Nathan & Sara Stonecipher - Green Bench Brewing & MISRED Outfitters.
Nathan and Sara Stonecipher talk being married, being entrepreneurial powerhouses and being both at the same time.
On this episode of SPx, Sara & Nathan Stonecipher sit down with host Ashley Ryneska to talk about the 2 entrepreneur family. Sara's MISRED Outfitters, and Nathan's Green Bench Brewing, are staples in St. Pete's booming small business landscape. The couple discusses their entrepreneurial origins, different styles of doing business and what lies ahead.
- St. Pete small business: Nathan and Sara are both well-known small business owners in St. Pete. Nathan is co-owner of Green Bench, and Sara owns Misred.
- St. Pete natives: Nathan and Sara met in high school, where they were drivers ed partners, but they didn't get to know each other until after college.
- Neither Nathan nor Sara are currently working in the industries they went to school for. Sara went to University of Central Florida and got a degree in hospitality, and Nathan went to University of Florida and studied finance.
- On small business ownership as a couple: "It’s been a positive thing, to both lean on each other, and then force each other out of our comfort zones to do things that we may not be naturally talented as, as well."
- On returning to St. Pete post-graduation: "Thirteen years ago St. Pete was a very different place. So, for us to come home, it wasn’t, ‘Oh yes, this is exciting, we get to move to St. Pete.’ It was kind of like, ‘Uh, what am I gonna do now?’ But we very quickly realized that we both had this drive in us that wanted to pour back into the community."
- On the possibility of going into business together: "I think the best-case scenario if we do anything together would be to do it in a time of our lives where the financial benefit of that business is not the most important aspect."
- On uncertainty of small business: "There are no guarantees. You can work your butt off, and it doesn’t mean that you’re going to be successful. And I think we have both seen that."
- Best advice for small business: "Small business is not for the faint of heart, you have to have very thick skin, and you also have to be very agile and really know that there’s no way that you will know how to do everything. Know your faults, as well as your strengths."
- On the perceived glamour of the brewing industry: "We’re running a full-fledged manufacturing and production facility, we’re dealing with quality control and lab work, then we have a whole retail side that’s open to the consumer. And then we have a sales team that goes out and is on the road, trying to get our product into different retailers, and bars, and restaurants. So, there’s a lot of moving pieces."
- Sara's business, MISRED Outfitters, has gone through an evolution since its conception eight years ago. Sara started with a buy, sell, trade concept and transformed the business to a solely new clothing boutique concept that specializes in personal styling.
- MISRED is growing dramatically and earning deserved recognition. They are preparing to open new locations and recently won Creative Loafing's Reader's Choice Best Boutique in Tampa Bay.
- On MISRED's online sales: "We do less than 1% of our sales online...Nobody believes me, but I have a report showing that something like 8% of all retail sales were online last year, and Amazon took about half of that percentage. So, you’re talking about 5% or less for everyone selling things online that we’re all duking it out."
- On the need for a brewery in St. Pete, "Every time Sara and I travelled we would find ourselves visiting the breweries in that local area and we saw the same thing everywhere we went. Wherever a brewery went up, the neighborhood around it was improving and most of them created this communal feel, where people from all walks of life got together."
- On naming Green Bench, "I always liked the symbolism of what the Green Benches stood for. We used to market ourselves, up North and in the Midwest, as the Green Bench city, with pictures of sunshine on all these people sitting on the green benches. And we really wanted to take that and make it ours, make it St. Pete’s again."
- Green Bench's beer garden: "It was important to us to create environment that everyone felt comfortable in, and an environment where people could gather and have meetings, have events, have fundraisers, celebrate life events, birthdays…"
- Keeping the beer garden free: "Whoever wants to use our space in a respectful way may use our space, no matter what walk of life you’re from. And that’s how we’re gonna keep it."
- What makes Green Bench different? "We play around in the Belgian/saison and farmhouse arena, where we have a two Foeders, which are oak fermentation vessels that we’re one of a handful of breweries in the Southeast that utilizes Foeders in the way that we do. "
- "So it’s this traditional Franco-Belgian way of cultivating our yeast strains, and having this in-house strain that we can use for these different delicate Belgian and saison’s beers. And then we also work on our barrel-aged sour program a lot, which is probably what we’re most excited about."
- Saturation of the craft beer market: "The national average of craft beer sales make up about 12.5% of the overall beer market in the U.S. and for the state of Florida it’s way less than that, we’re not even near the national average of craft beer sales yet. So not only for St. Petersburg, but for the rest of the state we have a long way to go until there’s any sort of saturation issue."
- On competition: "We can introduce more people who may not have ever had a craft beer to what we do, but it also challenges all of us to get better. I’d better stay on my game and make sure we’re still making outstanding beer, and we’re not getting complacent, and we’re trying to push the envelope. And that’s better for the consumer overall."
- Fostering creativity in business: "We’ve allowed our employees and our brewer the wiggle room to do some of the more crazy stuff that they’ve wanted to do and see if it works."
- One example? " Before we even opened, Khris came to Steve and I and said, ‘I wanna buy this oak Foeder to ferment beer, and here’s why.’ And he gave us all the reasons why. And I thought initially that it was a pretty dumb idea to do that before we even opened. Let’s figure out stainless steel first, and then we can play around with this stuff second. But we ended up doing it, Khris convinced us, and I think that set us on a course."
- Nathan's advice to a 20-something: "A lot of people are really good at talking about dreams and passions and ideas that they have, even causes they’re passionate about, but you have to start at the beginning of something, work towards a goal and see where that builds."
- Sara's advice for a 20-something: "especially in small business, there’s so many moving parts, and it’s constantly changing, and you constantly have to move forward in order to stay relevant. And there’s just no humanly possible way that you will know everything all the time. And so, if you assume that you don’t know, I think you’re gonna be in a better position, because your first gut reaction is going to be, ‘Well, let me figure out how I can know.’"
