Chris Sayer travelled around the world and developed a taste for good beer—and entrepreneurship. His experience studying in Belgium helped solidify his interest in the beer culture. A two-year stint in the Peace Corps in West Africa helped him refine some entrepreneurial skills.
Sayer’s employment experience doing sales and marketing for Harpoon Brewery, Belgian beer company Duvel, and the Coca-Cola Company helped strengthen his business skills, as did earning his Master of Business Administration at the University of Hartford.
Chris and his wife, Christina, launched Brewery Legitimus in September 2016. Just weeks before the brewery’s opening, Chris took time to give Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price a tour of the brewery and share some startup advice.
NAN PRICE: You’ve been thinking about launching a brewery for quite some time.
CHRIS SAYER: Right. The beer bug for me started when I was studying in Belgium in 1998. When I came back, I thought I would really like to have a career in beer.
My time in the Peace Corps gave me a ton of time to think. I also learned a lot of skills I think are great for entrepreneurs, like how to think on the fly and how to improvise.
When I came back to the states, I began working toward a career in beverage and beer. I started at Harpoon Brewery and then landed my dream job in upstate New York working for Duvel.
I learned so much there about the European perspective on entrepreneurship, which is very different from a lot of traditional American models. They come in, they invest a lot of money, and then they kind of hold back a little bit and let people work with the capital they’ve been given.
NP: How did you end up in Connecticut?
CS: We came back to Connecticut in 2008 because Christina had a great job opportunity in human resources. We decided to live in Canton because we love the community.
I ended up working for Coca-Cola for five years. It was my recession job. Working for a huge organization like that is pretty much as far from entrepreneurship as you can get—your voice is not wanted nor appreciated. You’re told what to do and you do it. I knew I needed to get out because A) I was going to drive myself nuts or B) I was going to get myself fired.
NP: Because you always had that entrepreneurial mindset.
CS: Yes. You recognize that from talking to entrepreneurs and business owners.
NP: When did you start putting serious thought into launching a startup brewery?
CS: I started putting the business plan together around 2011. The idea had been vaulted away for a good 10 years.
NP: How did you choose the location?
CS: We chose to locate the brewery in New Hartford because it is a great community with amazing year-round outdoor recreation within miles.
Also site selection in the brewing industry is very important. We looked at about 15 sites all within a 20-mile radius of here and this site was perfect for what we needed. The water quality here is exceptional. We’ve got the concrete floors, we’ve got the high ceiling for tanks, and we’ve got space to grow in the future. It’s all here.
A huge bonus about where we are located is having a busy highway right here. There are between 11,000 and 18,000 cars go by every day—and on weekends there are even more.
It’s a good location. The water quality here is exceptional. We’ve got the concrete floors, we’ve got the high ceiling for tanks, and we’ve got space to grow in the future. It’s all here.
New Hartford is great. The community is extremely positive about having a brewery here. So site selection was based on a lot of things but the community vibe and feel was important.
NP: How is your presence going to contribute to economic growth the area? Will you be hiring?
CS: Yes, we’ll be hiring people as we grow. But also breweries are catalysts for bringing people to an area. We’ve really worked to partner with local restaurants and businesses to try to drive more traffic. Bringing people into town and building that synergy brings more business to the area. It’s a scenario where everyone wins.
I don’t think I’ve been in a town in Connecticut that’s more recreational than New Hartford. This town is geared toward recreation—with the river, the hiking trails, the skiing, the tubing, the fishing. So it’s a great spot for us to be. With the addition of a brewery, New Hartford becomes a destination.
NP: A lot of breweries I’ve talked to use social media to generate a buzz before they even launch. Has this worked for you?
CS: I tell Christina: If we were opening a carpet store, no one would care. But breweries draw a buzz.
Working with local businesses whenever possible makes a huge difference as far as building that positive buzz. That and personal attention with the public—people love that personal attention.
The biggest thing I tell people with social media is to be on multiple platforms. We’re on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We like to make sure the same message goes consistently across all three platforms. Consistent messaging is really good with consumers.
NP: Any advice for other startup breweries?
CS: The biggest thing is do a ton of research on your industry talk to everyone you know. Take your budget and add about 50%. Because there will be surprises. There will be those moments where things cost a lot more than you thought they would.
So plan, plan, plan. Put your money into quality of process. Don’t buy junk. Buy the best equipment you can afford. If you can only afford to purchase a really tiny thing that’s high-quality, then maybe wait.
NP: So would you say start small?
CS: I would say start at a reasonable size where you know you’re going to be bringing in enough money to run the business successfully.
If we had this whole space but only a two-barrel system, we wouldn’t be able to cover our costs. The seven-barrel system allows us to cover our costs, make money, buy things, upgrade things, and do things for our customers.
So you need to go in at an appropriate level. If you’re a home-based business, you can go with whatever scale you’re comfortable with I guess. But for a brewery, you need to know what your costs are, be able to cover those costs, and make sure you’re going to be profitable.
NP: Anything else you’ve learned along the way?
CS: There are voices of doubt all around you. The funny part is that those voices of doubt are the first ones to congratulate you at your opening. They’ll say: We’re so proud of you! And you’ll wonder: Why did you tell me I shouldn’t take this horrible risk?!
But entrepreneurs have to be comfortable with risk. That’s key. You have to be good under pressure.
It’s also important to be able to separate roles. Christina runs a lot of things in the back of the house as far as the financing and accounting. I focus on the customer angle as well as production. As with any business, there’s a balance. Having each person know their role is critical.
I would also say: Be able to do things yourself. It’s really easy to have consultants or lawyers fill out paperwork and set up everything for you. You can do a lot of paperwork yourself and save money. If you can sit down and read and patiently go through everything, you can do it all yourself. You can do a lot more than you know.
NP: What has been the biggest challenge to getting the business up and running?
CS: Financing is one of the biggest challenges for any start up. Breweries are expensive. There’s no way around it. It’s capital intensive, but at least you’re making something people are passionate about.