11/18/2020

Small Business Spotlight

How a Brewery Successfully Opened During COVID-19: Dr. Brewlittle's Beer Co.

Learn why Jack O'Connell was happy to open his first business, Dr. Brewlittle's Beer Co., during COVID-19, and how he used social media to form his community of loyal customers.

Katie Lee

Marketing Manager

First time businessowner Jack O'Connell shares how he successfully opened his brewery, Dr. Brewlittle's Beer Co., during COVID-19, and his tips on building a community of loyal customers. Find Dr. Brewlittle's on Instagram, Facebook, and their website.

Hatch:

Welcome to Hatch Small Business Spotlights, where small business owners share stories about getting started, lessons learned, and victories won along the way to building their businesses. I'm Hatch, and this week, I spoke about a subject close to my heart, beer, with Jack, whose brewery, Dr. Brewlittle's of Maple Shade Township, New Jersey, is a business that was born during the pandemic. Jack talked with me about how his business has differentiated itself from other breweries, how much he enjoys collaborating with those other brewers, and how opening during these times has actually put his business on a pretty good course for healthy growth. We also talked about beer a lot.

Jack:

So my name's Jack. I am one of the owners and the director of operations over at Dr. Brewlittle's Brewery in Maple Shade, New Jersey. I run all of our day-to-day operations, work behind the bar, do all of our paperwork, and I'm pretty much the head of the snake, I guess you would call it, over at this brewery. The brewery is a five barrel system, and as regulations in New Jersey have it, anything that I sell through our taproom has to be brewed by me, so anything that you drink here has come from our hands, basically. We do all different kinds of beer. As per, again, New Jersey regulations, I can't do ciders or meads, and I don't have any hard alcohol or food, but you can bring in whatever food you want. So, mainly, we're a, basically, beer-making building that has a taproom.

I have different degrees, and none of them are in brewing or businesses, which is kind of funny. I originally was in IT, and that is kind of where I put my roots in. Later on in life ... I mean, I'm only 29, so I don't know why I say later on in life. A few years later, I was planning on being a veterinarian. I stayed friends with a guy whose name is Chris Torre. He's a partner of mine at the brewery, and he owns a bunch of animal hospitals in South Jersey. So we've been friends for a while. I used to work for him, did his IT stuff, was a vet tech, and then moved on. He said, one day, "Hey, let's open a brewery," and then, before I knew it, I was sitting down with land use attorneys and real estate agents. I left my job last October, and I've been doing this full-time since.

I was kind of hesitant at first, just because I kind of thought I knew what I wanted to do, and then there was a point in my life where I realized how much I actually wanted to open a brewery and run a brewery. So, one day, I told my wife, "Hey, I'm having a conversation with the guys, and I'm either going to do IT full-time or I'm going to really pursue this brewery thing," and she supported me. The day that I was actually supposed to call my partner, Chris, and the real estate agent we had, I got a call from my friend, Jeff, who's a real estate agent here.

He said, "Hey, I bought a building." "What'd you do?" He said, "I bought a building," and I was like, "Okay, you're a real estate agent. That's not anything weird. Why are you calling me about that?" He's like, "No, I bought a building for the brewery," and I was like, "Oh God, okay." The day that I was like making a decision about what I wanted to do with my life, because it was either stay in Jersey and run a brewery or move out to California and work for Blizzard Entertainment, he just bought a building, and then we went full throttle. I did both jobs for a couple of months and realized how busy I was and I had no free time. The next thing I knew, I left my job in October, and we were supposed to open in March, and then I opened in September.

When I left that job, in my head, before the brewery became a thing and even right up until I left, I was like, "I could be in IT and be happy. I know I could be happy." But the second I left ... And then literally the next day was basically being here for 10 hours and working with the contractors and getting all the subs together. But the second that I stepped foot in the building that we bought, I was like, "Oh no, this is really what I'm meant to do." It was a weird thing saying that. I had a lot of uncertainty the day that I left. Then the day that I really stepped foot in here for the first time as somebody who owns this place, I knew that there was nothing else I wanted to do.

Hatch:

So what were the next steps? I mean, it sounds like there's a whole lot of hurdles you have to jump before you actually open up.

