Rob Grtaz, of California, and his wife Jen Gratz, of Michigan, have been parting of the wave of people moving to Florida to pursue their dreams. In 2011, they moved to Southwest Florida. In 2013, they opened the Fort Myers Brewing Company. On Episode 94 of the Agents of Innovation podcast, Jen sat down with Francisco Gonzalez to discuss the evolution of their business.
Rob had been a home brewer in San Diego, California as far back in the 1990s. “When he brewed in college, he brewed really bad but really strong beer,” said Jen. After they were married and Jen was working a lot in Michigan, Rob took up homebrewing again. He then met the owner of the first brewery in the town they were living in near San Diego. He ended up volunteering there and learned the ropes of brewing as a business as opposed to simply being a home brewer. But given the expense, he was never able to open up his own brewery.
After moving to Fort Myers in 2011, they noticed an industrial area in their Gateway community, not far from the Southwest Florida International Airport. Rob saw the area as ideal to open up a craft brewery. By the time they opened in March 2013, there were only 45 craft breweries in Florida. Today, there are over 375. Fort Myers Brewing Company is still in the same industrial park, but has expanded many times and their biggest expansion plan is currently underway and should culminate by early 2022.
But in the beginning, they were very small and it operated as a side business. “Our plan was to brew on Sundays and our tap room would be open on Friday and Saturday, and we’d keep our day jobs and maybe we’d meet some friends in our new home town, and it quickly exploded,” said Jen.
Over the years, the Fort Myers Brewing Company has continued to knock walls down and expand their brewery and tap room. Food trucks park outside daily so that food is available for patrons.
In 2016, the Fort Myers Brewing Company won the Best Large Brewery in the State of Florida by the Best Florida Beer Awards. “I still don’t consider ourselves large,” said Jen. “We are relatively small, in the grand scheme of things, but in Florida we are one of the larger breweries.”
Beer from the Fort Myers Brewing Company is only available in Southwest Florida (with a few exceptions in the Tampa market). However, you can find it at most bars and restaurants in the broader Fort Myers area, with some beers only found exclusively in their tap room.
“We’ve made the conscious effort to go deep in our backyard,” said Jen. “We still can’t keep up completely with our backyard so we are very content with producing beer for Southwest Florida and telling people if they want to have Fort Myers Brewing beer they have to come to this great area of Florida.”
When they opened in 2013, “we had the capacity to brew about 350 barrels a year,” said Jen. “We now have the capacity to do 15,000 barrels a year.”
There are also some seasonality challenges to the production process considering that Southwest Florida is a very seasonal area. “That was a big lesson to learn and the quicker someone learns that in a seasonal area is really important.”
Like many craft breweries, they have also had to deal with peculiar regulations. For many years, the 64 ounce growler, which has traditionally been the most popular size growler among craft beer consumers, was illegal in Florida. “The wholesale lobby fought against changing that for a couple of years,” said Jen. But in July 2015, the law changed and 64 ounce growlers were permitted to be sold and filled. “Patrons just didn’t understand and thought we were making things up,” said Jen.
While Fort Myers Brewing Company isn’t a threat to the big, macro beer companies, together the craft brewing industry does take up some market share, so anything the big beer lobby can do to reduce competition, they naturally do. However, as Jen attested, “I think that that’s shifting and I’m happy about that.”
The law in over 35 states – including Florida – also requires breweries to use a distributor to get your beer to bars, restaurants, and convenient stores. There are some states, however, that have shifted to allow breweries of certain sizes to distribute their own beer to a number of accounts.
“Early on, that’s a challenge. Distributors only have so much bandwidth. They want to see a brand that has already grown and taken off. And so to allow a new and emerging brewery to go build a route and get their first 50 to 100 accounts could be really useful to new breweries,” said Jen. “Once you’re at where we’re at now, I can’t imagine trying to do that myself. The distributors do it so well. They’ve got that business built – so to rely on them and to partner with them is a necessity in my opinion.” However, the other unique thing to the craft beer industry is the franchise law. “In Florida, our contract with our distributor is lifetime,” said Jen.
