Small Business Profile: Samantha Lee, Founder of Hopewell Brewing - Chicago
Hi Samantha! Could you tell us a bit about your background?
My background funnily enough has nothing to do with alcohol, beverage, or hospitality. I worked in nonprofits and foundations before this. I worked at Open Society Foundations in New York a little over three years ago at this point, working on independent journalism, internet rights, and voting rights - the sort of issues that we hear a lot about in the news now actually. That was my previous world, never having worked for a for-profit entity, other than when I was a waitress in college. It's very different from owning your own business.
I did a lot budget overviewing, and one of my roles was to look at the financial stability of many nonprofits in the country because we were a big funder. I had a bird's eye view of how organizations operate, and in many ways, a small nonprofit does operate like a small business. You're pretty bootstrapped and you run very, very lean, and that's how we operate.
We strongly believe at Hopewell that it's not just the responsibility of the nonprofits of the world and the mission driven organizations to be responsible companies. When you decide to open up a business, you take up space - you take up physical space - we have a tap room in Logan Square, but we also have product that people interact with and enjoy. We work with businesses daily. We have customers come in daily. You take up this space and you have impact on people's lives and that's what we're interested in.
From living in New York to moving to Chicago, how did you decide to open Hopewell?
I'm from Chicago. I was born and raised in the West Loop, which is sort of funny to come back and see it because it was not a fun place for a kid. I didn't really have that much to do besides walk around warehouses.
We, so myself, my husband Stephen, and then our good friend Jonathan, the three of us are the founders of Hopewell, met in college, at U of I in Champaign, and we'd always talked about having our own business, our own brewery. Stephen used to brew at Brooklyn Brewery and then before that he was with Widmer Brothers and Craft Brew Alliance in Portland, Oregon, so we lived there as well.
We love craft beer, so it seemed natural. We saw a lot of what was happening in craft beer and we got excited about what we could add to that. We geeked out over branding, over mission, over the whole package. So for the last 8 - 10 years, that's all we talked about. We would go visit breweries, bars, have drinks somewhere and think about how we would do it. Even things like furniture or lighting - we were always making notes of what we would do and it became this obsession. We named Hopewell years and years ago.
So when we found this space, now four years ago, we already had all of these ideas that we could dive in to. Not that things haven't changed, but it has been a long time coming.
Were you living in Chicago when you found the space?
No, we were in New York, so we moved back to Chicago. We quit our jobs and moved back and opened up Hopewell within six months.
What drew you to this space in Logan Square?
My husband and I live in Avondale, up the street. We just really wanted a neighborhood that felt residential, but also had a commercial hub, an area where we had that immediate community support. Since day one, we've had our first dates, our regulars, people who our tap room manager invited to her wedding because they are regulars. I think that's an incredible thing and it has been really rewarding to see it happen because we wanted our space to act in that way and it has.
How did you go about designing the taproom?
Thinking about a space that made us personally feel good. We'd all been to a lot of different types of breweries and tap rooms and bars, and they all have their time and place, but we wanted it to be a place where you could feel really welcome. We want people who may not be craft beer connoisseurs to come in and feel like they can ask questions.
Space, our architect would love that I said this, is such a physical manifestation of your company's vision and mission. So we got really close with our architect as well - Range Architecture and Design. They just really got how we wanted the space to be. We want to be really welcoming and inviting, and modern and bright, because our beer is modern and bright. It's approachable and we're not afraid to be approachable because that's the whole thing. We're trying not to be pretentious, and so hopefully that’s what the space does. We definitely don't want to be a space that’s alienating for anyone.
What is your brewing process?
We use Slack here pretty fervently because not everyone is in the same room that once; we've got about 12 employees. People just shoot out messages like, hey, I had this beer with this kind of hop, have you ever had this hop or tried this style? It's really based on taste. We are small enough right now where we can make these decisions. Almost every brewery will say they like to brew to personal taste and that's why people enjoy going to different breweries because each one has their own spin on things.
We really like little crispy beers that are pleasant and delightful. Our whole thing is making beer that is approachable and that you can have more than one of. One of our standout hits, Clover Club, is a kettle sour with gin botanicals, which on paper just looks wild, but people drink one after another because it's dry and a really easy drinking beer. A lot of how we come about things is because they sound tasty.
Everything's made here. We just got a canning line that's new to us, so we've got a ton of new product in package, which is really exciting. There's something about being packaged that feels real, even though we're celebrating 3 years in February. There’s something about having the physical can, even when we take it home and open it, that’s just so fun. It feels really rewarding. People experience beer differently when they take it home and share it with people at a dinner party. That’s so cool to be a part of that experience. And we just geek out on branding and labels.
