signs fixed, etc.

With all this going on, it is hard to find the time to help out in the brewery very much of late.  Both Iain and I have been contributing less and less to the job of completing the work in the brewery, and more on the task of getting ready to make and distribute beer.  I know my time in the brewery is down to about 25 hours per week of hard labour, and Iain is even less as he is spending time cleaning, preparing, turning valves …. god knows what the heck a brewer does, but I am sure it is all important stuff.

Anyhow, lots of stuff to do, so I am going to get cracking at it ….

32 Days to Go ….. I need a vacation

A few people in the craft beer community have told me how busy the last 30 days of starting a brewery can be.  They told me that the previous month would be like playing the minor leagues for how busy you will be in your last month.  I thought to myself, there is no way they can be right.  I am already working 15 hour days, 6 days per week, how could it get busier.

Well I guess the reality is that I am not busier than I was last month or even the month before.  In fact, we have been working our asses off for the past 5 months.  It has been non-stop and go-go-go.  But in terms of how much effort is required, I don’t think I have been able to give more than I have.  For a more mature man like me, 14 hours feels about the amount that I can do on a day-in day-out basis.  This amount of effort, allows me to see my kids a little, not overwork to the point of exhaustion, stay on top of things at the brewery, and get enough rest to keep going.

The times that I worked longer than 14 hours, I quickly become a train-wreck.  About 6 weeks ago, those who follow me on Facebook know what I am talking about.  I nearly lost my marbles, and a big part of it was how much time I was spending working, and also thinking about work.

What you will find is that you need to find your balance.  And that means you will need to go up and down each side of the fulcrum to get it right.  Too little effort, you will not get everything done and you will find yourself being less productive.  Too much effort, you will be tired, stressed and feel like you are going to have a break-down.  My 14 hours per day, usually goes something like this:

  • 4:00 am to 8:00 am – Work 3 hours 45 minutes straight until I have to get the kids ready for school.  Sometime I do sleep in until 4:30am
  • 8:00 am to 8:45 am – get kids ready for school and drop them off (I love this part of my day and wouldn’t trade it for the world)
  • 8:45 am to 4:45 pm – Work a combination at the brewery (mostly) and some days at home (accounting, business plan, etc)
  • 4:45 pm to 8:00 pm – Do a little work in between hanging out with my kids, coaching, driving kids to activities, etc
  • 8:00 pm to 10:00 pm – finish work from the day and set my to-do list for the following day

I think you need to find what you are going to cut out of your life.  I personally value my family too much not to spend every evening from 5pm to bedtime with them.  Sure there is the odd time, I have evening work, things to do, etc, but I couldn’t imagine not spending 4 night per week with them, helping with homework, doing crafts, etc.  It means the world to me and I would never give it up.

What are you going to give up when the time comes to work 14 hours a day, or more?  Family time, friends, sports, reading books, video games, etc.  I gave up hanging out with friends, exercising every day, puttering in my garden (I do miss this most days), and spending a lot of time with my wife.  For now, we are spending the bare minimum in hopes that we will have time together in the future.  She is such a good partner to go through this with.

Time to go, I need to send a few emails and plan my Tuesday!