Running a business has it’s common challenges, but COVID 19 gave just about every business owner everywhere an unexpected series of challenges.
When COVID19 hit in early March 2020, Jen and Rob decided to keep all of their staff. “We already run lean anyway,” she said. At that time, she realized that “when things do open back up, we can’t afford to train people in the back again. But we’re also spending an incredible amount of money for payroll not knowing when we’re going to open back up.”
In these unprecedented times, Jen came to understand there was no right way or wrong way to do this. “In other respects, it was comforting to know we are all in the same place. We’re all just trying to do what we believe is best for our business and hoping that we’re making the best decision possible.”
In 2016, Jen and Rob had started working on an expansion plan for the brewery that included a plan to acquire land owned by the government, near the Southwest Florida International Airport from where the Fort Myers Brewing Company has been since they opened in 2013.
“We started seeing signs pop up for land around where we are at and it was land that the Port Authority owned and it was for lease,” said Jen. They started reaching out and didn’t get a lot of information out of the gate. But about a year later, someone reached out to them and told them that there is a 20-acre parcel that is adjacent to their current facility.
While the land was available for lease, Rob told his wife that they would be spending an incredible amount of money on a facility on land that they didn’t own. “We got a little nervous about that.”
We were told for years that they would never sell this land. Then they sat down with county officials and one of them told them, “Why don’t we just sell it?”
But the county couldn’t just “sell it” because of the fact that the land would have to go up for public bid. Then, there are all kinds of hoops to jump through – it’s not only county-owned but because it’s through the Port Authority, the FAA has to sign off on the sale, getting the federal government involved.
“We probably picked the hardest parcel possible to purchase,” said Jen. “The land touches the parking lot of where we’re at. That’s why it was important to us. We built a really nice following. We love being in the Gateway area. Gateway has really embraced Fort Myers Brewing.”
The land went up for public bid in December 2019 and Fort Myers Brewing Company won that public bid. On Thursday, March 12, 2020, the county commissioners voted to approve the sale of the land. The timing was interesting to say the least.
“It was that afternoon that the stadiums (for spring break baseball) shut down and four or five days after that, our taprooms moved to to-go only. And so there was a moment I thought – more than a moment – there were maybe a couple months that we weren’t sure if the expansion would happen,” said Jen.
“But I’m happy to report that it is happening. We have been working very rapidly on those plans. We are in the middle of all the orders and permits we have to get,” said Jen. They even got approved by the Army Corps of Engineers and are currently working through zoning and development orders. She quipped that she has been “earning a lot about land development” through this process.
Fort Myers Brewing Company expects to break ground in late 2021 or early 2022. “Because we’re so seasonal, the timing is really important and has to be very strategic.” They will have to move equipment and take equipment offline – and there’s only a few months during the year where it would make sense to do that.
The bar and brewery business in what some have dubbed “The Free State of Florida” were closed just shy of six months during the COVID19 shutdowns. After first being allowed to reopen at the end of May, they were shut down again at the end of June through the end of September.
If you were not serving food, you could not reopen. The food license had to be in your own name, so just having food trucks owned by others sitting outside did not put them in compliance. “So we bought a food truck,” said Jen. “It’s still parked in our parking lot. We bought it so we could have the license in our name.” But they continued letting the other food trucks who served their customers park there and serve their food because the owners of those food trucks still need to be supported too.
The biggest thing she has learned, she learned through COVID, and it’s this: “That we can overcome anything – and I don’t say that lightly because not everyone has come to the other side of 2020 with that same experience,” she said. “But for me, it’s given me a ton of confidence.” She describes herself as “a worrier … and the last year has freed me of that.”
