Bucket Brigade Brewery, Cape May, NJ

Bucket Brigade Brewery: Business Insights from an Award-Winning Brewery

When twin brothers and former firefighters Karl and Kurt Hughes opened Bucket Brigade Brewery, they knew that their brand would have widespread appeal and they had confidence that they’d make a great product. They also knew they could learn the business quickly.

“With the fire department, we’d spent decades connecting valves and hoses, adjusting pressure, paying attention to details and responding to situations quickly. We felt pretty certain we could apply that knowledge to brewing equipment,” Karl explains. “And just a few years into the business, Bucket Brigade was named one of the ‘Top 16’ breweries in New Jersey by Beer Connoisseur magazine!”

A legacy family saves an historic building

The Hughes brothers formalized Bucket Brigade in 2017, moving into an historic building in Cape May Court House, New Jersey – their family’s hometown for centuries.

Kurt and Karl put a lot of time, effort and money into renovating their location and giving it special touches that reflect both the brewery’s brand and their deep roots in the community. They also had an option to purchase the building with the owner, who retained the right to sell it if the Hughes brothers couldn’t come up with the funds to purchase it.

“Financially, we spent everything we had getting the business going and renovating our building – and we would have lost everything that we put into it if we couldn’t get funding,” says Karl.

Karl also explains that although they approached several banks, none were able to approve funding. “It can be hard because banks have pretty specific lending criteria,” he says. “If you’re not in business for a long time or you’re a few points below the credit-score minimums, they aren’t able to fund you, even if they support your project.”

A referral leads to success with Pursuit

One of the banks they met with, Cape May Savings, saw the possibility for getting the project done using an SBA 504 loan (the SBA’s loan product that’s targeted to owner-occupied commercial real estate and fixed-asset related projects). So, a lender from the bank put the Hughes brothers in touch with Pursuit.

Karl doesn’t hold back when he explains what a difference that made.

He says, “Pursuit saved the deal for us. Our loan officer, Ashley Heaton, was outstanding, as was the whole team.” He explains that the deal needed a bank partner on the loan, but since Cape May Savings wasn’t able to step in, “Pursuit even found another bank to partner on the deal, which made it viable.”

Karl adds, “We knew that Pursuit was working on our behalf, so we had confidence that everything would work out.”

In May 2020, the Hughes brothers and Bucket Brigade were approved for an SBA 504 loan, sealing the deal on their brewery’s historic location. In addition, they were approved for a Pursuit SmartLoan, which provided critical working capital for the business during the months when most New Jersey businesses were shut down.

Here are the brothers’ “Top 5” insights that they’ve learned so far

  1. Aim for progress, not perfection
    Initially, Karl and Kurt envisioned a significant expansion of their brewing, canning and distribution capacities, in addition to buying the building. They soon realized, though, that if they scaled back on their plans, they’d have substantially less debt to carry in the near term. This has been particularly important through the pandemic and as businesses reopen.

    “We’re in an oceanside area that relies heavily on summer tourists but with the pandemic-related challenges, we’re not sure what we’re looking at in terms of revenue this year, maybe half of a typical year,” Karl admits.
  2. Find your niche and stick to it
    As firefighters with strong hometown roots, Kurt and Karl have built up a following. They say that they receive year-round support from the local community and, at any given time, you’re bound to find firefighters from around the country stopping in for a beer. And, to date, they know of no other brewery that’s connected with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.
  3. Be prepared, plan as best you can, but don’t overthink things
    As firefighters, flexibility has been deeply ingrained in Karl and Kurt through years of training. They know that it’s important to plan, but that things can change in a moment and they’ve applied their knowledge and experience to their business, particularly through the pandemic.

    “Whatever happens, don’t panic and don’t overthink things. Stay calm, review your options and talk to your supporters,” says Karl.
  4. Sometimes, your most valuable colleagues come in the shape of competitors
    When the business closings were ordered in New Jersey, the Hughes brothers got together with several other area craft brewers. Together, they brainstormed ways to help each other, whether that meant bottling for each other, sharing ingredients that were in short supply (or overstocked) and helping to distribute or store products.

    “In reality,” Karl says, “there are plenty of customers to go around and you can all do well – you’re in the same line of work and can learn from each other, so support each other when you can.”
  5. If you think you have enough money, know this – you don’t
    Karl explains, “Whatever you think you need, double that amount and get it. It’s way too easy to underestimate your expenses and overestimate income and if you don’t have a cushion, you’ll be on unsteady financial ground in good times and knocked out by a disaster, whether a pandemic or a natural disaster or something else beyond your control. With funds on hand, you’re in a much better position.”

Talk to Pursuit about ways we can help your business, too

“We really can’t say enough about how grateful we are that we learned about Pursuit,” says Karl. “We got great terms and support to buy our building and with the additional funding, we know that we can get through this, despite the uncertainty of the pandemic.”

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