Tiny brewery overcomes hurdles to keep on pouring

The company: Ramshackle Brewing Company, at 209 E. Chicago St., in the heart of downtown Jonesville, is a tiny — 16-foot-by-100-foot — standalone squeezed between two other businesses.

Within the 50-person capacity space, three employees sling the beers Zack Bigelow brews. Zack’s wife, Jessy Bigelow, keeps the wheels on the business, marketing the signature English Drizzle -- English IPA to area restaurants and taking care of paperwork and customer service tasks.

How the company began: Zack started brewing beer 15 years ago as a hobby when he fell in love with the craft brewing scene, while working at his day job as a materials and production planner for a tier-one automotive company.

Everything Ramshackle Brewing Company offers today comes from one of his more than 150 recipes. “Everything I do, I created myself,” he says.

Zach spent some time in Schoolcraft University’s culinary arts school, and he found that the chemistry of brewing came easy to him.

By 2014, he was getting so much demand for his beers from family and friends that the couple had to rethink what they were doing. “I was like, 'Hey, that’s bootlegging. We probably shouldn’t be doing that,'” Jessy says. They decided to get serious and contacted the Brewers Professional Alliance, becoming one of only five breweries accepted for help from the organization at that time. “They accepted our brewery plan and decided to help us figure out how to get the funding to be able to open a brewery.”

How the company expanded: In September 2014, under the guidance of the BPA, the couple began to study the accounting, marketing, legal requirements, and licensing it would take to open and operate a brewery. They also had to figure out how to secure the $600,000 needed to get the business off the ground.

Since then, the company has built its brick downtown brewery; collaborated with local artists, bakers, meat and cheese shops; hired workers; and even created a line of take-out cans to get through the pandemic.

Their beer is marketed to 10 restaurants in Hillsdale and three other counties and the brewery in downtown Jonesville, population 2,180, has become a hub for live entertainment.

“If you’re in Hillsdale, you’re about two hours from anything you want to do,” Zach says, laughing. “Right now, we're just going to continue on bringing in something new (entertainment) to the area at least once a week.” 

What resources did you use to get started: When the Bigelows came up with a proper business plan and budget back in 2014, they calculated that it would take about $600,000 to get started. “Zach and I talked about it and we wanted to do the best that we could for our business but not put our home and our cars and all that (at risk) and just wind up falling flat on our faces,” Jessy says. “And then we got very lucky.”

The state of Michigan had just created MILE — Michigan Invests Locally Exemption (MILE), which allows small businesses to raise capital by reaching out to state residents directly to invest in their companies. Jessy had to learn all of its ins and outs, risks and pitfalls, well enough to educate the community of potential investors. “Because it was brand new to the state, let alone to our community,” she notes. “I didn't know anything about investment… at the time so I had to learn 100 percent  of everything that it would entail."

The couple approached the small farming community through a series of beer-tasting events and word of mouth. The MILE program prohibits direct advertising as an investment opportunity, but by sharing information about their business through groups such as the local chamber of commerce, Toastmasters and one-on-one contacts, they were able to raise the needed money.

Other resources that have bolstered their success include the COVID 19 Paycheck Protection Plan loan, a Consumers Energy gift card program, and several grants.
“I was almost a professional grant writer at that point in time,” Zach says.

There were other reliefs as well — their bank put loan payments on hold during the first months of the pandemic, and a neighboring cider company lent them enough cans to tide them over for takeout orders when they ran out of cans.

What issues did you face? For every two steps forward came a step back. Investors were initially leery of the MILE program because it was brand new. Then, when investments finally came together, the bank that had originally agreed to a loan backed out. Construction was delayed for weeks while a contractor recuperated from a rattlesnake bite, and the Bigelows wound up having to cut some of the budget and do some of the manual labor themselves. When construction was finally finished, stalled licensing inspections delayed a planned opening.

Finally, in July 2019, the Ramshackle Brewing Company opened its doors. 
And seven months later, in March 2020, the pandemic began. “It really scared us,” Jessy says. There was a lot of uncertainty about whether the business would be allowed to remain open— and it was, in fact, briefly closed— but the brewery was able to sell canned beer on a take-out basis.

We had a single canning machine,” Jessy says. “We don't have a canning line, a bottling line or anything like that. And we ran out of cans. We had to shut down for almost a week to get cans." Thankfully, a neighboring cider business gave them some cans to use until their order came in.

What’s next: So far the company has survived, and thrived. “You know, I'd love to say, ‘Hey, we're going to expand and build a production facility,” Zack says. “That's always the goal, right?" But after completing its first year of uninterrupted business, they're just getting a real handle on what they're doing. "So we're just gonna hold out another year, at the very minimum, keep building our base and getting our beer distributed into local restaurants and getting it out there," Jessy says.

Meanwhile, the couple is enjoying the community that’s helped them get the business up and running. “The fun part about this is Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, (the customer base) is all local," Jessy says. “Friday and Saturday people from the four-county area come for date night or for entertainment . . . Saturdays we get a lot of travelers, from all over the state. It’s really fun to meet these different dynamics, and we make sure when they leave here that they’re part of the family.”

“Our slogan is ‘the community brewery,’" because we want everybody to be a part of our community,” Jessy says.

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