I Made This Simple Mistake and Lost My Entire Business at Its Peak
A neighbor complained about a lively day of business at my brewery, and that was the beginning of the end.
It was May 12, 2014.
I'll never forget the day we received our cease and desist order because it was my husband's 33rd birthday.
A few days earlier, we'd had one of the biggest weekends our organic farm and brewery had ever had, so we were ready to celebrate! We were completely blindsided by this small envelope that contained a piece of paper that would change the entire trajectory of our lives.
Let me back up a little bit.
My husband and I are originally from New Orleans (well, technically, Slidell, Louisiana, but nobody knows where that is), and we decided to leave about two years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged our area. We were young, my husband had a nice amount of savings from renovating houses, and we were hot (it is so hot there; imagine taking a steaming hot shower, not drying off and putting your clothes on), so we decided to move to the Pacific Northwest, where my parents had relocated a few years before.
We found an amazing property in the Columbia River Gorge that looked out onto the Columbia River and the Oregon Cascades. Again, we were young, and starting an organic farm of our own sounded like a fantastic idea at the time! And it was, but it was also brutal. There were long hours, little profits and a seasonal way of living at best. A few years into the farm, we started homebrewing because let's be honest, our farming operation didn't quite support our love of craft beer. And we got pretty good at it! My specialty was fondly named Hair of the Dog Stout, and not for the reason you might think, but because the first time I tried to brew, I dropped the oats on the floor, and my dog's hair got all mixed in! Don't worry — those were the early days before we let anyone else try our beers.
The rise of craft beer
At the time, #craftbeer was all the rage; this was circa 2010, and breweries in Portland like Breakside and Amnesia and breweries in the Gorge like Double Mountain and Full Sail were crushing it! We realized this was an opportunity for us to create a product that wasn't seasonal — we could brew and sell our beers all year. So my husband and I built our tiny little taproom from the ground up on the edge of our top garden We had two: the "top garden" and the "lower garden."
We did all the necessary paperwork (and there was a lot!) to get our brewing operation up and running. But there was one thing we didn't do: read the fine print. However, we did work with county, city, state and federal officials to get everything in order, and we were approved.
So off we went brewing, farming, baking bread, making cheese and raising chickens, goats and sheep — all the things to make our dreams a reality. And things were going along quite nicely for a few years; our precocious daughter was about two when we opened and enjoyed playing with all the visitors (and digging in their purses), we had our sweet son in 2013, publications like The Oregonian, The Columbian and Seattle Magazine started featuring us, and people from all around the country started to come out and visit our little farm and brewery. It was amazing, magical, scary, fun and exhausting all at the same time — but that's pretty much entrepreneurship, right?
The beginning of the end
So now you're caught up — we had worked so hard for years and were finally, finally, starting to actually make a decent living. People knew about the brewery, and things were looking great!
Cut to Mother's Day, 2014, and we are slammed. Slammed like we had never been before. So slammed that someone actually parallel parked their horse in between cars (if you have never been to Skamania County, Washington, you might not understand). We had a food truck, a local band and a lot of visitors — we were stoked! A few of our neighbors weren't so happy though ... hence the cease and desist order that arrived less than a week after that fun-filled day.
From that point on, we dealt with every county, city and state department; they all came out to our farm to inspect what was going on, how we were operating and a million other things. We felt confident that this would all blow over and we'd get back to normal. We did contest the cease and desist, and they agreed to allow us to operate during the investigation.
They scheduled a public hearing for September and had lawyers come out from Vancouver. Still, we felt good. That night, the place was packed. We had so much support — people wearing our shirts and getting up to speak on our behalf. The community had our back; it was so heartfelt. But the fine print doesn't necessarily feel or care about things like that, does it? Turns out, when we got our county permit, we applied to do growler fills (those big glass water jugs), and when the state alcohol board came out, they said we could serve pints on-premises. But we never knew that we had to go back and change the verbiage to include on-site pints.
In an instant, we were out of business. It felt like the rug was pulled out from under us. It felt like a punch to the gut. It was such a scary feeling — our kids were four and one — what were we going to do? We had spent the last seven years of our lives sweating, bleeding and crying to build this business, and it was finally paying off. And just like that, it was gone.
What to do when you don't know what to do
Looking back now, it seems surreal. The farm, the fight, the horse tied to our fence, all of it. But you know, looking back, it wasn't sustainable. It would have been hard (almost impossible) to scale just because of where our farm was, the way it operated and many other factors.
I was in such a fog for a bit, but as humans, we adapt, take another step and keep moving, even when it feels like we're not. We ended up moving back to Louisiana for a while, and I started working at a digital-marketing agency. It was great. I had a fantastic mentor (if you're reading this, you know who you are), and life got good again. I branched out on my own in 2016 and jumped on the entrepreneurship rollercoaster once again. I am making triple the amount we were pulling in on the farm, and now I only sweat when I get anxious on Zoom meetings.
The truth is that we can do hard things. Entrepreneurs are a scrappy bunch, and if something isn't going the way you thought it would, you've lost something you thought you could never be without or have plans that have been wiped out from under your feet, keep going, even if you don't know where you are going. Just take that next step, however small or big. It will eventually lead you to where you and your business are meant to be.
And don't forget to read the fine print!
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