- Nate on St. Pete's barrier to entry: "It’s one of the best parts of living in St. Petersburg. We have a city that is large enough, where there’s something for everyone to do and something for everyone to get involved in, however small enough that, if you want to ask somebody a question, or get mentorship from a peer or from a business owner who’s doing something that you’re interested in, you can easily find it."
"I worked in this city, I was involved with a lot of different things, but on a day-to-day basis with the job that I had, I wasn’t really digging too deep into St. Pete, and I wanted to be a part of this new era, this new thing that was happening here, it was really exciting." - Nathan Stonecipher
A recurring theme in many of our podcasts has been a strong appreciation for the St. Pete Greenhouse and their services for entrepreneurs, start-ups, and small businesses in St. Pete. Sara Stonecipher mentioned her affinity for the Greenhouse, saying she recommends their services to almost everyone she knows in the business community. The Greenhouse is a partnership between the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce and the City of St. Petersburg. They provide resources for starting a business, growing a current business, or transplanting an existing business to St. Petersburg. With strong community partnerships and free or low-cost classes for business owners, Greenhouse has become the one-stop shop for business in St. Pete. Check out the Greenhouse website to schedule a consultation or learn more about their services.
"Small business is not for the faint of heart, you have to have very thick skin, and you also have to be very agile and really know that there’s no way that you will know how to do everything. Know your faults, as well as your strengths." - Sara Stonecipher
Table of Contents
(0:00 – 0:43) Introduction
(0:43 – 4:17) Beginnings in St. Pete
(4:17 – 7:03) Meeting Each Other
(7:03 – 10:56) Going into Business Together
(10:56 – 13:08) Perceived Glamour in Business
(13:08 – 22:06) MISRED Outfitters
(22:06 – 26:36) Switching to Small Business
(26:36 – 33:15) The Green Bench Brewery
(33:15 – 36:25) Three Top Business Issues
(36:25 – 38:30) Breweries Saturation in the City
(38:30 – 42:05) Community Involvement
(42:05 – 45:29) Good Business Ideas That Worked
(45:29 – 49:48) Advice for 20-Somethings
(49:48 – 50:30) Conclusion
Ashley: We’re here with Nathan and Sara Stonecipher. Nathan is a co-owner of Green Bench Brewery, and Sara is the owner of MISRED Outfitters in downtown St. Pete. Welcome to the show!
Nathan: Thank you.
Sara: Thanks, hi!
Ashley: So, I want to take it back to the beginning for both of you. You are essential, almost household names here, especially the young St. Pete community, and many know the institutions which you represent. They may not know how you came to be. And so maybe if we take it individually at first, I wanna create opportunities to blend your two stories together, and I am curious about how you two met. But Nathan, why don’t we start with you? And just give me a little bit of a background as to how you came to be in St. Pete.
Nathan: I was born and raised in St. Petersburg and my parents are from here as well, so we have a long history of being in this area, and I really was blessed with the opportunity to see St. Petersburg before and St. Petersburg now, and how far we’ve come and where we’ve come, and its neat to see the amount of people in the area who have contributed to that, both young and old, and know them all well too, or a lot of them well.
Ashley: Prior to being in the brewery business, talk to me about what you were doing professionally.
Nathan: I graduated from the University of Florida with a finance degree, and I actually moved back for a job at Raymond James, worked there for a couple of years on the bond trading floor as a trade assistant, doing everything, working extremely long hours, getting there early. And then I found a job with a private equity fund here in downtown St. Petersburg, and worked there.
Ashley: And then moving over to Sara. Sara, now I think I may know a little bit more about your background, specifically the fact that you’re third generation in St. Pete, and you went to University of Central Florida…
Sara: I did.
Ashley: Were you pursuing a career in retail at that point, in fashion?
Sara: I was not, no. I actually have my degree in hospitality management. UCF has one of the largest hospitality programs in the country. And I was definitely one of those kids in College that had no idea what I wanted to do, so hospitality seemed fun. I was actually working for House of Blues at the time, I ran their backstage. So, it was kind of hospitality, but when I graduated College I actually moved to Nashville to work in the music industry, kind of behind the scenes music industry, and realized very quickly that that was not what I wanted to do.
Ashley: Can you tell me why?
Sara: Everybody has certain expectations, especially when it comes to the industries of music, and even clothing too, but movies or TV. And then you get there and it’s a different reality. But I think really deep down I knew it wasn’t for me, I wasn’t on the right track. My mom had a clothing store when I was growing up, and so all growing up I thought I was gonna be in clothing. And then I went to UCF and originally thought I was gonna be a lawyer, quickly got out of that, and one thing led to another, I never ended up going to school for fashion. So, when you graduate you kind of are trying to stay on your same path, and I wasn’t on the fashion path at that point. So, I got to Nashville, realized it wasn’t my thing, moved homes, still not really knowing what I was gonna do. And then an amazing opportunity presented itself through a friend of a friend, met someone who was working for Dillard’s, corporate headquarters, and was their elite stylist over there. And I was living on my mom’s couch as a sad person, that my hopes and dreams of music industry had gone bust. And so, this friend said, ‘Come to work with me. I can’t pay you, but you have nothing else to do, so why not?’ So, I did and within a week Dillard’s offered me a full-time position to work in their styling department, and so I got back on the track of fashion.
Ashley: So, you both have commonalities in the fact that you pursued what you thought at the time would be maybe long-term career tracks, and then pivoted. Where in your trajectories did you two meet?
Nathan: We actually met in high school.
Nathan: That was Driver’s Ed. And I think Sara has memory of me perhaps making fun of her driving.
Sara: He sat behind me and made fun of me every day.
Sara: He was my driver’s ed partner.
Nathan: So, we knew each other. We weren’t close friends, we didn’t date in high school, we had one class together and then we went to separate colleges. And after we both moved back, I think kicking and screaming a little bit, because I think we had expectations of maybe doing something somewhere else for a while after college and for whatever reason we both ended up back here. We got set up on not a blind date, but somebody said, ‘You should meet, so and so, and you guys would be great together.’ And we met, and we started hanging out, and it was not love at first sight for either one of us.
