New Park Brewing, West Hartford’s first brewery, opened its doors March 25, 2017. Days later, Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price met with Co-Founder John Doyle to learn more about the startup brewery.
NAN PRICE: When did the entrepreneurial bug hit?
JOHN DOYLE: I think it’s a mindset that entrepreneurs are born with, it’s in your DNA. You want to start businesses. It’s fun. I had jobs as a kid—paper route, moving lawns. And I’ve done some real estate, but this is my first startup.
Over the years, I thought of a dozen or so ideas. As an entrepreneur, you think about a lot of businesses and then you get one that is an intersection of a viable business and something you love. If you can balance those two things, then it’s great.
NP: How did you come up with the idea for a brewery and how did you find partners?
JD: I had wanted to start a brewery for a few years. I’m more of a beer drinker than a beer brewer. I know a lot of people in the local food service industry, so I started asking around to find out if anyone would be interested in starting a brewery.
My friend Scott Miller, who is COO of DORO Restaurant Group, connected me to Alex Dee about three years ago. Scott convinced me I had to try Alex’s homebrew. We sampled his beer—it was amazing. Alex and I decided then and there to start a brewery.
At the time, Alex was working toward his PhD in biomedical science at University of Connecticut. He got really into the applied science of brewing and decided he no longer wanted to be in academia.
Tom Atkins, our other partner, came on about a year after Alex and I initially met. He has a business background and he’s a big beer lover. We are all co-owners.
Tom and I still have full-time jobs and Alex recently switched to full-time brewing.
NP: Fast forward three years. You signed the lease in September 2016. How did you find the location? Did you know you wanted to be in West Hartford?
JD: It took us more than two years to find a location and then close to a year to get up and running.
Being in West Hartford was non-negotiable. All three of the partners live in West Hartford. We have roots here and we all have kids. Also there such a great food scene here in West Hartford and we’re well connected.
We felt there was a lot of pent-up demand for a brewery in this area—which definitely turned out to be true. We had a food truck the weekend we opened. They sold out of food both days and we sold out beer, so clearly a lot of people are into food and beer in this area.
As far as finding the location, we just looked and looked. We put in offers on two buildings. We looked at about 30 places all in West Hartford. It was tricky to find a location in the town that is industrially zoned with parking and bathrooms and with the infrastructure, electricity, and plumbing, so that took us a while. But we ended up here on Park Avenue and we love this location.
NP: And you’re the first brewery in West Hartford. In September 2015 the town approved an ordinance change enabling craft breweries to be manufactured and sold in West Hartford. Can you tell us about some of the challenges to getting up and running?
JD: It was definitely a learning process. You’re selling a controlled substance, so you have to get signoff at the town, state, and federal levels. It was particularly interesting for us because we were the first brewery here in West Hartford, so we were kind of learning in at the same time as our counterparts. West Hartford Town Hall has been very supportive.
There’s a joke that brewing is 90% cleaning and 10% paperwork. I would say it’s more like 50% cleaning and 50% paperwork! It’s not that hard, it’s just there’s a lot of it. Like any entrepreneurial endeavor, you just have to be persistent to get your paperwork approved.
That was one challenge. The other challenge with breweries is the infrastructure—the drainage, the electricity, the refrigeration. That stuff is expensive and it takes a long time.
It’s similar with any business for entrepreneurs, you have to become an expert in everything. For us, it was steel drain systems, brewing tanks, carbonation filters, and refrigeration.
NP: Any other challenges?
JD: Really, in terms of challenges your number one priority has to be serving great beer in a great environment. You try and never lose track of that.
Another challenge is figuring out the right size—and we’re clearly undersized in that after our opening we had to shut down and re-brew beer. Typically in brewing that’s a good problem to have. Some of the harder problems are hop supply. You have to sign a long-term contracts to get there, and sometimes contracts aren’t available for the ones you want, so that can be a challenge.
And then your logistical challenges are going to be getting through all of your regulatory approvals, finding great partners, and lining up financing.
NP: Did you tap in to any loans?
JD: We put in cash and we did some financing. We did applied for a U.S. Small Business Administration 504 Loan, which is a loan that is collateralized with equipment. Again, it’s a process. It took a while to get through the funding. But it actually worked fine because it took us so long to finalize the location.
With regard to finding partners, I learned a lot from my wife, Mary Kate Doyle. She and Laura Keever are Co-Owners of WIP Fitness, which is located in the same building at 485 New Park Avenue.
Watching them go through the startup experience was a great thing for me, because I’ve always had entrepreneurial things going on, but I’ve always worked in corporate jobs. I helped them with a lot of their books and general things. I learned a ton from that process.
I also learned the importance of partnerships—having people you can trust in, depend on, and believe in. That’s huge. Mary Kate and Laura have a partnership that is so strong, they would be successful in anything they did. If you don’t have that strong partnership, it doesn’t matter what you do, it’s not going to work. Tom, Alex, and I have the have the same partnership at New Park Brewing.
NP: As far as mentoring and networking, the Connecticut brewing industry seems like a collaborative group.
JD: Yes, it’s a collegial group of people. We joined the CT Craft Brewers Guild, which is now headed up by Dana Bourque, head of brewery operations at Firefly Hollow Brewing. Everyone in the group is willing to help each other out. And then you get basic ideas from your colleagues.
NP: How are you marketing? Many startup breweries build a social media presence before they even open.
JD: We did a bit of that using Facebook and Instagram. But for us, it was mostly just serving the beer. We would serve at different fundraisers and beer competitions. We participated in the Real Ale Harvest Fest at the Noah Webster House and Max Restaurant Group’s Hoptoberfest. We would hold events with friends to have more people try our beer. We felt our beer was great and wanted to get in front of people to see if they agreed. We got really good feedback.
NP: Any advice for others on their entrepreneurial journey?
JD: I can give this advice to any entrepreneur: Don’t give up. Just continuing to push forward. There are going to be days where you will think it’s never going to work. And when that happens, do your best that day, get up the next day, and start over.