Jack:

Yeah, I mean, this place was a barbershop beforehand. We have a 3000 square foot building, 1500 on each floor, so we're two floors, which is nice. So he ran his business called Cello's Hair Salon in Maple Shade. He ran his business from the first floor and then lived on the second floor, kind of like an apartment. So the first step was figure out the design of the place, which I think we nailed. And then figure out where do we want to put our equipment was our second big problem because there are a few breweries out here that have two floors, but their first floor is all their equipment and you lose a lot of your tasting room space, which is where your main clientele come.

Because we're not a big brewery, we only have five barrels, so every time we brew a beer, I only get between eight and 10 kegs of it. For us, it was like I needed my production equipment to be in a space that I can expand, and if I put it on the first floor of this place, I really can't go anything over a 10 barrel side-by-side tank, and we'll have to get a whole new building if we want to expand further down the road, which is our plan. So we basically tore up his backyard and built a 1000 square foot pole barn, like a warehouse, where I put all of my equipment, and so that kind of solved that problem. But our two main things was design and where do I actually brew my beer, so those were tackled pretty early on in the process.

Hatch:

So what were your responsibilities? What was your job description when you started out?

Jack:

I like to say Jack of all trades, master of none, which my parents would probably agree with. Chris was a big financial part of this place, and I was kind of the sweat equity of this place, where seven days a week while we were getting open, I was working here. Even when we thought we were going to be open in March and then COVID hit and we opened in September, I was still here three, four days a week doing paperwork. So I was dealing with representatives from the state and the federal government, trying to get all my paperwork together and plan this place out and do design work and coordinate between contractors and third-party contractors. It was just a lot of busy work in the beginning.

We were supposed to be open the last weekend of March, so basically right when COVID became a big thing. I was like, "Okay, well, this isn't happening, and it might take a few more months, and that's fine." What we ran into was that the state became furloughed and was only working a day a week in the office, and so when we were trying to figure out paperwork and submit plans and licensing information, I ran into that I would only hear from someone once a week, and that's what really messed us up. The six months was not us getting ourselves together. It was trying to communicate with the state.

Thankfully, we kind of planned for it, and we knew we may not be open for a few months, so we put a little bit in our working capital because me and the brewer are the only two salaried employees here. But, in a weird way, I know it sounds odd, I'm kind of happy that we opened during COVID in an odd way because we're 25% capacity inside of New Jersey and I have a permit for outdoor seating. We sold 67 kegs in our first month, which was about 15 or 20 above what I thought we would do.

Hatch:

Wow.

Jack:

All I know is 25% capacity, which it was ... Actually, another serendipitous thing was that we announced our opening day and a day later, Governor Murphy, who's the New Jersey governor, announced that we would have 25% capacity indoors the day that we were opening. So we just know 25%, and we don't know what it's like to be open during normal things. So for us, it's kind of like this is normal for us.

Hatch:

Yeah. So I guess that means that you don't have to make some of the adjustments that a lot of businesses have had to make, like [inaudible 00:06:56]-

Jack:

No, we hired for reduced capacity. .I work here basically seven days a week right now I work on the bar every day that we're open because I think it's important that the face of the place and who helps make the beer, should be pretty forward about it. That way, you're not just talking to a bartender, you're talking to the person who owns the place. Then, yeah, we only knew six feet apart, social distancing. I don't know what it's like to be a normal business yet. So I always say if we can survive during this, I feel like we can survive during pretty much anything.

Hatch:

What does your daily routine look like? What is business as you know it right now? How does that look?

Jack:

Yeah. So we're open Thursday to Sundays. It's only 4:00 to 10:00, 2:00 to 10:00, 12:00 to 10:00, and 12:00 to 8:00 on those respective days. I'll be behind the bar by myself. My brewer's here, and we're doing a collaboration with another brewery. I do a lot of to-go sales Thursdays and Sundays, but it's pretty much just get in, clean the place up. We fill up pretty quickly, which is nice for us because we have a lot of regulars and they like to refer to it as their doctor's appointment because, you know, Dr. Brewlittle's. So I get a lot of people that come in to see the doctor, which is me, which is also kind of funny that my partner has an actual PhD in veterinary medicine and I have a PhD in beer now.

