Steve Palauskas, Owner at Connecticut Valley Brewing Company told Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price about his entrepreneurial experience and how the brewery got started.
NAN PRICE: Do you have experience launching other startups?
STEVE PALAUSKAS: I started a service company in the early- to mid-90s. It was fun to start a business, take the risk, and see what you could do with it. I still have that business. It’s productive—45 people work for me there. I like to employ people. I like the challenges.
NAN: Why open a brewery?
STEVE: I’ve always enjoyed manufacturing. And I’ve always enjoyed beer and the process of making it. I started homebrewing years ago. My wife Lori encouraged me to start a brewery years ago. We just couldn’t open at the time because the other business really got going and was building at a fast pace. When that business was self-sustaining, she said: Why don’t you do it now? That was about four years ago.
At that time, the market for craft beer was really evolving. It was the perfect time to open a brewery in this area in South Windsor. It’s a prime business town. There’s a good demographic in the area. When we started looking for property the town presented this property to me. I thought it would be perfect for a brewery.
NAN: It’s a huge space.
STEVE: That was purposeful, so we could grow into it and easily add on, rather than having a brewery that was much smaller. If we grew we’d have to move and dismantle everything. This is much better. And like I said, I like challenges. The challenge here was to put up a building and make it work.
NAN: So, this was all built from scratch?
STEVE: Yes. I built this. I started October 2016. We finished building it last July and then we opened the taproom in October. It took about a year and a half to get everything together. We collaborated with designers and architects and went from there. So, it’s brand new, purpose-built as a brewery. We have plenty of space to do events and plenty of space to brew.
NAN: How do you know when your beer is marketable?
STEVE: Of course, people will tell you your beer is good. But you don’t know if it’s really true or not. It’s great to have a friend say they love your beer, but they’re my friend, so they’re going to tell me what I want to hear.
At one point, everyone was filling my head with ideas and telling me the beer was good. But the idea wasn’t really validated until we started contract brewing at another brewery in the state. When we started doing that people did not know who were and they were commenting about how good the beer was. That was about two years before we started on this building.
So, I was contract brewing and things were going very well. We put our beer out there and we could see the demand was high and people liked the New England-style of beer. At that point, I was already in deep with United Bank, trying to figure out how to get the money together to build the building. When they saw the product was viable and the market was growing the bank got behind the project and really pushed it.
NAN: How has your prior startup experience helped with this venture as far as developing a business plan and hiring people?
STEVE: It’s not jumping into a pool not knowing what’s happening. It’s manufacturing, and it doesn’t matter what I’m manufacturing. If you provide a good product, people are going to come back time and again.
NAN: I’ve heard there’s a good sense of camaraderie among the Connecticut breweries.
STEVE: Local breweries definitely help each other out. If we have an issue, we’ll call Broad Brook Brewing Company or Willimantic Brewing Company and ask questions or ask for supplies. Everyone works together. It’s a good environment.
NAN: You’ve been a business owner for some time now Tell us something we don’t know about what it’s really like to be an entrepreneur.
STEVE: It’s super stressful. You go from having it to being broke. People think you’re loaded. But you get paid and then everything is gone again. It’s just the normal stress factor of managing money, time, and resources.
NAN: How do you find balance in that? Or how do you learn to go with it?
STEVE: You get calloused. There’s nothing you can do about it. You get paid when you get paid. It just takes a different person to own and operate a business. I can’t sit in a cubicle. I’d rather have the stress and the challenges of doing this. And it’s fun to employ people. You find people you want to work with.
NAN: That’s a good tip. Any other advice?
STEVE: You find people who think they know what they’re doing, and you mold them to what you want them to do. That’s the thing, they have to be wanting and able to do a job. I’ve hired thousands of people throughout the years, so I know by seeing a person that this person would be good for that position. Even though they don’t think they are, I can mold them into that direction. You give them the opportunity to screw up, correct them, and then you make them work where they need to be.
NAN: Many breweries have been popping up throughout Connecticut. What differentiates yours?
STEVE: All breweries start at a location and they support that community and that area. That’s kind of what we’re doing here. We’re supporting this community in South Windsor.
NAN: How are you marketing?
STEVE: Social media is huge for us, it’s great with the younger crowd, but we’re looking into news print too. We also rely on word of mouth. Untapped brings us a lot of customers, too.
NAN: Where do you distribute your beer?
STEVE: We distribute throughout all of Connecticut. And we’re expanding into Massachusetts and other areas. In the future we plan to just keep pushing out to the market—of course making sure the beers are good, so people enjoy them. We’re also changing with the trends and pushing out to different market areas that will accept it.