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Sitdown with Success: Straight to Ale’s Bruce Weddendorf

(Sitdown with Success is a regular feature of the Huntsville Business Journal on entrepreneurs and their keys to success. This month’s subject is Bruce Weddendorf who helped revolutionize the craft-brewing industry in Huntsville and the state.)

Just four short weeks before COVID- 19 became everyone’s daily reality, Huntsville City Mayor Tommy Battle proclaimed Feb. 14 as Straight to Ale Day.

Bruce Weddendorf stands in the Straight to Ale stockroom, a converted gym at the former Stone Middle School. (Photo/Steve Babin)

The Valentine’s Day proclamation came on the heels of a recent accolade from RateBeer, naming the Huntsville brewery the “2019 Best Brewer in Alabama.” And what an honor it was: Five times in six years, Straight to Ale has earned the title.

Going far beyond its local and state popularity, Straight to Ale has become a nationally recognized product, as well as a hang out. The taproom is a prime destination location for out-of-town visitors.

It’s that kind of comfy place where old friends gather over a pint, business folk network and new connections are forged.

Getting its start in 2009, Straight to Ale has come a long way from its humble beginnings in the small, 500-square-foot production facility at Lincoln Mill.

In spring 2011, Straight To Ale took up residence in the former Olde Towne Brewery on Leeman Ferry Road. Still operating as a production venture, the passing of the Brewery Modernization Act in fall 2011 that included taprooms, was a business model game-changer.

Once the taproom was added, operations expanded to host a wide assortment of special events. Every night was a party of some sort and, by 2014, Straight to Ale was bursting at the seams.

School’s out forever! By summer 2016, Straight to Ale became the anchor tenant at Campus No. 805, formerly  Stone Middle School, which was a part of the West Huntsville redevelopment initiative.

In its spacious, 45,000-square-foot facility, Straight to Ale has plenty to offer. There’s the taproom with more than 20 taps of Straight To Ale brews. The beer names are uniquely memorable, such as “Monkeynaut,” and “Unobtainium.” STA Operations Manager Matt Broadhurst creates the quirky label art that’s poster worthy and unforgettable.

Having a reception, business meeting or a party? There are five special event rental spaces. There’s also a small retail shop that sells STA merchandise.

For dining, there’s Ale’s Kitchen, serving up items from a variety of cultures, all made from scratch.

Bruce Weddendorf, his wife Jo, and business partners Dan Perry and Colin Austin were the trailblazers on this first wave of local craft beer; frontrunners with the taproom concept.

The idea behind Straight to Ale was to make Huntsville more fun! “We wanted to provide a product that was uniquely Huntsville,” said Weddendorf. “To get people -all kinds of people- together over beer.”

Before 2009, there wasn’t a craft beer segment to the beer market. Free the Hops paved the way by helping to pass the Gourmet Beer Bill. That was the first industry game-changer. When they helped to pass the taproom laws two years later, it completely changed Straight to Ale’s business model.

“The thing is, we really didn’t know what it would do, we didn’t understand at the time how big a part of our lives it was going to become because we were still very much a manufacturing business,” said Weddendorf. “It (the taproom) made it so much better, so much easier to reach customers and to make bonds with those customers.”

Since 2011, Alabama has gone from seven craft breweries to 45 in 2019. The passing of the Gourmet Beer Bill and Taproom law had the one-two punch effect of creating a new industry and adapting the brewery business model from strictly production to a business that encompassed hospitality and retail, too.

Straight to Ale’s Bruce Weddendorf is climbing the ladder to success in the craft beer industry. (Photo/Steve Babin)

“We grew from being just manufacturing-oriented to becoming part of the hospitality industry,” said Weddendorf. “That wasn’t something we planned, but it’s been tremendously beneficial to our business and beneficial to Huntsville.”

There remains to be challenges; but challenges are something that Weddendorf sees as something to go over, go under, go around, or break the walls down. Until the recent pandemic, home alcohol delivery wasn’t an issue nor was it on the radar.

“It was something that we hadn’t noticed until COVID-19,” said Weddendorf.

