NAIT grads Kevin Danard and Jeff Pollock go from banking to opening Growlery Beer Co.
Leaning over a glass of beer, Kevin Danard (Landscape Architectural Technology ’97) is bullish about Edmonton’s growing but relatively underserved craft beer scene. In fact, his enthusiasm for the industry gushes like a newly tapped cask of ale.
“It’s all I want to do. I just want to make beer,” he says. “And now is the time for us to do this, because there is a need that has to be filled. Alberta loves beer.”
Danard’s optimism belies the fact that he’s sitting in an empty tap room – six months past the target opening date of Growlery Beer Co. near Edmonton’s old municipal airport. He co-founded the startup craft brewery with partner Jeff Pollock (Business Administration - Finance ’95).
A series of setbacks – the latest being a faulty pump in their brewhouse – can’t dampen Danard’s mood, which is in stark contrast to the bearish frown the he wore after 10 years working at a bank, in a job he hated.
“I was irritable and surly. When I got mad, my kids would say, ‘Dad’s got the bear voice now.’”
“I was irritable and surly. When I got mad, my kids would say, ‘Dad’s got the bear voice now,’” he says.
The Growlery’s grizzly bear logo, perched above the bar and depicted in an adjacent mural, is a reference to the consequences of that daily grind. The wood and concrete taproom has the vibe of a coffee shop more than a bar and is meant to be “a place of refuge for the ill-humoured and out of sorts.”
“It’s a place where you can sit and spend time with friends and family and just feel peace,” he says.
After two years of planning and work, the Growlery is just weeks away from fulfilling on that mission. But pints need to start pouring before the mid-career entrepreneurs (both in their mid-40s) know for sure if their gamble pays off – and whether they’ll find the peace they’ve long sought.
Opening a brewery in Alberta is more financially feasible today than it was a decade ago thanks to fewer regulatory hurdles. But getting even a small operation like the Growlery off the ground carries risk, running in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Unlike some brewery startups, they don’t have a team of investors – just a pair of buddies who like beer a heckuva lot more than banking.
Dreaming of a new future
Danard’s entry into banking was pragmatic. His landscape architecture business was going OK but with one child at home and another on the way, he questioned his future. One of his mentors, Larry Pollock (a bank executive and Jeff’s dad), suggested he take accounting courses at NAIT, which would set him up with skills for his new career at the bank.
“You get to a certain point where you’re just chasing the money. After a while it starts to wear you down.”
Working with home builders and developers in need of financing, he got promoted and earned more money, but it didn’t feel right.
“You get to a certain point where you’re just chasing the money. After a while it starts to wear you down.”
He’d often come home exhausted and surly, until his family grew tired of the moodiness. “My wife [Nicole] said, ‘You can’t come home every day and plop down on the couch and growl and snap at the kids.’ And I didn’t want to be that way.”
Homebrewing became one of Danard’s hobbies during this time, an interest he shared with Pollock, a longtime friend and his manager at the bank. The pair brewed their own recipes in Pollock’s garage and sampled as many varieties of craft beer they could get their hands on. They even took a beer vacation, touring breweries in Portland, Ore., a major epicentre of craft brewing in the U.S.
Over beers, they would also dream of ways to become their own bosses. They’ve written at least six business plans for their various schemes over the years, says Pollock, from a landscaping company to an app for organizing beer league sports teams to a leasing company.
“We almost pulled the trigger on a PODS [mobile storage unit] franchise when it first came to Canada,” Danard says.
“That one was close,” Pollock adds, laughing.
Starting a brewery would be a dream come true, they thought, despite being “not very good” homebrewers.
Compared to their other schemes, there was something unique about the brewery idea, says Nicole Danard (Biological Sciences Technology - Environmental Sciences ’99, Computer Systems Technology ’01, Bachelor of Applied Information Systems Technology ’03).
“There was a different spark. You could just tell they were really passionate about this,” she says.
“There’s always going to be risks … if you really want to do it and are passionate about it, just go for it.”
Things got serious after Danard’s neighbour, who purchases craft beer for a local liquor chain, told them about an info session in Strathcona County, where the municipality had hopes of attracting craft breweries to the area. Staff from several local breweries attended and Danard remembers one of the presentations highlighting how underserved the Edmonton market is compared to Calgary or other cities in North America where craft beer is thriving.
“On the drive back, we were, like, ‘We’re doing this. We’ve got to make this happen.’”
“There’s always going to be risks, ups and downs, but if you really want to do it and are passionate about it, just go for it,” says Pollock.
Making a mid-career switch
When it comes to setting aside an established career in favour of a startup, “passion” can be a powerful motivator. In interviews with entrepreneurs who started small or medium-sized businesses mid-career, passion came up repeatedly, according to a Statistics Canada analysis. Their research found mid-career entrepreneurs – who represent about five per cent of business owners in their 30s and 40s – share common traits, such as understanding what they want in business and life and a strong belief in self.