Nathan: I think we both had preconceived notions of who the other person was, and I think a lot of that probably stemmed from our memories from high school. And once we started hanging out more and seeing each other and dealing with each other on a more personal level, that all slowly started to unravel and change.
Sara: He was this preppy finance guy which I know is hard to see through his very large beard that he currently has, but he was a super preppy finance guy and I had just come out of the music industry, I had four colors in my hair and a hoop in my nose, and we were very opposite on the surface. But then, once we started hanging out we realized how similar we were.
Ashley: Talk to me about some of those similar values that you ended up identifying.
Sara: Well, we both have an insane work ethic, and so we definitely bonded over that, I think also our love for St. Petersburg. He touched on the fact that neither one of us thought that we were gonna end up in St. Pete, and if you think 13 years ago, which is when we’re talking about right now, St. Pete was a very different place. So, for us to come home, it wasn’t, ‘Oh yes, this is exciting, we get to move to St. Pete.’ It was kind of like, ‘Uh, what am I gonna do now?’ But we very quickly realized that we both had this drive in us that wanted to pour back into the community, and so that was a really big bond for us.
Nathan: And personalities that both allowed for a little bit of risk, Sara probably more so than me. But being able to draw certain things out of each other, I think we saw that early on. We have a lot of similarities, but we’re also very opposite in many ways, and we get to meet somewhere in the middle as we’ve gone through life now and together and as we’ve opened businesses at the same time. It’s been a positive thing, to both lean on each other, and then force each other out of our comfort zones to do things that we may not be naturally talented as, as well.
Ashley: Did you ever consider going into business together?
Nathan: Oh, we talk about it all of the time.
Nathan: I would say it’s similar to saying, ‘Oh, if we would’ve dated in high school it would’ve never worked out, we were two different people,’ or whatever people say. I think we’re both learning different things about each other right now and perhaps if we went into business together right now we might kill each other.
Nathan: [laughing] But I think it’s both a goal of ours later in life at some point to do something together, and I think we feel more like that every day too. Yeah.
Ashley: Tell me why the assumption that there would be blood.
Sara: I have an issue, because I have been in business for eight years alone, and so I don’t necessarily play well with others when it comes to thrive on collaboration. I have an amazing staff and I could not do what I do without them, but I definitely have a very intense vision of what I want my company to look like. So, I think I would have a hard time collaborating.
Nathan: Yeah. And you know what it boils down to? Even in how we do our work we’re very different. We both equally work hard, however Sara likes to work 24 hours a day, and I cannot handle that. I have to go home, not even think about anything else I’m doing that has anything to do with work, and completely pull back and have that free-my-mind downtime. We can be lying in bed and she’s still doing work. And I can’t do that.
Ashley: But I feel like it’s a very common refrain, or at least I think we’ve all heard it that maybe couples shouldn’t work together if they want their marriage to survive. It sounds like there’s probably merit in that. Maybe obviously, certainly it doesn’t apply to all, and there are probably some successful couples that make it work, but I wonder if it’s the bleeding of boundaries, and some of the dynamics that are shifting from the home environment into the work environment that just don’t make it a fruitful platform.
Nathan: I think that’s why it’s good that we’re doing things separately now, and learning about who we are and learning about life. Life is hard, life is difficult and it’s true if career of the business you choose to be in, the relationships you have outside of that, marriage, whatever it is… But I see fruit on the other side of that, of being able to say, ‘Yes, we are different, yes, life is hard, and we are gonna have some pain, but there’s a way to work through that and do something really cool here and great here.’ And hopefully, as you get older you get wiser and I think there’s a season for everything, and maybe one day down the line there’s a season for us to work together.
Sara: Yeah, and we say too, I think the best-case scenario if we do anything together would be to do it in a time of our lives where the financial benefit of that business is not the most important aspect. Because I think the financial end is what can really drive a wedge into a marriage. And so, if you’re both working in a business, and if that business doesn’t work, your entire livelihood for your family—because no one else has an outside job—is dependent on this, that can really take a toll on a marriage, and a relationship, and a family.
Ashley: I’ve met couples, and one way they make it work is having one essentially is the entrepreneur, is the one with the head in the clouds, and the other one is an employee with the feet on the ground. And so, one may live a presumed life of feast and famine, the other may have certain regularity and consistency, and maybe that’s one way that they can cope with maybe some of that uncertainty that a lot of business owners have in this small business world.
Nathan: For sure.
Sara: For sure, yeah. And like you said, there is a lot of uncertainty. There are no guarantees. You can work your butt off, and it doesn’t mean that you’re going to be successful. And I think we have both seen that. I’ve definitely seen that in my business in eight years, the ups and downs, and I’ve had some really crazy ideas that I’ve tried to pursue in that eight years, and not all of them have worked. Some of them have completely not worked, but it allowed me to grow as a person and continue to forge through and refine my business.
Ashley: Sara, you were talking earlier about the stint in Nashville, and really following the scent of opportunity that may come from the glamour that we all attribute to the music industry. And now there’s a little bit of repeat in your two respective initiatives. I think if people think about what’s it like to own a brewery or what’s it like to run your own shop that has trendy, cool, fashionable items, there’s a level of perceived glamour in your two worlds. How do you navigate that?
Sara: Oh, man. Yeah, there definitely is this preconceived notion that we both are in these super fun glamorous industries, and we feel blessed every single day that we get to do what we do, because we do love it and it really is amazing. But it’s a lot of hard work. Small business is not for the faint of heart, you have to have very thick skin, and you also have to be very agile and really know that there’s no way that you will know how to do everything. Know your faults, as well as your strengths.
