Inside Track: Learning from defeat
Owner of The Mitten Brewing Co. has no regrets after leaving music career to open brewery.
For more than a decade, Chris Andrus struggled to survive as a singer-songwriter.
A career choice long deserted by many, Andrus felt he had the talents and what it took to make it as a musician.
Following a short stint trying the business world post-graduation from Alma College, he went full time into music.
“I dove all in and followed music professionally and did it,” Andrus said. “I got as close as anyone that gets close does. Then I found myself in a universe where brewing was a safe option.
“I didn’t have any money or prospects, I wasn’t giving up anything to start a business. I’m so much less risk-adverse than a lot of my close friends.”
In 2011, he and childhood best friend, Max Trierweiler, were homebrewing in a garage, discussing what Andrus calls a “white guy cliché” of starting a brewery. They didn’t tell anyone though and planned in earnest rather than talking up a big plan.
In 2012, The Mitten Brewing Co. opened at 527 Leonard St. NW.
It was time to leave his music career behind, but it wasn’t without its positives. He produced a documentary, “Is Everybody Happy?” about a tour with his band, Bless You Boys, and learned many lessons through all his gigs. He credits those day-to-day grinds without being a part of a major company as a reason for success as a business owner now.
“It taught me to keep grinding even when there’s no prize in front of you,” Andrus said. “There’s a lot to give, a lot of holding your breath for an indeterminate amount of time. You can see a long-term goal without getting caught up in the short-term success. That’s important for entrepreneurs, you can’t expect constant affirmation. You have to be in it for the long haul because there are a lot of times without recognition.
“Every day, you’re going out to prove your worth. Being broke and eking by helped a lot.”
Today, he’s still coming to terms with his first career ending in what many would consider failure.
“I did (consider it a failure) and I still do in a lot of respects,” he said. “I don’t take that negatively though, I did a lot better than a lot of people, I survived for 10 years. But I don’t look at it with rose-colored glasses.”
He did get quite a bit further in his music career than his childhood dream of being a baseball player. He said no matter what he chose to pursue, his parents were going to support him.
Without his parents, Andrus said he wouldn’t be who he is, and he’s a complete 50-50 blend of his parents.
His mother is a compassionate mother, while his father was a self-made businessman from an agricultural background.
“My mom’s a mom and my dad’s a tough customer, who wouldn’t be as helpful without my mom,” he said. “I’m exactly half my dad, a hard-nosed businessman and half my mom, a very worldly, compassionate person. I’m the perfect mix for the job I’m in.”
When Andrus and Trierweiler decided to embark on the brewery business, they looked for locations. When it time came to renovate the former Grand Rapids Fire Department station, they had to roll up their sleeves.
A recent recession meant the broke former musician and his partner preparing to leave a job weren’t about to get a big loan.
It was an economic necessity Andrus, Trierweiler and whatever friends were available were left to turn it into a brewery and taproom. Licensing took much longer than expected, and with every rent check cashed, there was that much less to spend on contractors.
While it was a difficult experience and perhaps one he might not do again, Andrus continues to believe it was the right route to take.
“I used to say I’d raise more money and hire people to do those nine months of utter hell,” he said. “But I’m beginning to see it not that way. I don’t think Max and I would value the business the same way if we paid someone else to do the work. It means more to us because we did it all.”
All the work eventually ended, and The Mitten Brewing Co. opened during the 2012 World Series when the Detroit Tigers lost to the San Francisco Giants. Both Andrus and Trierweiler are baseball fans, as witnessed when in the Mitten taproom. But more than anything, they wanted everyone to feel at home when at the brewery.
The first year was a struggle. Multiple breweries opened in 2012 and the craft beer movement was beginning to pick up, so customers flocked to The Mitten Brewing Co. for its beer and pizza. Just because it was full didn’t mean it was great. There were multiple batches of beer poured down the drains and many customers displeased with service.
The quality was, and continues to be, a focus for the company.
“Our entire five years is built on reinvestment back into quality control,” Andrus said. “Back in 2012, we could get away with that. Now in 2017, places are coming out of the gates great now. It’s a different climate now than when we opened. We got a six-month leash to get our footing and fix our mistakes; that wouldn’t happen now.”
Not only have the owners dumped money back into the business, they’ve constantly expanded, as well. With the first-floor taproom regularly filled to the brim, they expanded to the firehouse’s second floor. The extra taproom space required a production facility across Leonard Street. Last year, the company purchased Northport Brewing Co. and opened The Mitten Brewing Co. – Northport.
“I don’t think (the expansions) were surprising to us in the long-term plan, just how quickly they came about,” he said. “They were always something we planned to do, but it’s been such a crazy journey it’s been hard to remember what the expectations were. The problems were always just in front of us and the solutions were obvious.
“It’s also been a lot easier to get money in Year 2 than in Year 1, and each successive year. We have a great relationship with the bank and proven financials.”
Five years in, Andrus still is focused on growing The Mitten Brewing Co., and it still is to be seen if he turns out to be a serial entrepreneur. Regardless, his second career has been more fruitful than his first.
Andrus and Trierweiler don’t expect The Mitten to be a megabrewer but are certainly happy to be a community staple while giving back through its foundation. In five years, The Mitten Brewing Co. has donated more than $150,000 to various nonprofits. Partnering monthly with a different nonprofit has been part of the company’s philosophy from Day 1.
“It’s not something we do to be nice,” he said. “It’s the duty of any successful business in a community. It’s nothing that serves us. Writing those checks early on was financial suicide.”
The owners know the brewery isn’t going to make them billionaires like some other craft brewers, but it’s enough to make them happy.
“Our goal is to be great, not big,” Andrus said. “Sure, we’ll want to make it as big as we can, but without losing standards and giving up control of our business. We’ll always do what’s best for us and our employees.”