Like many entrepreneurs before them, for Erika Anderson and Jeff Mannion, the desire to launch a business grew from personal passion. In their case, it was the joy of making and sharing their home-brewed beer that inspired them to go all-in on Unified Beerworks in Malta, NY. They opened for business in 2018 and after two SBA 7(a) loans, one pandemic, and a whole lot of research later, their business is thriving.
Read on to learn about how they got started, how a pandemic-based pivot has helped them grow, and how two SBA 7(a) loans provided the financial foundation that supports their success.
A hobby evolves into a bona fide business
“We loved home brewing and wanted to explore opening a craft brewery in our hometown, so we started developing a business plan and met with consultants from SCORE,” Erika explains about the first steps toward opening their own business. That was in 2017 and through SCORE, a volunteer-run small business advisory service, Jeff and Erika also met Steve Willard, Senior Vice President of Pursuit, who would prove to be a tremendous ally and resource.
“We did a ton of research on brewing and talked to a lot of people in the industry, including other brewers. One of the biggest challenges was learning how to scale up production because it’s not simply a matter of doubling or tripling ingredients,” Erika says of the long learning process. Countless test batches later, they were ready for business and Unified Beerworks opened in October 2018.
The first SBA 7(a) loan helps with equipment purchases and the buildout of the taproom
Unified Beerworks uses two systems to develop recipes and produce their craft beer. A one-barrel (31 gallon) pilot system to help them perfect their recipes, which both Erika and Jeff develop and that reflect the different kinds of craft beer that they each enjoy. The other system is a seven-barrel (217 gallon) system which is used for full production. They also have several fermenters and larger double tanks, so between the different equipment, at any given time there are always several kinds of beer available.
They purchased most of the equipment with their first SBA 7(a) loan through Pursuit. The funding also enabled them to build out the taproom, where they serve their craft brews to an enthusiastic clientele. “From the start, we’ve been humbled by how supportive the community around us has been,” says Erika. “And that support just continued to grow during the pandemic, when things could have fallen apart.”
They’ve also gotten an outstanding reception from the bars and restaurants that offer their brews and that’s an aspect of the business that they’ll continue to expand, too. “We’re blown away every day when we get calls from bars and restaurants, letting us know how much their customers enjoy our beer. It’s humbling – but we love it!” Erika admits.
A second SBA 7(a) loan enables a pandemic pivot and saves the brewery
Erika explains that before the pandemic hit, Unified Beerworks had focused on serving beer in the taproom, with growlers (glass half-gallon or liter jugs of beer) and “crowlers” (32-ounce cans) available to take home.
“When the pandemic hit and we had to close the taproom to guests, at first we tried to meet demand with growlers and crowlers,” Erika says, “but with those options, there’s a lot of waste within our business and for our customers – it’s a lot of pressure to finish off a 32-ounce can of craft brew in one sitting!”
To minimize waste while meeting customer demand, Jeff and Erika agreed that a significant investment in a canning system was essential. And once again, they turned to Pursuit for help.
The canning system was a much more efficient process for the brewery, as well as easier on consumers, as it enabled Unified Beerworks to offer 16-ounce beverages to go, as well as a wider variety of brews. “Our first loan was essential to getting our business off the ground but truly, it was the second loan that was the lifesaver,” Erika says. “The canning system was a game-changer during the pandemic,” she says, “and it continues to be a huge asset today.”
Another key lesson they learned during the pandemic was how essential it is to be aware of your supply chain. “Before the pandemic, we took for granted that anything we needed was readily available. Then the pandemic hit and we got our canning system, but we had trouble getting cans, so we had to place large orders just to keep them available. It was an eye-opener, but it’s made us more proactive about learning about suppliers and knowing what’s out there.”
Looking ahead: A thoughtful and steady plan for growth
Today, Unified has about 13 employees as well as Erika and Jeff. While both put in a lot of time, they’ve never looked back. In addition to an everchanging selection of craft brews in the taproom, Erika and Jeff plan to open a small and simple kitchen in late spring. The goal, she says, is to further develop the overall experience of coming to Unified and making it a day-long destination. “We want this to be a place where our guests can hang out all day. We’ll offer light fare along with our beer, we’ll have tours and tastings, we’ve got board games. We’ve got a great place inside and a terrific patio, too.”
“We’re really cautious about growing too quickly,” Erika says, “because we’ve seen a lot of colleagues struggle with that and I believe that staying smaller made it so much easier to be flexible and pivot when we needed to. And we learned from the pandemic that it’s crucial to make the right investments at the right time while keeping some cash reserved for unknowns. Even in the best times, there are so many things that happen that you can’t predict, so I think one of the smartest things that business owners can do is to bolster your reserves.”
Pursuit can help you get the small business loans you need for your business, too
“We’ve learned so much since we launched our business and one of the keys is that you need to keep your bank and lender relationships close as long-term team members because there’ll be a point when you’ll need advice or additional help. It’s never really ‘one-and-done.’”