Nathan: Yeah, and especially two businesses that deal so much, direct with a consumer, or customers, you really leave yourself open to criticism all the time. And like Sara said, if you don’t have it before, you will definitely acquire a thicker skin with that, and some of it is great criticism to hear, because we need to always be refining what we’re doing, but it still hurts every once in a while, and that can follow us home as well, which can make things difficult. But yeah, the brewing industry, especially right now, very hip, cool place to be, and it is so much fun, and I love it, and it really fulfills this creative side that I had deep down inside somewhere, and I love to see how it’s developing and where it’s going. But it’s a hard business, we’re running a full-fledged manufacturing and production facility, we’re dealing with quality control and lab work, then we have a whole retail side that’s open to the consumer, so we’re running a bar and events along with that. And then we have a sales team that goes out and is on the road, trying to get our product into different retailers, and bars, and restaurants. So, there’s a lot of moving pieces, it definitely keeps me up at night as well as Steve and Khris, but it’s a fun industry to be in.
Ashley: So, we should probably start with Sara, since your business opened before Nathan’s… 2009, the birth of MISRED Outfitters. Take me through and take our listeners through the vision of this business, and how it came to be, and in what the experience shopping at MISRED is like.
Sara: Dive back down to my mom originally had a clothing store when I was growing up on Beach Drive, right on 5th and Beach. And she opened it in 1991, called Designer’s Consigner, it’s actually still around today, great store on Central Avenue now. And my mom no longer owns it, she sold it many years ago, but she had it for I think 12 years. And so, I grew up in retail, and my aunt actually ran a boutique starting in the ‘70s on Beach Drive, when she was in high school she started working there. So, I really have a lot of roots with retail in St. Pete. My mom’s store was a consignment store, and so my childhood I was around second-hand clothing. And fast forward, I come back to St. Pete, start working at Dillard’s, after Dillard’s I worked for a clothing line, because I thought maybe I wanted to have my own clothing line at one point. After that, I actually worked for a local girl who had an e-commerce website, and she did high-end vintage. She was one of the first people who ever sell vintage on eBay when eBay first started. I feel like I’m dating myself now. And so, then I got back into the second-hand game. And so, when I stopped working there, that’s when I decided to open the shop. I really saw the way St. Pete was going and wanted to be a part of it at that time. So, because I was in second-hand clothing for so long, it was the logical place for me to be. So, we opened up the shop on Central Avenue at 615, Central Avenue. And at that time, we were a buy, sell, trade store. I did that for many reasons—A) it was because it was what I knew; B) it was because it was a much smaller financial barrier to entry, I could open a second-hand clothing store for about $75,000 less than what would be required to open a new clothing store. And I guess in my mind I didn’t really think it was that big of a risk, I was like, ‘Oh, well I’m already doing this, I’ll just do this.’ And the naïve 20-something of me is like, ‘Yeah, we’ll just open up a business, right?’ And so, I went to the 600 block, it was a low-rent district at the time, so it alleviated some of the financial burden for rent as well. And I have been there ever since. We are no longer second hand, we realized several years ago that the economy and market of St. Petersburg was going in a very different direction, and we had the opportunity to… as I say, we changed everything about my business except for the name, except for the logo, which is a very difficult thing to do. Public perception was a big issue, trying to retrain the consumers of Pinellas County that I no longer sell second-hand clothing was a huge battle, but we have come out on the other side of that, and are now really proud of the store that we have here. We are getting ready to open other locations, just really exciting. We just won Creative Loafings Reader’s choice, best boutique in Tampa Bay, which was a huge win for us. We’ve been wanting that for eight years, so things are going well.
Ashley: So, when you talk about best boutique, take me through the user experience at MISRED. The perception that I have is really in terms of the turnover of inventory and the opportunity to showcase new items on trend, affordable to the consumer, almost on a weekly basis, and the integration of the e-commerce perspective of that, and then just the staff’s attentiveness to the orientation around that, and really curating through that experience.
Sara: The experience really stems from my loathing of shopping, which sounds crazy because I’ve been in retail my entire life. But I actually really hate to shop, and I hate going into a large store where you have to spend two hours going through every single rack just to find something that you like. And I just don’t have the patience for that, I don’t have the time. And when we decided to make the shift to new I tried to think of what our strengths were as a company at that point, and how we could utilize that going forward. And our strengths were our styling. And so, currently when you come into my store, we have more full-outfit displays than any other retailer I’ve ever experienced. Everything in the store is under $60, so it’s very affordable, and yet we pride ourselves on the quality, we have done—Nathan was saying me in bed at midnight still working, that’s me researching new brands, because we’re constantly trying to up the quality without compromising price. And so, when you walk through the store, you can see an entire outfit put together, necklace, jacket, top, pants, shoes, all there and see what it’s actually gonna look like in real life on a body form, and know that you could actually afford the entire outfit. You could buy the entire outfit for what you could buy a single dress at a big box retailer. And then our staff is highly trained in the area of personal styling. And so, we know that—I always say this about myself and our staff, ‘I cannot do your accounting, I’m not an accountant. But I can pick you out a really cute outfit.’ So, everyone has their strengths, and so we really wanna provide that as a service to the community. And that’s another big shift in the boutique world, is that a lot of people think, ‘Well, my choices are I can go to a big box store where there is no customer service whatsoever, but maybe I could afford an outfit there, or I can go to this really nice boutique where they have great customer service, but I can’t afford anything.’ And so I really wanted to merge those two worlds into one experience, and it actually worked almost too well. We had to start putting our prices in our window, underneath all the outfits, because we would watch people walk by and I could hear them through the glass say, ‘Oh, man, that’s really cute, but there’s no way I could afford that.’ And I’m going, ‘That’s a $44 dress, come in here.’ So, it has worked, and now we’ve expanded to online, we have a great online presence and a really great social presence as well. Actually, we are buying offices right across the street from here, where our creative team works, my assistant buyers and myself work, and they really focused on our social media and marketing departments.
Ashley: So, what percentage of your sales are from the brick and mortar space versus the digital space?