How did you go about designing your branding and packaging?
We work with Official Manufacturing Company, they're in Portland, Oregon. They helped us with our overall cohesive brand because none of us have the background in graphic design or brand strategy. They’ve been with us for probably 8 years, that's when we started working on Hopewell, but things have evolved and changed. In the last two years, we've sort of understood who we are.
I think it took that first year to really know what we're comfortable with doing and you kind of see that in our new packaging as well. They don't really work in craft beer, which is great because they have fresh eyes on everything.
You collaborate with your community and nonprofits in your space a lot. Was that something that you built into your mission?
Yes - going back to being a good neighbor and taking up space. We think about how can we do as much as we can within our own limits and highlight the organizations that we think are doing great work. That has always been a part of it.
What challenges do you face with Hopewell?
Learning when you need help. I personally struggle with asking for help, that’s a big one for me. On a professional level, when you need to call in the plumber, call in a plumber, or when you need to shape up your books, get a bookkeeper. Those are the realizations. It took us a little bit of time to figure out that we can't possibly do all of this by ourselves. Alcohol is very complex, the taxes that are complex. We run essentially three businesses because we have our taproom, production, and then we self-distribute, so we deliver all of our beer.
There's a lot going on and to make it run well, you have to have the right people and tap out when you realize the extent of your expertise and knowledge. I think there's a narrative to do it yourself by brute force with your head to the ground. We've realized that’s not sustainable and you'll burn out. It's not good for you personally, it's not good for relationships, and it's not good for the three of us who started the company.
What makes you passionate about your business?
It's exciting when I go to a restaurant that I love and see our beer. Each time that happens, it's a little thrill. It's really meaningful when people recognize your work in that way. We love working with other businesses, and it's really fun to get to know other people because otherwise we're just in our own worlds talking to each other.
We sat down with Tony from Cellar Door, which is one of our all time faves, to talk about what we can do together. It's fun and that's just not something I've done before and it seems very possible in Chicago. There's something about Chicago where these small businesses really work with each other and interact. It's a big city, but the scene is tight. It's really cool to meet people that you have business crushes on and get to know them.
Why do you think it’s important for women to support each other?
I've been super lucky to have a lot women in my professional career. I’ve always had female managers at the places I've worked and so women in positions of authority and power have always been a part of my life. My mom is a professional woman, so that has been the narrative in my life, but I did know that coming into beer, women are underrepresented.
There are not a lot of resources for women in professional industries, so it's important for women to lift each other up. I think often it can seem like, oh, we're doing really well and there are women in positions of political power and corporate power, but it's definitely still very much in a man's world framework. I'd love to see more women in craft beer operations, brewing, and sales because it will change the culture for the better.
Have you experienced struggles in the craft beer industry?
The culture is one that is very masculine, so when we set out to design the space and our brand, it was definitely with the feminine touch in mind. And feminine in a feminine energy way - in a way that I think is really positive.
Are there women that inspire you?
Definitely my mom. She was a state's attorney in the 80’s in Chicago - it sounded brutal. Just the worst, like seven months pregnant working and going back to work six weeks after having both my brother and I. I think about the racism and the sexism that she had to deal, but she's still working and is really passionate about what she does. That has always been really inspiring to me.
All of the women that I've worked for in my life who have lifted me up. It has been very rewarding to have these women in my life and that's why it's so important to have more women in different industries because they nurture and foster other women. There's something about that very deep connection because these women see what you're going through and can provide resources.
Are there any resources that have been helpful to you that we should know of?
We are part of our guild, which is our trade guild. So I'd encourage anyone in whatever field they are to find out what kind of trade organizations and business coalitions there are.
Also other small businesses - when we have questions about bookkeepers or cleaning services or things we don't know, since this is our first business, we call someone and ask. Just understanding that other small businesses are very open to helping and providing resources.
What is something you’re learning right now or something that you’d like to learn?
On a personal level, I wish I was better at taking photos. It takes me so long to take photos for social media.
I'm still working on being confident with choices. I'm impulsive in my personal life, but when I have to make a choice for our business, it can feel like a huge deal, but sometimes it's not. Sometimes your impulses are right, if you have the proper checks in place, as well as people to ask if it’s the right thing to do.
What are some of your favorite places in Chicago?
We always love Lula. Cellar Door. We are big natural wine fans as well, so we've been hitting up Diversey Wine, which is next door to Cellar Door.
Mott Street is always fun for a late night dinner. The music and drinks are so good and you eat for like two hours. Yeah, I love it.
I love bookstores. I can spend hours at City Lit reading all of the staff picks. Women and Children First in Andersonville is awesome. Just tried Lost Larson, it was delicious.