AC/DC’s song “It’s a Long Way to the Top” tells about the obstacles and setbacks one must overcome to enjoy success in Rock n Roll. After sitting down with Pete Dolan of the Elmhurst Brewing Company, I discovered that there are similarities in starting a Brew Pub.
The Elmhurst Brewing Company opened in February 2018, what looked like a project that sprouted up overnight was actually a nearly three-year odyssey to reach the final destination.
The road to success was filed with obstacles and confusion and learning was a slow and sometimes painful piecemeal process. As Pete stated “there was no chicken or the egg scenario, there were different puzzle pieces all over and we were just trying to fit them all together.”
Pete Dolan worked for 20 years in manufacturing commercial dumbwaiters and then retired to run two internet companies. One day a call came from Frazer Donaldson asking him to invest in a brewery. Pete responded by asking to become a partner in the project. Frazer, never lost for words, became silent and agreed to meet. Through several initial meetings, they agreed to join forces and bring something to Elmhurst it didn’t have, its first brewpub.
Neither Pete nor Frazer had any background in brewing, so their initial plan was to work with an existing brewery to bring a satellite location to Elmhurst.
They spent six months to find a suitable partner, “but the numbers just would not work”, said Pete.
The dream to bring the first brewpub to Elmhurst was dealt a mighty blow.
Back to the drawing board
Pete and Frazer decided after this experience to strike out on their own. They worked hard to capture a group of 40 investors, almost all Elmhurst residents. The investors also became advisors and provided insight on matters ranging from financial to legal matters.
Once they put the infrastructure group together, they needed to work on matters ranging from feasibility, budgets, legal obstacles, and the important question of will the community support this project.
They met with Elmhurst Mayor Steve Morley who graciously supported a change in an antiquated Elmhurst law to allow a brewpub in town.
With the first obstacle conquered they were ready to move on!
Regrouping after a hard blow and getting hit again
Pete and Frazer regrouped and started the process over. They studied every aspect of the business and relied on the expertise of many of their 40 investors to provide legal and financial advice to the business.
It seemed easy, they would get financing and find a building and everything would be great.
Pete with his construction background designed a beautiful floor plan and envisioned a great space to make it operate. There was one problem, the place didn’t exist!
Jettisoning his beautiful floor plan, Pete settled for a move-in-ready space and found out there was one problem, the place didn’t exist!
The Turning Point
Pete and Frazer with a team of investors relying on them needed to make a decision with extremely imperfect information.
To find the best place, they first needed to decide what they wanted to be. The initial thought was to operate as a craft brewery and taproom and operate on the outskirts of Elmhurst in an inexpensive warehouse space.
But they then made a decision that would define their business. They wanted to become part of the community of Elmhurst and they wanted to serve food and make their place a family place. Pete and Frazer decided to have it both ways, brew excellent beer, but offer more, in a downtown location.
Pete and Frazer decided that they would locate in the heart of Downtown Elmhurst. The problem, finding a building again, after a year of searching they found a place and of course as Pete said, “it was not move in ready.”
But that was not the end of the process, they needed to secure bank financing and bid on the place. After nine months they finally captured their prey!
Financing the business
Pete and Frazer successfully secured a loan from a community bank to buy the property and set it up in an LLC. To finance the equipment and the build out, they setup another LLC, which was financed by their investors, and which they agreed to pay back the investors in a 5-year period. The third LLC was setup as the brewing company to run the operations of the business.
The Laborious path to the Dream
Pete and Frazer needed to gut and redo a two-story building that looked completely awful. Further, they needed to buy equipment to manufacture the beer. As you remember, they didn’t have a background in brewing.
Pete decided to fly to a convention in Philadelphia to check out equipment. Pete stated “I didn’t know brewing equipment, but through my background in manufacturing, I knew a good engine and good machinery.” Pete knew the basics, however with 40 investors relying on him he needed more than the basics. Pete reminisced about talking to a lot of people and asking a lot of questions and studying a lot of information. Finally, after a rigorous analysis, he fell in love with an all American-made brew system and double stacked brite tanks and was ready to get going.
Ready to Roll but Elmhurst we have a Problem!
Pete and Frazer got the building and secured the equipment, but they lacked one thing, an expert in brewing. They interviewed brewers and told them the building would be open in six months. The brewers were not convinced and they ended up being right.
So without a near future open date, they had a problem securing a brewer to make their product.
Elmhurst we have a problem! However, the savior came from Texas. They interviewed a fantastic brewer named Cam Horn. Cam was doing well at his brewery in Texas, however, his high school sweetheart and wife was originally from the Chicago area and wanted to move back.
Cam had no immediate need to move to Chicago so time worked for once. They kept consulting with Cam and in August 2017 they hired Cam and were ready to open in September.
Along with the optimal timing situation, Cam brought another unique element to the Brewing Company. As Chicago is more of an IPA and Ale scene, Cam excelled at making great lagers and his quality is top notch.
To add a further note, I tried his Hefeweizen and it is the best Hefeweizen I have ever had!
September never came
Armed with Cam and ready to open in beautiful late fall, Elmhurst Brewing Company hit another bump in the road to finishing. The general contractor was behind schedule. Months past and finally in February 2018, the project finished.
Success comes after perseverance and resilience
After nearly three exhausting years, Elmhurst Brewing Company opened its doors.
It became what Pete and Frazer envisioned a high quality brewery and a community place where families eat and drink together in the heart of Elmhurst.
The beer is excellent, the food is amazing, and the place is a first-class establishment.
It truly transformed Elmhurst!
I learned a lot from talking to Pete. I admired his and Frazer’s resilience and their tenacity to succeed.
Pete and Frazer stuck with their dream in the toughest of times and made very hard decisions with a lot of risk involved. Through uncertainty and setbacks, they persevered.
They won, but so did the Elmhurst community!
In concluding, if you want to open a brewery because it seems like fun, remember it is hard work with a huge risk and potentially no upside. So think carefully before you proceed and make sure you perform your diligence while going through the process.
Elmhurst Brewing Company Team: (L-R) Owner-Pete Dolan, Chef-Jason Kurosaki, Brewer-Cam Horn, Owner-Frazer Donaldson
My final piece of advice, before you think of going down this road, listen to the words of AC/DC first!