Sara: It’s such a crazy perception, people assume that we are living in an era where online is everything. And every week you’re hearing about an article in the Wall Street journal, or somewhere big that is talking about how retail brick and mortar is dying. And to some degree it is, it is for the big stores that are continuing to do the same thing they’ve been doing for 50 years. People want more of an experience right now. And so, smaller stores, if they’re doing things right and looking at where their consumers are lacking and wanting from these larger stores… Smaller stores really are growing right now, and in that same light, not everybody wants to buy something online. They want an experience, they like to come in, they like what we call the chit-chat, to come in and say, ‘I have this event tonight and I wanna look a certain way, and I don’t really like big necklaces, but I kind of like an earring. I don’t know, this is what I have at home, help me.’ And you just don’t get that experience from an online store, and you can’t try it on until it gets to you. I have definitely seen a shift just in the past five or so years, that the glamour of online shopping is, for things like fashion and clothing, things that you have to try on, that has dissipated to some degree, only because it used to be, ‘Oh, I can buy this online, it will be shipped to my house.’ But now it’s I buy it online, I get it home, I try it on, it doesn’t work, now I have to package it back up, drive back to the post office, maybe hopefully it’s still in stock, I can get it again in a different size—or you can just come to my shop right now, buy it, try it on and be home in ten minutes. So, I think that we are really at an advantage in today’s market, and to go back to your question, we do less than 1% of our sales online, last year’s numbers. This is a crazy number and if you want to look it up online, I have—[laughing] nobody believes me, but I have a report showing it, that something like 8% of all retail sales were online last year, and Amazon took about half of that percentage. So, you’re talking about 5% or less for everyone selling things online that we’re all duking it out. So, I’m competing with Nordstrom, and Neiman’s and Macy’s and Old Navy, and all these heavy hitters, it’s just not realistic. And so, you can shop on our website, but we have really put all of our attention on making our shopping experience in store our focal point.
Ashley: Take me down a couple of years down the road, you are an established fortified business still experiencing the growing pains of starting anew, Nathan, presumably still at your finance job, having yet made the leap. Talk to me about the conversation you had prior to you relieving yourself from the suit nine to five into the small business space.
Nathan: Well, Sara had a lot to do with that. My story wasn’t one where I was frustrated in my job and I couldn’t stand it, I had to do something else. I loved what I did, and I was learning a ton from that arena, and I loved who I worked with, but I was looking for a different challenge, I was really into craft beer nationally, trying new things, doing some hobby brewing in the garage. And at the time there wasn’t anything like that in St. Petersburg, and every time Sara and I travelled we would find ourselves visiting the breweries in that local area and we saw the same thing everywhere we went. Wherever a brewery went up, the neighborhood around it was improving and most of them created this communal feel, where people from all walks of life got together and were able to relax for a few minutes in their day and have a good time, and maybe not worry about the stress of everyday life. So, I really loved that, I knew it would fit in well with St. Petersburg, it was just a matter of figuring out what exactly did I wanna do, how did I wanna put it together and who did I want to do it with? And every time I took a step backwards, Sara was there to push me forward again. Because when you do have a nice job that you like and you’re making decent money, it can be hard to walk away and try something that is by no means guaranteed to work, or to be successful. But I think deep down I saw her doing her thing, and I wanted to try my hand at entrepreneurship, and I also wanted to have something more to do with this revitalization we were seeing in St. Petersburg. I worked in this city, I was involved with a lot of different things, but on a day to day basis with the job that I had, I wasn’t really digging too deep into St. Pete, and I wanted to be a part of this new era, this new thing that was happening here, it was really exciting.
Ashley: Sara, what was your perspective? Were you scared for him, excited for him, combination?
Sara: No, I love small business, I want everybody to be in small business, so… I was super excited when he decided to do this, and I remember sitting on the floor of our kitchen having a conversation about this. It’s obviously a very large decision, but luckily, we’re both risk takers, and we don’t need much to survive, we’re not high maintenance people. So, the idea that we were gonna take a large pay cut as a family honestly didn’t phase me at all, I was thinking more about the quality of our future and the passion that I knew that he had within him, and what an amazing small business owner he would be. So…
Ashley: So, Nathan, did you cut ties immediately and do the big leap, then you’re unemployed and then you start the work? Or did you gradually lean in?
Nathan: No, it was a nice gentle transition. I started writing a business plan and I wanted to find the right person or two to go in on this with me, because I knew this was gonna be a big enough project that I didn’t want the burden of having it all fall on my shoulders. I saw what Sara went through on a smaller scale with her shop, and I really needed people who were talented in other areas than I was. And so, it was finding out who is that? Who can come on board with me, who can I work well with? I needed people who brought something different to the table. And so, it was writing a business plan, finding these two people who we had very specific roles for, and then, once that was all put together it was finding a location and finding the money to pay for it at the same time. Once I got to the point where we were actually out trying to fund this project, I then went to my employer and said, ‘Hey, this is what I’ve been working on. It’s not put together yet, but I just needed you guys to know that I’m working on this.’ And they were unbelievably understanding of the passion I had for this, and they wanted to work with me however they could to allow me to work on the brewery over here, continue to do my job here, and so there was a ideal time for both of us, for me to jump full time in at the brewery.
Ashley: What was the status of your relationships with your partners at that time? Were they newly introduced, or had you known them for some time?
Nathan: Our head brewer Khris, I had just met in passing a few times, and them Steven and I have known each other since high school actually.
Ashley: Did he yell in your ear when you were trying to learn how to drive, or was he a kinder friend?
Nathan: No, he was a much kinder friend.
Nathan: And we actually lived together for a year in college too. So, he moved to Fort Myers after University of Florida, I moved back to St. Pete. And we kept I touch, but by no means was it a call every day type of friendship, but I knew he would be great for this, and I talked in his ear quite a bit to make sure he saw what I was seeing, and wanted to come on board and leave the industry that he was in. He was actually doing construction management, so project managing on huge construction projects. And that’s what he went to school for, so a completely different field as well. And then Khris, our head brewer, we actually met together further down the line, and really loved what he brought to the table as far as passion, creativity, attention to detail, ability to communicate amazingly with others who know nothing about beer, which we thought would be important for an owner and a head brewer. It all of it started coming together.
