Photos by MissLPhotography
Every expression of entrepreneurship, whether solo-preneur, family business, or other, has its lessons. For Susan Walker, who co-owns the microbrewery Whitehorse Brewing LLC with family members and other business partners, one of those lessons is establishing clear organizational responsibilities. She and her husband, George, operate a brewery and two taprooms (one located in Berlin, PA and the other in Washington, PA). As they continue to grow their business with working partners and investors (who are sometimes the same person), they are challenged with defining distinct roles for everyone involved. After some discussions with her Entrepreneurs Forever (eforever) peers, Susan took the first few steps towards the goal of clarifying job responsibilities in 2020.
“I implemented job descriptions for all of the partners, and people generally have a clearer understanding of their roles and perform better,” says Susan.
Susan works with many different personalities, and ensuring that everyone is always carrying out these responsibilities can be a challenging process. But, Susan’s peers give her a supportive network to lean on. Susan has also received support from her facilitator, Barb Moore, who ran a trucking company with minority partners (who were also family members).
“Barb makes it pretty clear cut how it should be,” says Susan. “‘Make sure that everybody knows their job and they have the tools to do it. If it doesn’t work out, then you can revisit it. You find out what happened and what you need to do to make it work better’,” recalls Susan.
Whitehorse unofficially began in 2010 when Susan and George started homebrewing beer in their garage. From the beginning, they wanted to handcraft unpasteurized beers with natural ingredients that didn’t contain preservatives. Susan and George never filter their water either, and even named the brewery after the White Horse Mountain where they source their water. Whitehorse now uses a ten-barrel brewing system in Berlin, PA that supplies the beers for their taprooms.
In a collaborative effort, Susan’s family brainstorms creative beers that surprise and delight one’s taste buds. Over several weeks, Whitehorse then brews beers like You’re Turning Violet, Violet Blueberry Wheat Ale and MFB (Mitchell’s First Beer), a beer inspired by the citrusy profile of an orange-vanilla twist ice cream cone and brewed by Susan and George’s youngest son. Whitehorse regularly collaborates with local businesses to create original beers for special holidays, events, and fundraisers as well.
With more concrete job descriptions and roles in place, Susan and George pivoted Whitehorse Brewing while the Covid-19 pandemic devastated the food and beverage industry. The team at Whitehorse did all that they could to get their beer to customers in a timely manner (which they otherwise would have had to discard, causing a major financial loss). With an outpouring of community support, they sold growlers, bottles, and pints to go and stayed afloat.
“We didn’t know how much community support we had until everything stopped and we had to do our growler sales to go…Customers said to me, ‘We will do everything to make sure you do not close—we will be here everyday.’ And that’s very touching; it makes me think that all of this is worthwhile,” says Susan.
Susan’s peer group also helped her apply for a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan and were supportive when she and George decided to build a 20 by 30 square foot pavilion outside of their Berlin taproom. As a sounding board for different ways to pivot during the pandemic, Susan’s peer group encouraged her to move forward with trivia nights, live music performances, and other activities that the Whitehorse staff planned for the pavilion. The pavilion ended up being one of Whitehorse’s most significant business developments and solidified the taproom as a social, community space.
“After talking with my peer group, we were convinced that building the pavilion was a must,” says Susan.
Whitehorse’s partnerships with local restaurants and bars remain an important part of their business. When Susan first started approaching local businesses about featuring Whitehorse beer on their taps, her eldest son helped her create inventory and sales sheets so that they did not oversell their kegs or overextend their manufacturing capacity.
In 2020, one restaurant approached Whitehorse to brew beer for seven of their restaurant locations. While the offer was flattering, Susan’s discussions with her peers and facilitator helped her evaluate whether the offer was within Whitehorse’s scope.
“When I talked to Barb [and my peers], they said, ‘Susan, you can only do so much growth at one time.’ In order to fulfill orders, you need to know how much you can scale and how much growth you’re experiencing, which I never thought about,” says Susan.
Susan and George did not partner with this restaurant, but they continued to take other internal, organizational leaps forward. For the first time since their business officially launched in 2014, Susan and George both began taking salaries in April 2019 and January 2020, respectfully. With the PPP loan, they were able to continue to pay themselves during the pandemic.
“It felt great to finally get paid for all of our hard work. It actually makes us want to work harder,” says Susan.
And, after fine tuning their annual budget with Susan’s peer group, Susan and George feel a greater sense of accountability to generate more income through their taprooms. They are also using their budget as a guide to hire another employee as their monthly activities become more popular.
“Fine tuning the budget made us more accountable to increase our outside sales and to brew exciting beers that pull customers into the taprooms,” says Susan.
Visit Whitehorse Brewing’s Facebook and Instagram pages for the fun events happening at their taprooms, including weekly Puppy Pint Nights. Susan and George also collaborate with individuals to craft special beers for weddings.