Both places draw big crowds and reviewers praise their beer. It’s quite the successful little empire.
Matt and Rene are two of our very favorite people back home, and we’ve talked at some great length about their bumpy early days as entrepreneurs. Neither of them had ever worked in a restaurant or bar and they simultaneously struggled with a steep learning curve and the closure of a huge city parking structure across the street from the pub.
Their journey from corporate cubicle dwellers to fledgling entrepreneurs to Ann Arbor area institution struck me as a perfect story of transformation. Since they’re working night and day on Corner Brewery, we had a tough time connecting by phone for a blog interview, so they shared their some thoughts by e-mail. Most of the quotes below are jointly written, as they passed my questions back and forth electronically before returning them.
How did you keep up your dedication to running the business when you were initially struggling?
We had no choice! When things were nearing the lowest point, we actually called our attorney who specializes in bankruptcies and asked him how that all worked. He simply told us it was not an option for us if we wanted any sort of future so we had better figure out how to make it all work.
More than that, we had put so much of ourselves into starting the brewpub that allowing it to fail would have been like letting a loved one die if you could save them.
It was also critical that we were in this together as husband and wife and business partners. We fed off each other and were always there to pick each other up and keep going. It was the sole focus of our lives and we dedicated literally every waking (and sleeping) moment to making the brewpub succeed.
(Matt and Rene have talked to us over the years about how miserable they were with their flailing business, until a book called Conversations with God inspired them to take charge of turning it around.) You’ve told us the story of reading Conversations with God and having it transform your business. What about that do you think was most important in getting to where you are today?
The most mind-blowing and life altering concept was that we were living exactly the life we had created – the conditions of our lives and our business were the result of every single decision and action (small and large) that we had made either consciously or unconsciously up to that point. We realized that it was nobody else’s fault that we were in a difficult situation. And more importantly that it wasn’t a matter of blame at all. We are all subject to the laws of cause and effect and if we wanted a different business outcome or different lifestyle, we just needed to make different choices to create that outcome.
So we set about making conscious rather than unconscious decisions – being proactive rather than reactive. It gave us a sense of control and endless possibilities and our attitude toward the brewpub and our lives changed literally overnight. We clarified our goals and remained open to the infinite possibilities for achieving those goals.
We started with creating a positive rather than a stressful work environment for our staff (which was definitely in our control as the bosses) and from there everything else just started to flow.
What do you think you did right to get you where you are?
From the very start, we had a vision of a business that was rooted in the community. Our goal was to practice what we called capitalism with a conscience which encompasses everything from paying a living wage to recycling to being responsible in the way we serve alcohol.
We also had a vision of our favorite European pubs that were not only great places to eat and drink but were the social nexus of their communities. Since we didn’t have money to donate, we donated our time, our space and our goods and services and created lasting partnerships with dozens if not hundreds of local non-profits. We never shied away from supporting causes that we care about.
Because of those ties, even when we were really struggling we had such loyal supporters who were all pulling for us. And because we’ve opened our doors to so many groups over the years, we’re the first place many people think of when they want to host a fundraiser or a political event or a social gathering.
So not only have we gotten a lot of business but we’ve attracted the absolutely best and coolest people as regulars. That makes running the business so much fun. It makes us really happy when someone tells us why they love ABC and they start with “You are so active in the community” then quickly add “oh, and I love your beer and food, too!”
What do you wish you had done differently?
Not sucked from the beginning!
I wish we had spent more time planning how to actually run a large restaurant. We were so focused on just getting the place open and assumed it would be easy to run a restaurant once we got it open.
Obviously not the case.
We spent the first two years learning every job in the entire operation to get a grasp on how to successfully operate the brewpub.
The other thing we wish we had done differently was raised more money for the project. We really tied our own hands by trying to do the startup on the cheap and it would have been nice to have a safety net of operating capital for when times were tough. I think we were like a lot of first-time entrepreneurs. We didn’t want to consider the worst-case scenario and learned the hard way that it is better to fully consider how badly things could go wrong than to be blindsided by it if that’s how things end up going.
What do you think you learned from your past jobs/experience that’s helping you now?
Matt – One thing I learned was what I didn’t want my own business to look and act like. One of the reasons I was ready to flee the corporate world while only in my mid-20s was because as an employee I felt disconnected from the goals and successes of the company I worked for and felt unappreciated and replaceable.
The company made it clear that the organizational priorities were profits, customer satisfaction and employee satisfaction in that order. I felt that if you put employee satisfaction first then customer satisfaction and financial success would naturally follow. Obviously this was easier said than done but we continue to put employee happiness and job satisfaction at the top of our priority list.
What advice would you give your 21-year-old self now if you could?
Figure out what you are passionate about and pursue that regardless of whether it is a traditional career path or not. Your life and work should not be compartmentalized. They should be intertwined to make you who you are. If you follow your heart and passion then success will follow. Although it may not be success in the traditional sense, you will be profoundly happy. I feel like our 42-year-old selves are proof this is true.
Corner Brewery turns up pretty frequently on Mark Maynard’s Ypsi-focused blog.
Blogging disclosure: I am rarely unbiased about anything I write about. Think of Newvine Growing as my version of Oprah’s favorite things. In the case of Matt and Rene, we’ve been friends with them for more than a decade, and they’ve generously shared their beer with John — sadly, I don’t drink beer. They’ve also been clients of John’s as he designed logos, labels, six packs and tap handles for them.