Ashley: So, you got the capital to make the investment, you identified this property as being one that was ideal. What appealed to you about it?
Nathan: Well, honestly it was probably the seventh or eight property we went down the road on a lease negotiation with. And we were getting frustrated at this point. We had a lot of hiccups along the way, anytime you’re trying to raise private equity, get a real estate deal, get the city to change zoning to allow you to do what you’re going to do at the same time, and all those things have to happen at the same time. It’s very difficult and there’s lot of frustrations with that, but initially we were looking at what’s now the Warehouse Arts District, because it had larger buildings, cheaper land. And there were a few buildings that we pursued, even drew up renderings as to how we were going to build it out, and we could just not make it work with the owners during negotiation. So, the building we’re currently in, we actually always loved, because it’s one of the only brick buildings in St. Petersburg, at least in downtown St. Pete, and it has amazing character to it. And then it also had what we use for our equipment yard on the West side of the building, and what’s now the bear garden on the East side of the building. So, it had all these elements that we needed and knew we wanted, but the building wasn’t for sale or for lease. So, Steven and I actually, through another contact in the area, knocked on the door one day and talked to the owner and he said, ‘Sure, let’s talk about it, let’s figure it out.’ And it was through his vision as well that all this came to fruition.
Ashley: The name of your company, was that inspired by you and your history and affinity for the city?
Nathan: Yeah, I always liked the symbolism of what the Green Benches at one point stood for. We used to market ourselves, right up North and in the Midwest, as the green bench city, with pictures of sunshine on all these people sitting on the green benches. And we really wanted to take that and make it ours, make it St. Pete’s again. And with that, we… St. Pete yanked all those benches out in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s, and they haven’t really been around since then. But we thought what it could stand for as far as everyone coming together, hopefully enjoying a little bit of what St. Petersburg has to offer, preferably around one of our beers was something that we really liked.
Ashley: And the beer garden that you allude to, the St. Petersburg Group actually shot that with a drone for a video celebrating small business for the Economic Development Corporation here in St. Pete. That is something that at that point, and probably still to this day, is a differentiator for your brewery.
Nathan: Yeah. That was one of the things that we had to have. We talked about it before we finished writing the business plan, we wanted a place with a lot of outdoor space— A) so that people could enjoy it when the weather is nice, but B) it was important to us to create environment that everyone felt comfortable in, and an environment where people could gather and have meetings, have events, have fundraisers, celebrate life events, birthdays…
Ashley: Have kids.
Nathan: …baby showers, have kids. All of these things that we thought were important to making a true gathering spot for the entire community. A lot of that revolved around having this outdoor beer garden. And there’s reason why it’s not completely landscaped all the way around, we wanted to leave it up to the people to use it as they saw best. So, if they have an event they can set up however they like, because it’s a wide-open space and we allow people to use it for free most of the time. And that’s one of the things that’s been most encouraging since we started the brewery, is that we always envisioned Green Bench being a gathering spot and Green Bench being synonymous with the St. Petersburg community, you can’t really think of one without the other. And I think it’s become that, and I think there’s more we can do there, but it really is a place where people meet and gather up, and where a lot St. Pete type things happen, and we love that.
Ashley: Take me through, if you will, the carousel of—maybe not all, but the carousel of life experience that you’ve witnessed in that bar, and from engagements to live music, to magic shows.
Sara: Honestly, it’s everything you could possibly imagine. My favorite thing to do is just sit out there on any given day and see the different types of people, all ages ranges, from two weeks old to 100., every walk of life, and they’re all hanging out together, meeting friends, it’s…
Nathan: Skunk rescues…
Ashley: …skunk rescues…
Nathan: …movies, political fundraisers, all sorts of 501c3 groups have used it to raise money or to gather…
Ashley: Indie market.
Nathan: Yeah. I wouldn’t even know where to start or end. There have been so many things that have happened there. We had baby showers, engagements, weddings, anything. And the whole point of our space is that anyone is welcome to use it. And we’ve had a learning curve with that, because some people get offended that certain people get to use it, and… we don’t want to limit it. Whoever wants to use our space in a respectful way may use our space, no matter what walk of life you’re from. And that’s how we’re gonna keep it. It may make some people mad at certain points, but we don’t ever wanna play that game of you’re allowed, but you’re not.
Ashley: I think that speaks to how the community of St. Pete is, though. If you guys are saying you’re a reflection of the city, that is the city.
Nathan: That’s what we hope for.
Ashley: So, talking about the business of beer, talk to me about the three top issues that you need to circumvent as a business owner in this community. I would assume that maybe high on the list would be beer education, and maybe this is me just outing myself, but I may have a certain level of naivete understanding what one brewery could offer me from an experience perspective over another. Is that fair?
Nathan: Sure, absolutely. And one of the beautiful things about breweries in general is that most of us do different things. We all focus in different areas. There are so many different styles of beer out there, they then get divided into subgroups from that initial list. It’s daunting, right? Unless you’re in it, know about it, live in that arena, it can be hard to understand all of it. And so, one of our jobs is how do we communicate what we are doing to the consumer? And it’s something as we roll into this next phase of Green Bench and this expansion that we’re working on. It’s something that we’re spending a lot of time thinking through, because we still don’t do it as well as we need to do it. And as we wrote that business plan, there were two critically important things in there. The first we’ve already talked about, was our community engagement, community involvement, being a gathering place for everyone. And the second was the quality of our product, and what separates us from everyone else, how do we differentiate ourselves? And for Green Bench specifically, we make some pretty challenging beers, and we do that very much on purpose, and they’re difficult to make, but they’re also challenging that they’re not a lager that’s easily understood by everyone. And this is exciting for us, because we do get to hopefully open people up to maybe some styles that they haven’t tried before. But our focus really is we make a lot of hoppy beers, we call them clean beers, they’re the beers that come out of our stainless tanks and are the same every single time, or they should be if we’re consistent. But then we play around in the Belgian/saison and farmhouse arena, where we have a two Foeders, which are oak fermentation vessels that we’re one of a handful of breweries in the Southeast that utilizes Foeders in the way that we do. So it’s this traditional Franco-Belgian way of cultivating our yeast strains, and having this in-house strain that we can use for these different delicate Belgian and saison’s beers. And then we also work on our barrel-aged sour program a lot, which is probably what we’re most excited about. And these are beers that in many cases age for six months to 12 months or more in barrels, oak barrels that had red wine, white wine, Bourbon in some cases, all different sorts of things. Maybe we add fruit to them later, maybe we don’t. And we like to come up with these delicate tart sour beers that are a lot of times lower alcohol, they just aren’t the same thing that you get from every single place on any day of the week. And so, in those ways we’ve set ourselves apart a little bit, but we wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t continue to figure out how do we communicate what we’re doing to the consumer. And we’re still not there yet.