“A lot of people who choose to be entrepreneurs later on in their careers are betting on themselves,” says Tabea Berg, chair of Business Administration - Entrepreneurship and Innovation at NAIT.
Unlike entrepreneurs who jump into ventures earlier in life, those in mid-career have have better overall “industry savvy,” she says. That experience in life and at work also gives them insight into their own strengths and weaknesses and what actually matters.
“They have a better understanding of themselves and what they want from their work.”
Evidence suggests that experience pays off. A study from the Kauffman Foundation in the U.S. found that startups founded by mid-career entrepreneurs were five times more likely to succeed five years after opening.
“A lot of people who choose to be entrepreneurs later on in their careers are betting on themselves.”
Financial stability allowed Danard and Pollock to pursue their dream on their own, even though, initially, they continued to work at the bank to earn paycheques. (Pollock in fact is still at the bank). With loans and savings, they financed the venture without having to remortgage their homes or make drastic changes at home. They invested “way more than we ever expected,” with Pollock putting in the majority, Danard says, but it’s been manageable.
“I’ve dwindled down pretty much all my savings but that was anticipated from day one. We tried to do as much as we could without having to sacrifice.”
The duo’s banking experience gave them a leg up with business planning and securing financing. They crunched a tonne of numbers and Danard did as much research as possible, reading, listening to podcasts and watching videos, not to mention numerous chats with brewers.
“That’s where we feel most confidant,” Danard says of their planning.
Danard left his banking job for good last October so he could oversee construction and equipment installation. He did a lot of work himself, including all the wall panels and beer menu sign.
They decided to hire an experienced brewer to run the back of house, but neither knew much about day-to-day operations. Danard attended a week-long boot camp for startup breweries in San Diego – dubbed the “craft beer capital of the world” – where he learned about all aspects of the industry, from marketing and social media to distribution and running a tap room.
“They were Edmonton a long time ago. They’ve learned all the lessons and gone through all the startup processes.”
Part of the partners’ confidence in their numbers is due to Alberta’s growing thirst for craft beer and a golden opportunity in Edmonton.
There are about 110 craft breweries in the province, more than double the total a few years ago. Of those, 39 are concentrated in Calgary – roughly one brewery for every 30,000 residents.
Edmonton has just 14 breweries, or about one brewery per 70,000 citizens. The capital is starting to gain momentum with new arrivals such as Sea Change Brewing Co., SYC Brewing Co., Omen Brewing, Analog Brewing and Odd Company Brewing.
“There’s potential for all of us to work together and make something that sets Edmonton apart.”
When the Growlery joins that group, their beer list will feature styles with more of a European influence than others in town, Danard says, but with enough variety to appeal to different palates.
“There’s potential for all of us to work together and make something that sets Edmonton apart,” says Danard.
Though not a beer expert, Berg sees potential in an industry where beer drinkers crave variety and small brewers are willing to work together to satisfy that demand and syphon off sales from large macro breweries. The big, multinational brewers aren’t exactly known for variety, and lack the nimbleness to change beers with each season or even week-to-week.
Passion and planning are big factors in getting a startup off the ground. But like any small business, Berg says success ultimately comes down to focusing on the customer experience.
“The most important thing you have to think about is your customer base and on the relationship with the customer.”
Opening soon, hopefully
The Growlery is located across the street from 30,000 potentially thirsty customers who will call Blatchford home. The mixed-use infill neighbourhood is being built out on former airport lands near NAIT.
It took more than a year of location scouting before they secured the space in fall 2018. Everything took longer than anticipated, Danard says, from power issues to delays in equipment delivery and installation to hiring their head brewer.
As a result, their opening date moved from October 2018 to Jan. 1 to mid-February to end of March to – as of early May – “soon, hopefully.”
“Sometimes you think you’ve reached the breaking point, with stress,” Pollock says, “and that’s where it’s good having a partner. We work really well together.”
“You don’t have to be stuck doing something that you don’t want to do. There’s always an opportunity if you follow your heart.”
Sitting in their new taproom, beers in hand, they still believe in the original concept. “We just want this to be a place where people don’t feel like how we felt at the bank,” Pollock says.
Even though the project has taken longer and cost more than planned, when it comes to family the risk is already paying off.
“[Kevin] probably has more work, pressures and responsibilities doing this than he ever did in other jobs but it’s not dragging him down,” says Nicole. “He’s committed. It’s more excitement and drive rather than anxiety and dread.”
The greatest lessons learned over the past two years aren’t about beer or brewing, but about themselves, what they’re capable of and what they want out of life.
“You don’t have to be stuck doing something that you don’t want to do. There’s always an opportunity if you follow your heart,” Danard says. “It sounds cheesy, but it’s true.”