Down at Mile Marker 81½ in Islamorada, Florida Keys Brewing Company is quite the gathering spot, with dozens of hand-crafted beers, Cornhole contests and live music on tap at its colorful tasting room and beer garden. The craft microbrewery serves up a unique Keys-y vibe, where you can hoist a cold one with Purr Monster the brewery cat, Jack the parrot, and local characters of the human kind.
Craig and Cheryl McBay opened Florida Keys Brewing Company in 2015, as craft breweries were gaining in popularity nationally but were not yet in the Upper Keys. About three years ago, the couple expanded FKBC to a nearby location at 81611 Old Highway in Islamorada and added the beer garden; the original location is now the main production facility. With names like Run Aground Brown (Cheryl’s favorite), Smuggler’s Moon oatmeal stout, Spearfish Amber and Grapefruit to be Alive IPA, it might be hard to choose your libation, but Iguana Bait is the best seller. In case you don’t know, Iguanas love hibiscus flowers and this beer is made with hibiscus and honey.
The McBays never imagined that shortly after celebrating the brewery’s five-year birthday they would be entrenched in the fight of their lives against a horrific global pandemic. But they have been making all the right moves to set up their business to not just survive COVID-19’s economic pounding, but to grow again.
THE EARLY DAYS
Owning a brewery wasn’t always part of Craig’s plan, although he was a home brewing aficionado (he prefers his beer hoppy and on the darker side). It took Cheryl’s convincing to take the entrepreneurial leap.
“She’s the one who has far-reaching ideas, and I’m the one who is more reserved and cautious,” he said. “She pulls me forward, I pull her back, and where we meet in the middle on things I think we’re able to find our success.”
The couple offers a one-two combo that works, Craig says, with his wife, a Keys native, being the visionary, creative one. The annual tie-dying party for hundreds, iguana races, the artistic and colorful merchandise selections, and the voluptuous blue-haired mermaid tap handles – that’s all Cheryl.
More than 300 brewers in Florida employ around 10,000, according to the Brewers Association. What makes FKBC stand out from the pack? “I think we have a really great brand, a great vibe, and I think our beers are awesome,” said Craig, who was born and raised in Canada. “But I really think it’s the company we are. It’s about what we are about and what we believe in. We back a lot of different non-profits for ocean conservation.”
Even their Publix grocery store displays are made from recycled lobster traps and discarded netting they found during mangrove cleanups.
FUNDING WAS A HUGE CHALLENGE
Although a passion for beer-making and Keys hospitality runs through their veins, it hasn’t been easy for the McBays. Starting a brewery is a capital intensive business with some of the equipment costing as much as $250 grand. As a startup brewery, getting financing was tough in the early years. And of course owning a business means having to learn about management, strategy, finance, hiring, firing – and navigating disasters like hurricanes and today’s pandemic.
“You’re also your own property manager and of course worried about sales and bookkeeping and, so I always call it the ‘all the everything elses’ you don’t realize that you’re going to have to do,” said Craig, who is also the Head Brewer. Fortunately, the brewery community is supportive of one another, and before opening Craig even spent time at one of them to learn the ropes.
The brewery benefits from the services of Florida SBDC at FIU, the small business development center that offers no-cost business consulting to small businesses in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. Margie Smith and the team of certified business consultants at SBDC at FIU have helped the brewery with various aspects of running the business, obtaining financing, and are a sounding board for issues that arise.
SBDC AT FIU’S HELP IS ALWAYS ON TAP
SBDC’s help started a couple of years ago when Smith recommended Craig participate in an Emerging Leaders program in Miami-Dade. The program gave Craig a grounding in all the parts of growing a business as well as the opportunity to learn from other small business owners in the program.
Earlier this year, the McBays and Smith began work on disaster planning – and then came a real-time disaster: COVID-19. SBDC at FIU’s team helped the brewery apply for and receive a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, a Florida Emergency Bridge Loan and an EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster Loan) as the pandemic began serving up severe economic distress to the state.
The financial relief allowed FKBC to keep its staff of 15 employed when everything that could go wrong did – or at least it seemed that way.
The Florida Keys closed to tourists in late March – typically the busiest time of the year and tourists are a large part of the brewery’s business. During that period – 2 1/2 long, long months – FKBC kept employees working on painting and fix-ups on the properties. In early June, the Keys reopened to tourists and FKBC’s brewery is also now open. But sales have not recovered, and with so many coronavirus unknowns still out there, the McBays have been cautious with expenses.
GROWTH STRATEGY IN PLACE
“My wife and I both are in the firm believers of making the best out of the situation. No matter how much it’s hurting, something good is going to come out of it. I think a lot of us spent more time with our families – I know we did – so that’s good.” The McBays are parents of 6-year-old twins.
The brewery currently sells its beer in South Florida, primarily the Keys, but also in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and a few points north. FKBC aims to start distributing its colorful cans statewide by early next year.
The company already has a distributor lined up for its larger service area, has started production up again, and has more warehouse space coming online in January.
“I am still looking for growth no matter how hard things have been. We have to keep growing and we do have big growth plans in the next six months,“ said Craig.
The McBays also look forward to bringing back all the special events the brewery is known for, once it is safe to do so.
“Down here, people love hanging out in the beer garden — it’s got a great vibe. We’re really proud of what we’ve done here.” Cheers to that.
Photo courtesy of Florida Keys Brewing Company