Despite the current business climate and the obstacles associated with COVID 19, Straight to Ale recently completed a merger with the Tuscaloosa-based Druid City Brewing. The idea was to help Druid City bring their great beers statewide to and to expand their fun, yet tiny taproom and brewery.

And it’s been a win-win.

“This has been a great relationship and it benefited everyone,” said Weddendorf. “We are very glad that we were fortunate enough to be able to make this deal.”

Straight to Ale provides the place and the experience where people can come to relax.

“It’s all kinds of people and everyone has the beer in common; the beer and the desire to be with other people,” said Weddendorf. “It’s amazing to touch the friendships, the business relationships, and all kinds of important connections and networking that come out of this place. And that is very satisfying to see; that type of success where we’re really influencing a lot of people’s lives, we’re making their lives better.

“We’re giving them somewhere to connect with other people and it’s beneficial to the community, so I’m really proud of that.”

 

Local Small Businesses Take COVID-19 Hit, Vow Flexibility

MADISON — Some small businesses aren’t going to make it, but those who do are vowing to hunker down and do what it takes to survive.

That was the overall sentiment coming from small business owners, state and local government officials, and members of the Tennessee Valley Republican Club as they gathered Saturday morning at Earth and Stone Wood Fired Pizza in Madison.

Sharing coffee, donuts, music and fist bumps instead of handshakes, the meeting was a mixture of rallying cry behind small business, common reassurances, the medical perspective, politics, a sharing of best practices, and a call to find flexible alternatives and solutions that will get each other through the days ahead in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.

There was one common theme however – COVID-19 may stymie growth and delay the opening of new stores and restaurants, but local businesses are used to delays … the weather and labor shortages have held up roadwork, traffic and construction all over the county for the past 10 years.

And if fits and starts and problems and delays – as frustrating as they may be – dispirited the Rocket City, then Watercress Capital of the World would still be Huntsville’s claim to fame!

Stan Stinson of Earth and Stone Wood Fired Pizza in Huntsville and Madison; and Dan Perry of Straight to Ale are experiencing new meanings to the idea that entrepreneurs are willing to take risks – even those that are unforeseeable.

And Perry is no stranger to hard fights.

The engineer started his Straight to Ale Brewery in 2009 after the “Free the Hops” grassroots nonprofit organization succeeded in increasing the alcohol by volume (ABV) limit in beer from 6 percent to 13.9 percent. That, in itself, took an “act of Congress”, but the disruption caused by COVID-19 offers new challenges to his expanded 55,000 square-foot facility at Campus 805.

Stinson said there will be some businesses that do not survive it, but he does not intend to be one of them. That doesn’t mean however, he won’t take a hit.

He rushed to get his new Self Serve Drinkery open in time for the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade in downtown Huntsville. However, the annual celebration was, itself, a casualty of COVID-19.

“I estimate I lost $7,000 in business at the downtown location of Earth and Stone (last) Saturday when the parade shut down,” he said. “And probably at least $2,000 at the Self Serve Drinkery. But who really knows, it being our first day open.

“To give you some perspective, Earth and Stone Wood Fired Pizza opens on parade day at 8 a.m. because people begin celebrating that early, and we are usually packed. At noon this Saturday, we had our first two customers.”

Stinson was also looking to open two additional restaurants this month: the Bark & Barrel BBQ on County Line Road in Madison and a new eatery at the Stovehouse.

“We will be meeting this week to discuss the way forward,” he said.

‘Tis Time for the Wearin’ o’ the Green and the Spendin’ of It …

If all you know about St. Patrick’s Day is shamrocks, leprechauns, and Lucky Charms breakfast cereal, you might be surprised to learn there is an economic message wrapped up in all that ádh mór coming your way March 17.

This year, the 42nd annual Ellen McAnelly Memorial St. Patrick’s Day Parade will draw 1,500 participants and more than 40,000 onlookers along the downtown Huntsville route, bringing a lot of “green” to merchants in its path!

