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"So, how's business?": The toll of owning and operating in the food and drink industry

Central State and The Koelschip's Jake Koeneman shares his story


The owners of Central State and The Koelschip: Chris Bly, Josh Hambright and Jake Koeneman.
  • The owners of Central State and The Koelschip: Chris Bly, Josh Hambright and Jake Koeneman.

[Editor's Note: Jake Koeneman is one of the founders, owners and operators of Central State Brewing and The Koelschip]

Ed Rudisell (owner Siam Square and co-owner of Rook, Thunderbird and Black Market) recently shared an Inc. article titled: “The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship”. It doesn’t matter that this article was from 2013, because it rings especially true for me right now. It meant even more to me because three years ago, two months before the Inc piece was written, Ed wrote a piece on his personal blog that I need to re-read more frequently. Both articles address the mental toll that opening (and operating) a business takes on the founding team.
In the last six months, I have noticed myself becoming more despondent from people that I consider close friends. It is not intentional. In fact, it adds to the level of stress. I am honored to have the close friends that I do. I realized last week that the last time I saw my best friend in Chicago was the first time in eight months that I have seen him outside of him (and his wife) attending something beer related. I have seen my other best friend that lives in Indianapolis at most once-a-month for the last six months and that has been a struggle to schedule. I like to think they understand that this is a temporary shift in priority, but I find myself worrying if it is. I harbor a fear that I will become what I saw in my dad as I grew up. He lost his best friends (both died) in his early 30’s and I don’t know that he has ever recovered.

“So, how‘s business?”

I am finally catching my breath after two years of going all-in. At times, it feels like the time I took a deep breath at the peak of the mountain in downtown Aspen before skiing the easiest run in the entire hill. At other times, it feels like I am finally getting my breath after getting caught in the most powerful undertow I have ever experienced in the ocean. Either way, I know it will probably be one or the other tomorrow.

“So, how’s business?”

Since we closed the equipment loan and took delivery of two stainless steel tanks during Thanksgiving weekend in 2014, it has been a battle. In 1.5 years, we have managed to open two businesses in an industry fraught with potential failure. In May 2015, we were launching a new brewery while negotiating a lease and applying for permits to open a bar. I’m not sure if I love or loathe TimeHop for reminding me of that on a nearly daily basis. Depends on the memory, I suppose.

“So, how’s business?”

We have had a number of milestones through the years. With most of the early milestones in 2015 (launching Indiana, launching Kentucky, pouring at Brewer’s of Indiana Guild Summerfest, launching Chicago), there is a corresponding anxiety moment (maxing out the first credit card, maxing out a second credit card, maxing out a line of credit, getting denied for a second equipment loan). For most of 2015, my mantra was, “We always find a way.”

I was reminded:

“Well you know who, opened with $10 in the checking account and two maxed out credit cards…”

“Well shit, if they can do two, we can surely go for three!” (We love competition)

We will see what the most popular saying is at the end of 2016.

“So, how’s business?”

As [Rudisell] said in 2013, we truly did not know what we had until we hit the one year mark of having beer in public (May 4, 2016). Hell, we still don’t know what we have. We have a number of experiences that remind us that business is truly a marriage of people and if you aren’t willing to fight for what you want and talk about why it is important, the marriage is going to struggle. Another similarity is that if you let money be the central focus of the marriage, it adds significant difficulty to every discussion and decision.

“So, how’s business?”

I realized recently that I was becoming a walking set of rehearsed talking points. One liners to cope. Ways to deflect how I feel about other breweries. How I feel about people who treat service staff like they are less-than-human. How I feel about people who don’t understand the basic etiquette of existing in an establishment that other people spent months agonizing (and arguing) over the little details to try and make it an enjoyable experience only to then see a shitty review because we asked you not to put a stool in the middle of the walkway that allows us to serve you efficiently.
“I’m sorry we haven’t been in yet.”
“That’s ok. We plan to be open for at least one year.”

(I hope. Because the first three years of the lease carry a personal guarantee whether the business exists or not.)

“So, how’s business?”

So here I sit, drinking bourbon, probably 20 pounds overweight (I haven’t checked recently), afraid to check certain voicemail, writing these words with four maxed out credit cards, a maxed out line of credit, a loan against my 401(k), a pending tax debt after a withdrawal from a different IRA in the back of my mind. Wondering on a daily basis if I am prioritizing my time correctly to keep my employer happy with my output, my wife happy with our marriage, my two co-founders willing to continue to tolerate my mood swings, and two growing businesses, and my friends willing to have a conversation via text because I spend most of the day talking. I guess we will know more in another year.

“So, how’s business?”

It’s great.


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