Jack:

But, yeah, normal for me is just come in, make sure everything's super sanitary, and everything's basically cleaned the night of and the next day, but it's kind of like every day is different. You get pretty busy on Fridays and Saturdays, so I have a little bit more staff in here and every day is a little bit different pretty much.

Hatch:

So you talk about it like it was easy, but how do you get any customers, much less, how do you develop regulars in a time like this? How did you advertise and gain customers in these conditions?

Jack:

I was running our social media since we first thought this was going to be a thing. I still run it now, but that was, I think, what a big part of it was. I drummed up a lot of business and a lot of followers before we were even open. What I realized over the past nine weeks of being open is that we have a lot of regulars. Maple Shade as a town is a very, very tight-knit community. I mean, the town itself is only 3.62 square miles. It is not a large town. They actually, for a while, too, had a Guinness world record for the most bars per capita.

"🦅 SGO BIRDS 🦅" via Dr. Brewlittle's Instagram

Hatch:

Wow.

Jack:

A lot have shut down. It's really me and one other bar in what you would call the main street of Maple Shade where you can go to drink and we've kind of become the regular bar, I guess you would say. We have no liquor and stuff. I think that maybe you could say a small part of it was because of the way I manage our social media account, but a main part was because so many people in this town were just excited to have another place to go to because the town is a very old town, but it's getting younger and younger because we're so close to Philadelphia. So a lot of younger people are moving in here, a lot of families are passing on and their kids are inheriting the houses, so the town is getting younger and younger. When we moved in, we've actually seen four other businesses open up since we moved in, because we moved in.

Hatch:

What was the vision for this when you guys were starting it? And can you tell me what the brand looks like now and what the beer looks like now?

Jack:

Yeah. So, originally, when I was doing this with Chris, my thing was, "Hey, let's make a place that's welcoming to everyone. We want a nice atmosphere but not be above anyone's head." And then for the beer, I was like, "We need variation," because there's a lot of breweries in Jersey and PA and Delaware, kind of around us, that have just a bunch of IPAs on tap. I knew moving into this town that this is not going to be a big IPA brewery. It's a very blue collar town. Our Pilsners, Oktoberfests, our Kölsches do well here. We have a beer called Grog's Paradise, which is our hazy New England IPA, which I named after my cat, and I'm selfishly very happy that it's our best beer so far and it's selling the best and rated the best.

But, originally, my vision was to make a place that anyone can go to drink a beer, and even if you don't like beer, we'll probably have something that you can enjoy because we do seltzer ... We do a seltzer, too, and a kombucha. I'm into IPAs and that stuff, but I like being able to go to a brewery and not have the same thing six times. I want to try a bunch of different beers. And so when we opened this place up, I made sure we had five completely different beers on tap. We're not doing anything crazy weird. We might do a little thing here and there, but a big thing for me and my brewer when we discussed is I want to do all the styles that we do very true to form and make sure that they're good and not branch out too much, and then that is what invites people in.

So a lot of times when we get people that are here, they comment on my variation of beers because right now my tap list is ... I have like Pilsners, porters, stouts, two IPAs, an Oktoberfest, a Kölsch. I just put a sour on today. So we have 16 available taps, and I like using all those 16 taps. I don't like too much of one thing on at a time. My biggest thing was I also use my dad, shout-out Pat O'Connell. He drank Coors Light and Michelob Ultra, and that was all he drank, and Corona if he was at our beach house. But his thing with getting into craft beer was tough because a lot of times, a few years ago, craft breweries would say, "Oh, craft beer has to be a 7% lactose or hazy or hoppy IPA," and people didn't enjoy that. A lot of people said, "No, this is what craft beer is going to be," and it's not.

Your craft beer drinker is like ... If you're going to get more craft beer drinkers ... Because hop nerds and beer nerds will like that beer, and that's fine, but there's not so many of those coming around every day. A lot of times, you get a blue collar kind of worker coming in and saying, "Hey, I want a beer. I drink Miller Light and Bud Light. What do you have?" We make an American Pilsner, which is basically a really good version of a Miller Light. It's a little hoppy at the end, but it's a nice clean light beer.

Dr. Brewlittle's Daily Menu

Hatch:

My dad, basically, if we're anywhere where there is craft beer around, he'll just ask the bartender, "Which of these is the most like Heineken?"