May your pockets be heavy, and your heart be light, may good luck pursue you each morning and night – Irish Proverb

Luck is an integral part of life and prosperity in the Irish tradition but the phrase “Luck of the Irish” is an American expression and not an Irish one.

According to Edward T. O’Donnell, an author and professor of history at Holy Cross College, the phrase took hold during the California Gold Rush in the second half of the 19th century when many of the most successful and famous gold and silver miners were of Irish and American Irish descent.

There is little doubt that at least a little bit of luck has been involved in growing St. Patrick’s Day celebrations and Huntsville’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade into one of the city’s most popular holiday celebrations over the years.

Ellen McAnelly moved to Huntsville in 1977 from Galway, Ireland. Wanting to introduce authentic Irish tradition, culture, food, and hospitality to North Alabama, she opened Huntsville’s first Irish restaurant – Finnegan’s Pub – at 3310 South Memorial Parkway and the following year, she started what was known for many years as the Huntsville St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The short route followed a southerly path along the west side frontage road of Memorial Parkway, ending at Finnegan’s.

McAnelly died in 2009 and, shortly thereafter, the parade moved to downtown where it was renamed in her honor.

“The Huntsville community really lost a landmark when Finnegan’s closed in 2013,” said Anya Douglas, president of the Irish Society of North Alabama and the parade director. “A lot of people met their spouses there, accepted marriage proposals, and conceived children after a night of fun at Finnegan’s.

“The original patrons recall many special occasions and events occurring at the original Finnegan’s Pub.”

May the road rise up to meet you; may the wind be always at your back Irish Blessing

“That first year, there were 18 people in the parade and almost no audience,” said Sonnie Hereford, one of the first and only remaining parade coordinators from 1978. “There are only 17 people in the picture taken for the newspaper that day because one of the participants had skipped work and he was afraid if he showed up in a picture in the paper, he would get fired!

 “The funny thing about the history of the parade is that it grew in popularity and size almost exclusively because it had been mocked as the smallest St. Patrick’s Day Parade ever.”

The parade took another big hit just days before the 1997 event when then-Huntsville Mayor Loretta Spencer denied the group a permit because of a series of fender benders in 1996 allegedly caused by drivers on the Parkway gazing down on the parade marching along the frontage road.

At the last minute, they received an invitation to move the parade to downtown Madison where it had its largest participation and audience yet. For that one year, it was called the Madison County St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

Everybody’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day Anonymous Irish Saying

“The parade is community inclusive even if you are not Irish,” said Douglas. “It is free to participate and free to attend but it brings a tremendous amount of business to the downtown area including shopping, dining, and entertainment.”

The most anticipated parade event is the Blessing of the Flags at St. Mary of the Visitation Catholic Church on Jefferson Street. 

“When Father Bill (William M. Kelly, S.D.S.) performs the blessing ceremony over the Irish and American flags, it really has special meaning for the American Irish community and leaves everyone, Irish or not, with a ‘Wow’ feeling,” said Douglas.

Another popular attraction at the parade is the Father Trecy Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians’ float.

Father Jeremiah F. Trecy moved to Huntsville in 1860 because of health problems and established a parish here. The church was built of native stone from Monte Sano Mountain, but construction was halted during the Civil War while the Hibernians prepared hospital facilities and tended to the wounded on both sides of the conflict.

‘Tis better to spend money like there’s no tomorrow than to spend tonight like there’s no money!Anonymous

Since it isn’t St. Patrick’s Day without some libation and food, many pubs and shops along the parade route will be offering St. Patrick’s Day specials.

The parade’s main sponsor Straight to Ale, Keegan’s Public House (who bought Finnegan’s and moved it downtown), and the Jefferson Street Pub are all opening at 6 a.m. serving an authentic Kegs & Eggs Irish Breakfast prior to the parade, which starts at 11:30. Green Bluff’s Brewery, Pints & Pixels, and The Marini Bar & Bistro will offer all-day live Irish music and $1 green beer along the parade route.

While you’re there, be sure and lift a glass in a famous Irish toast: Here’s to a long life and a merry one. A quick death and an easy one. A pretty girl and an honest one. A cold pint and another one!