By Grainger Editorial Staff 6/5/22
Charles St. Clair is a stickler. Everything in his business has to be spick and span for the customers—from the floors to the glassware to the bathroom. Especially the bathroom.
As one of the co-founders of a quality-focused craft brewery in Willowbrook, Illinois, he knows that his success depends on customers who want to be part of what he's doing. He talked to us about how it all started, how he met his partners, Kevin Baldus and Alex Stankus, and what it took to get the business off the ground.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
There was a wine bar in the town I lived in. I hate wine, but they had a great beer selection. I'd go after I got off the train from work. Over time, I got to know Diane, who worked there. Whenever a customer came in who was like me—not a wine drinker—she'd ask me to suggest a beer for them. It just became a thing.
Eventually, she said, "You should meet my husband, Kevin. He brews beer."
I met Kevin and we hit it off. We brewed a beer, a Belgian quad. It was phenomenal. So good, so tasty. We still serve it: St. Baldus.
We were trying to open a brewery with another partner who introduced us to Alex. He was a young hotshot brewer, a perfectionist. Good at what he does. So we brought him in. That project didn't pan out, but the three of us kept going.
We just had to find the right building—that was the longest part of the whole process. We went through so many properties. Finally, we got this property here, and it was perfect. It was exactly what we wanted.
Kevin's the handy guy. He can put anything together—electrical, plumbing, whatever. And one of his best friends is a general contractor. And his uncle owns an equipment company. You need a budget to open up a brewery, or you need friends and family. Thank goodness we had friends and family.
Alex had been home-brewing since he was, like, 18. He started buying equipment off the internet whenever he'd see it. He had a storage locker where he'd put it. He had all the equipment we needed, minus a few pieces. That was phenomenal, because all that stainless steel costs money.
Kevin and I have full-time, real-world jobs. Kevin's an administrator at a high school. I'm a network engineer for a large law firm. We were burning the candle at both ends to get this going. The first three years that we were doing this, it was me and Kevin working all the shifts. We were open Thursday through Sunday. It was tiring, to say the least.
You need to have a great partnership—to really be vibing. Each of us has our own special talents. You need to know, not just who your partners are, but what they are, and everything about them. Their families and their interests. Making sure that you really want to be with these people at the end of the day. It's like when you're married. You should be friends first and foremost.
It was a journey. There's so much involved, so much paperwork and licensing—talking to the government. You talk to your city, you talk to your county—especially to the health department. You find somebody there and bond with them. It comes down to information. Knowledge is power.
Right before we opened up, the county sent us a water reclamation bill. That was a "gotcha" for us. We were scrambling the week before we opened to find that money. And then we found out we had to put an air curtain on our roll-up door. We had to run out and get the blowers installed and inspected before we could open up. But things fell into place.
It was a great first day. Everybody was really happy. It was a blur—so many faces. You're like, "I'm a business owner. OK. Let's see where this goes."
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