Like many businesses that were forced to shut down, the Fort Myers Brewing Company was able to survive, in part, through federal assistance programs, but also were helped by programs at the county level in Lee County, Florida. There are other issues affecting small businesses, including supply chain issues — as one example, there’s a can shortage that is likely to persist through about 2025.
“Because of our expansion plans, we had been saving for a long time. And so we dipped into some of those expansion funds. But it did give me some comfort that we had a larger cash reserve than we normally would have had because we were planning for an expansion. As a business owner, I will keep more cash on hand because there’s no telling when this could happen again. That’s probably my biggest fear coming out of 2020. We have seen that the government can suspend business licenses. They can change the course of your business without any warning … how will you mitigate that if it were to happen again?”
It has been quite the journey for Rob and Jen Gratz. When Fort Myers Brewing Company first opened, they had four of their own beers on tap. “We’ve now cycled through 200 plus different recipes of beer,” said Jen. “At any given time we have 20 to 25 beers on tap. We have seven different flavors of seltzer.”
“We started developing seltzer a couple years ago,” she said. It’s called “Spiked,” and it’s a hard seltzer. It’s 5% alcohol. No carbs. No sugar. No artificial sweeteners. “There’s a lot of people trying to be healthy. It’s crystal clear and extremely refreshing and brewed like a beer.”
Like most successful entrepreneurs, Fort Myers Brewing Company tests their products before going big. For a craft brewer, that means testing the beer in the tap room and getting customer feedback. The last 5% of product development took them a year and a half. The first package and product was released in March 2020. It’s available in grocery stores, locally, like Publix. It did really well, at a time when people were swarming grocery stores in the early days of COVID. “It helped us weather all things COVID,” said Jen.
“There’s a lot of talk of supporting small business right now,” she said. “I do have to give a shout out to the big businesses in the area. We got calls from some of the biggest businesses in the area, saying send us everything you’ve got. We will put anything you have on our shelves. To their credit, they needed small businesses to survive as well.”
“We’ve done collaboration beers with other breweries to help promote others in our industry,” said Jen. “Through COVID, we put together a program – it was called a Crowler Crawl. Buy two crowlers here, two crowlers at another local brewery, and two crowlers at a third local brewery and you get a special commemorative t-shirt. There’s a lot of collaboration in our industry. Once you’ve had a good solid craft beer, you’re probably going to drink another one.”
She also gave us advice for aspiring entrepreneurs in the craft brewing industry. “My philosophy is you get to market as quickly as possible, as inexpensively as possible, you test your product, and then you build from there,” said Jen.
“I think there’s still room for quality craft beer,” said Jen. “I think the first place to start is with the product. I would advise starting really lean and getting to market quickly. If you haven’t brewed on your own, you’re going to have to hire a brewer, which makes it a little bit more expensive to open.” While Fort Myers Brewing Company opened with about $50,000 initial investment in 2013, she says most consultants would advise people to start with seven figures today.
“You’ve got to get feedback from people who aren’t your friends,” she said. “What your friends will say to you versus what the paying consumer is going to say to you might be two very different things.”
She also advises to open with a solid tap room plan. Then, continue to test your product before you go wide out in the market. “The further you get your product away from your home base, the harder it is to control … how it’s cared for, how it’s served.”
Fort Myers Brewing Company is a good model to emulate as they are flourishing and have been recognized widely for their quality products. They have won multiple medals at the Florida Beer Awards. Their chocolate stout was named the second best chocolate beer in the world at the World Beer Cup in 2018 (the last time they held the competition). At a national competition in Tampa just six months ago, they were named the best seltzer.
Jen’s first job as a youth was having a paper route in her small town in Michigan. One of the biggest things she learned from that was how each customer wanted their paper delivered. “If you did it right, you got great tips during the holidays.” In addition, “it was the start of developing a work ethic.” Her work ethics and her attention to customer feedback has been a great quality she has brought to the business she run with her husband Rob. Their journey continues, as does their expansion. To find out more about their beers and how you can visit them in Fort Myers, visit fmbrew.com.