Ashley: You had a comment earlier that we, as a city, aren’t saturated with breweries. We had a conversation with Mike Harting from 3 Daughters several months ago, and we broached the same topic with him. One may assume that we’ve got a good amount of breweries here, but you say that we’ve just gotten started.
Nathan: Yeah, we have a decent amount of breweries within the city limits. If you open it up to the Tampa Bay area, there is many more, 65-70 now perhaps. And that’s a great place to be. However, if you look at more mature beer markets that have had craft breweries around for, I should say, a lot of craft breweries around for 30 years or so, the number of breweries per capita is way higher. And when you really look at it, most of the breweries that around us and are in St. Petersburg are making very small amounts of beer in the grand scheme of things, and that means there’s plenty of room for the craft market to grow and for more breweries to get into that market. There’s some breweries here where 80% to 100% of what they make is all sold in their tasting room, they don’t even go outside the tasting room. So, it’s hard to just count the number of breweries, you have to look at how much beer all those breweries are making. The national average now, I think, of craft beer sales make up about 12.5% of the overall beer market in the U.S. and for the state of Florida it’s way less than that, we’re not even near the national average of craft beer sales yet. So not only for St. Petersburg, but for the rest of the state we have a long way to go until there’s any sort of saturation issue. But I think the good thing that more breweries bring is two-fold. One, we can introduce more people who may not have ever had a craft beer to what we do, but it also challenges all of us to get better. When I have more breweries opening up around me, I’d better stay on my game and make sure we’re still making outstanding beer, and we’re not getting complacent, and we’re trying to push the envelope. And that’s better for the consumer overall.
Ashley: Well, you both have not only transcended into your own agency of your respective businesses, you’ve also really deepened your entrenchment in our community. I wanna talk to you about some of the causes and entities that you both have developed stronger support, and let’s start with you, Nathan. I know that you currently serve on the board of trustees for St. Pete College. Talk to me about the decision to do that.
Nathan: Yeah. I think Sara and I have always been geared the same way as far as wanting to be involved. Everybody can add in their own unique way to the community that they live in, and I just think it’s important for people to do things outside of their normal course of work to give back to this community that we live in. And for me, the opportunity to be on the board of trustees for St. Petersburg College has been unbelievably humbling, so thankful that I was given the chance to do this work. I spent time at St. Petersburg College when I was younger. My mom went to school there when she was younger. St. Pete College does a lot for this community in making sure we get people to educate themselves and get themselves on better career paths, or get trained out to retain the job that they’ve had forever, but maybe some of the things are changing within that industry. And it’s a huge driver of us being able to get higher wage jobs to people who live here. And so, everything I do humbles me more, because I realize how much I don’t know. Going back to the brewery, working with Khris and Steve and realizing how many things that they do that I can’t do, and the company wouldn’t work without having all three of us there, is humbling. Being a part of St. Pete College and having this small voice of input to a group that has thousands of employees, many administrators that help guide and direct what the College is doing, a faculty that’s dedicated to 30,000 students at a time, you realize what a small piece that you are, but the hope is that you can give back in just a little bit hopefully, and add something to it that maybe wasn’t there before.
Ashley: And so, for you, Sara, what do you find yourself investing what free time you have when you’re not up at midnight surfing new brands?
Sara: [laughing] You know, the first—I don’t know, six years I was in business, I had a huge focus on the economic development of Central Avenue. In my own small way, I helped to curate the businesses on my blog, I worked really closely with our landlord to develop that to be what it is today, and I worked a lot with Central Avenue, and the Council, and all the different districts, and basically anytime somebody invited me to a meeting I said yes, because I was like, ‘I wanna get involved, this is great!’ And then there actually came a point that I felt like my attention had been diverted away from my business because I was doing so much outside of my business. So, for the last two years, I have attempted to learn how to say the word ‘no’, which has been very hard. I don’t do it great, I still struggle with that, but I pulled back from a lot of the committees that I was on and a lot of the efforts I was seeking outside of business, and really focused on the business for the last few years. And it’s definitely paid off, like I said, we’re gonna be opening more locations, and other exciting things. And I definitely would not have been able to do that. Now, having said that, we’re still involved in a lot of different ways. We just went on the amazing Chamber trip that goes on every year, it’s a…
Ashley: Think outside the burg?
Sara: Think outside the burg is what it’s called, yeah. It’s kind of a fact-finding mission for the community to go and travel to other cities and see what they’re doing well. Nathan has been a big part of that. And I’m not sitting on any official boards right now, but I’m still very active in other ways.
Ashley: You alluded to a series of bad ideas, which I would assume all small business owners have as they try to throw the spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks. Talk to me about a really good idea that you had. I want to actually hear from both of you, an idea that you took a chance on and it worked.
