How This Brewery Is Putting People Over Profits
“We don't want to feel like an insular community.”
For Hopewell Brewing co-founder Samantha Lee, starting a business wasn’t just about making money. The Chicago native spent years in the nonprofit sector before pivoting to beer and her passion for giving back remains at the core of her new sudsy enterprise. Along with her husband Stephen Bossu and their mutual friend Jonathan Fritz, Lee has worked to transform their breezy Logan Square outpost into an inviting neighborhood hub buzzing with families, dogs, and beer lovers of all backgrounds. Lee explains how the brewery has maintained that sense of warmth and togetherness during the statewide mandated shutdown -- through activism, creative connection, and, of course, brewing damn good beer. Below, Lee's thoughts on the future of her business.
We're all from Chicago and met in college at U of I in Champaign. Before starting Hopewell, my husband and I lived in New York for about three years and, before that, Portland. I've always worked at nonprofits. Portland was sort of the perfect place for us when we were young because a lot of nonprofit work was being done there and for Stephen, beer is an essential part of the economy. Most recently, I worked at the Open Society Foundation.
At the same time, we had this drive to embark on our own adventure. Hopewell, as an idea, was something we talked about for eight years leading up to opening. There's a point where you start to think, "Well, what's the difference between a dream and a plan and how do you actually bring it into fruition?” We definitely had a sense of optimism, that's something a lot of small business owners have, and we didn't have much to lose. I was in my mid-20s at that point. We didn't own anything. We moved from New York in June 2015 and opened Hopewell in February 2016.
There was no question that we would do it in Chicago. Our families are here, so that helps a lot -- our moms are really excited to have us back -- and just the support network. We've got a 20-barrel brewhouse and we just brought in some new fermenters. It's not too small at all. Coming into it relatively young, we didn't meet a ton of people our age starting a brewery in Chicago. For a lot of folks, it's a second phase of their careers.
The goal was to create something that felt welcoming. We hope people who dig deep into craft beer love our beer, but we also hope that the way we present ourselves brings more people in, including women, folks of color, and gender non-conforming folks. We don't want to feel like an insular community. Design goes a long way in that. The way that you design space can be really impactful in how people experience your beer, so having a light airy space and non-gendered bathrooms, simple things like that are actually very meaningful.
This is my first time working with mostly men, so that was a culture change. Professionally, I came up with a language of social justice and the framework of equality. Not that the craft beer industry is the antithesis of that, there’s just a different language and different expectation. It’s gotten better, I’d say, but it's still not super-diverse. It'd be great to see more people of color and women -- that would be an ideal scenario in any industry.
That's been one of the things we've tried to incorporate into Hopewell. We were confident in our ability to make beer but that alone doesn't make a business, so pretty early on we knew that we wanted to have a vision, a voice that says who we are in terms of employment practices. We quickly added folks to our team. Because we're not a huge company, we can't pay people what we would love to pay them, but we try to make sure that we can at least provide the foundation for a good life, a good workspace, and compassion.
In our industry, there’s the issue of tipped minimum wage. The assumption is that folks will make enough via tips to reach minimum wage if the base rate is $6 or $7 bucks an hour. We don't do that. The people who work for you bring value beyond the hours they work. They bring their insights, they’re the reason we have regulars, so to pay them such a paltry wage just seems like a slap in the face. Paying far above that, I think that's part of it, but also just I think it communicates a culture of valuing a place more so than the bottom line.
Our business is very personal. People Power was an initiative started by Threes Brewing in New York, a national call to action around the 2018 elections focused on anti-voter suppression efforts. We were really excited to participate and that was our first really big national campaign. I'm on the board of a nonprofit called Healing to Action, whose mission is to end gender-based violence, and we did a recent fundraising effort where you could add a $10 to $50 donation to your cart when you're buying our beer online. These are causes that all three of us believe in. In a time where people are looking to businesses and folks with platforms to be vocal because that's how they’re making choices about who to support, we feel encouraged.
We were gearing up for our biggest summer ever. We had just done some expansion work, we had a new bank loan, and we were hoping to produce more beer. We did receive a PPP loan, thankfully in the first round, and were able to bring back hourly staff. That helps us stay alive for a couple of months. After that, it's hard to know because so much will change. I don't know what the hospitality space will look like then. Nobody does. The hardest part is trying to communicate that with the staff because they deserve to know as much as possible about what to expect.
We partnered with this place Plant Shop while they were closed to sell some plants with beer and that actually went really well. I can't believe how many plants we sold. It was nuts. I'm not sure when it's launching, but we're also working on a Logan Square stay-at-home package with other Logan Square businesses. We're all just trying to give each other a boost right now. We recently did a beer cocktail tutorial with Parson's and we'll be talking to Mott St this coming week because they've been doing meal kits and preparing meals for frontline workers.
Those relationships are key. I recognize almost all the names of people ordering on our website, so that's been really gratifying to see. They come in to pick up beer hoping to see one of our taproom staff just to wave to them. I think the optimist in me thinks that we'll make it out of this -- maybe a little bit scarred, maybe our business will look a little bit different. We're not the same as we were in our first year. We hope we're not the same in our 10th year either.
People really connect with beer. I think a lot of food and beverage is this way, but beer especially makes people feel a certain nostalgia, reminds them of something, or evokes a certain emotion. That's why there are seasonal beers -- not just because you want to drink something low-ABV in the summer, but because it has a sense of lightness, of brightness, that reminds you of hanging out on your patio or backyard. And in the winter, you want something a little heartier that evokes warmth and coziness. It's pretty special to be a part of people's lives in that way.
Lee recommends these beers from other community-minded breweries:
Crush series from Middle Brow
“Middle Brow is doing great work!” Lee says of the Logan Square cult favorite known for its creative wild ales, farm-to-bottle focus, and commitment to uplifting fellow local small businesses.
Daemen Belgian-Style Golden Ale from Lo Rez Brewing
“They're based in Pilsen and those guys are just very, very kind and thoughtful. They're people that we get along with really well and love their work.”
Finer Points of Bad Behavior series from Is/Was Brewing
“We love the work of Mike Schallau of Is/Was. He's doing really amazing wild ales with interesting ingredients and all his beers have a perspective.”
Tome Hazy Pale Ale from Half Acre Beer Company
“They're a good example of a business that's thoughtful about their growth because they could have grown really rapidly. They're a lot bigger than a lot of us, but I think they've been really considerate about how they got there.”