Jack:

Yeah, there's nothing wrong with that. That's the question that you want to get asked. I like getting that question because that shows me that you only like a certain thing, but you're still willing to come out to try something new. So it is now my responsibility to make sure that I give you the best thing I can to get you into craft beer instead of saying, "Oh, this is our best seller," which is Grog's, and it's a 7% hazy IPA and I love it to death, but you're not going to like that, so it's my job to give you that American Pilsner, that lager, and say, "Hey, this is what craft beer actually is. It's not all hop nerds and stuff like that." I love getting people that ask me, "Hey, I drink X, I drink X," especially when they're the really crappy beers. You say, "Oh, try this. This is a good version of that." I've had people come in for four or five weeks in a row because they can drink that good version of Miller Light here.

Hatch:

Well, what's something else that you've found really enjoyable to work on since you've been in this job?

Jack:

I like events a lot and collaborations, especially collaborations. We're actually doing one today as we speak. We have a black IPA with persimmons coming up, and it's called Multiple Persimmonalities. People don't really use persimmons that much, but it's a really nice fall fruit. But my favorite thing is that I like showcasing New Jersey beer. I don't really even care to showcase my place. Don't get me wrong. I want us to do well and pay the bills. But at the same time, the more that I can make New Jersey beer well-known and show what it has to offer, the better that I'm going to do. The same thing with collaborations, is we have our friends from Axe and Arrow in Glassboro, New Jersey that are doing a beer with us today.

Hatch:

That's cool. So you're talking about working with other breweries that someone else might say is one of your competitors.

Jack:

Yeah. It's a weird thing in Jersey, too, because no one's like, "Oh my God, I can't wait to put this person out of business. We're a competitor." Pretty much everywhere you go, there's a brewery 10 minutes or 15 minutes away from another brewery. We have 130 craft breweries in New Jersey, and we're still under-serving the market because New Jersey's such a densely populated state. But I have three breweries that are 10, 15 minutes from me right now, and I recommend them all the time for people that are like, "Oh, I want to go somewhere else. What do you recommend around here?"

But it's a very collaborative community. It's not so much like a competitive community. It's more like people trying to work together because it's the same thing I said before. The second that you make New Jersey beer better, you're making every brewery better. You're not so much focusing on yourself and making that happen. I'll be honest, there are places that do it in New Jersey that are better than me, and I know that, but you can't be the best at everything. There's always going to be somebody better.

Hatch:

I mean, it's a very young business, obviously, and I know, like you said, one of the things that you look forward to is just being able to operate like a normal brewery. But what else are you looking forward to, and what else do you see in the future?

Jack:

I'm looking forward to expanding. I'm taking it very slowly because brewing as a whole is a very scalable business, and if you do it correctly, I always say, it's not hard to brew a good beer and it's not hard to run a good brewery, but people just don't pay attention to that and they scale too quickly or start distribution very early on. What you run into is that you did too much too quickly, and I think that's really with any small business. Any word of advice just coming from someone who now owns one is don't be afraid to take this a little bit slower. I mean, we're profitable, we're doing well, and I'm not going to rush into doing like bigger things just because I'm doing well my first month. You might get that itch to say, "Oh, we're doing so well. Why don't we do bigger and better things?" But you might not be able to sustain that over time.

So my biggest advice is small businesses is just take your time with things. If you're doing well and scaling appropriately, your business is going to do well. So I'm excited to expand but over time. I would love to be able to make 10 barrels at a time instead of five, so I don't make it as much. And after we get our tens, I'd love to get a warehouse somewhere else and start distribution out of there. But it's kind of like a one thing at a time for us, especially now that we're during COVID because I don't know what tomorrow could bring. We just got our outdoor permit extended until March of next year from November. But I mean, they could take away indoor seating in December. Who knows what's going to happen?

Hatch:

Well, cool, man. This sounds like a great approach. I certainly appreciate your approach to beer. The next time I'm in the Greater Philadelphia area, I'll definitely want to check it out.

Jack:

Yeah, just shoot me an email. We'll be here. I'm here pretty much every day. So you'll see me.

Hatch:

All right, man. Well, thank you for talking with me, and it's been a pleasure.


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