Sara: For me, actually it’s really—this is gonna sound so funny, but to put it in a very simplistic way, it was leggings. Which sounds crazy, but what leggings has represented in my company is the idea to think outside of myself. So, for so long, especially with a small business, especially with a clothing small business, it’s very easy to buy the things that you like. Which you still have to do, you have to put your own flavor into it. But I think I got stuck in that rut, and because I don’t wear leggings, I never purchased leggings. And one day I was sitting on a friend’s porch drinking wine with some of my girlfriends and said, ‘Is there something that I’m not carrying that I should be?’ And they all said leggings, and I looked around, I was the only one wearing jeans and I realized—what am I doing? I need to be looking at what’s going on outside of my little buying bubble. And so, it really opened my eyes up to see outside of just my own little vision.
Ashley: By the way, I am wearing legging right now. [laughing] They may or may not have been procured at Misred? Nathan, and for you, tell me about a good idea that worked.
Nathan: I think because we have a relatively large staff and because Khris and Steve are an equal part of this with me, I don’t know if there is anything specifically that I’ve done other than the fact that I’ve been delegated the role, not by choice, but I think just because somebody had to do it, as controller. So, I’m the guy who gives the thumbs up or thumbs down usually to can we spend money on this, do we have the funds to do this? And that can be a pretty depressing role to have, you feel like you’re always letting people down if you don’t have the funds to do something different. But I think what we’ve done well in the first four years is as much as we could, we’ve allowed our employees and our brewer the wiggle room to do some of the more crazy stuff that they’ve wanted to do and see if it works. Before we even opened, Khris came to Steve and I and said, ‘Instead of buying another one of these stainless steel fermenters, I wanna buy this oak Foeder to ferment beer, and here’s why.’ And he gave us all the reasons why. And I thought initially that it was a pretty dumb idea to do that before we even opened. Let’s figure out stainless steel first, and then we can play around with this stuff second. But we ended up doing it, Khris convinced us, and I think that set us on a course of being the guys who are always trying something different, and aren’t necessarily afraid to try something different. Khris was told by a lot of different brewers that what his plan was for that Foeder in Florida, in a non-temperature controlled room, probably wouldn’t end well. And we’re four and a half years in now to brewing in that Foeder, and it’s still making fantastic beer. So, I think just not allowing too much of that ‘no’ mentality to creep in, because at the end of the day it is a business and we do need to stay in the black, but I think we need to stay creative and allow people to be creative in their space, and that makes the whole company better overall, if we can allow for more and more of that.
Ashley: So, maybe we end how we began, and you two were essentially boomerang youth, leaving to some degree and coming back. Share with me some advice for the millennials that are going away to school, local or further away, coming back, pursuing careers here and really wanting to venture into either only their own business, or exploring entrepreneurship. One piece of advice that you would equip maybe yourself with back I the day, but now as a mentor.
Nathan: I would start it with you have to start somewhere and you have to do something. I think a lot of people are really good at talking about dreams and passions and ideas that they have, even causes they’re passionate about, but you have to start at the beginning of something, work towards a goal and see where that builds. When you first graduate from College, you may not find your dream job that you’ve envisioned yourself having for the last 12, to 18 to 20 years. You need to take a job and learn what it’s like to work for someone else, figure out what you would do differently, figure out what you can learn from a situation that isn’t, in your mind, ideal to you, and you grind it out for a little while until you take the next step into something. And the best way to move, I think, through life to get closer to what you think your personal goals are, is to develop relationships with other people. So, while you have that initial job that may not be ideal, become a part of something bigger than yourself in the community, meet people who are interested in what you’re in and work there as well. Don’t talk about it, work on it. Work on something, work on a project, work on a way to make the community better. You have to put the time in. And I’ve suffered from the same thing before, I know Sara has too. A lot of times we can talk too much about certain things and decide in our mind how we want things to end up, but we don’t take the time to actually get out there.
Sara: My advice would be to just continually assume that you know nothing. If you would ask my staff what question I ask more than anything else to them and anyone who is listening is, ‘Did you Google it?’ [laughing] Because especially in small business, there’s so many moving parts, and it’s constantly changing, and you constantly have to move forward in order to stay relevant. And there’s just no humanly possible way that you will know everything all the time. And so, if you assume that you don’t know, I think you’re gonna be in a better position, because your first gut reaction is going to be, ‘Well, let me figure out how I can know.’ So, whether that’s through Google research, or a YouTube video, or even going back to school and taking classes, I feel like I’m constantly doing that. Or seeking advice from mentors in the community, we have some really unbelievable opportunities for small business owners in this community, the Greenhouse is one of them. I feel like I recommend the Greenhouse to people at least twice a week, because it’s such an amazing—free classes that you can take, and mentorship, anything you wanna know, from loans to writing a business plan… Even though I came from a background of a small business family, it was the first place I went when I decided to open a small business. And I took as many classes as I could from them. And so I think that’s what’s going to give you a leg up on everyone else, it’s just continually striving to educate and re-educate yourself on all things.
Nathan: It’s one of the best parts of living in St. Petersburg. We have a city that is large enough, where there’s something for everyone to do and something for everyone to get involved in, however small enough that, if you want to ask somebody a question, or get mentorship from a peer or from a business owner who’s doing something that you’re interested in, you can easily find it. It would probably take two or three conversations with other people to get connected to the right person you wanna talk to, and they’re probably going to take the time to talk to you. That’s a great thing about a community, and I think it’s somewhat rare to find. It’s really easy in St. Petersburg to get help and to get plugged in in the areas where you wanna get plugged in.
Sara: And ask somebody to coffee. We’re constantly having coffee dates with people wanting to talk to us, and then us reaching out to people that we want to talk to and pick their brains about.
Ashley: Thank you so much for joining us today.
Sara: Yeah. Thank you, this was awesome.
Nathan: Of course, thanks for having us.
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About the host
Ashley Ryneska is the Vice President of Marketing for the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg and a founding Insight Board member at the St. Petersburg Group. Ashley believes meaningful conversations can serve as the gateway to resolution, freedom, and advancement for our city. Her passion for storytelling has been internationally recognized with multiple media accolades.