Refocusing business models as other interests gain popularity amid pandemic

Published: Jul. 1, 2021 at 8:24 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - What do you say when someone asks you what there is to do in Charlotte?

Chances are, breweries are going to come up. Charlotte has nearly 50 breweries - and they just keep coming. It’s a big business here.

It’s why we were kind of confused when Unknown Brewing made an announcement last month. Founder Brad Shell said he’s leaving his brewery and his tap room behind. He was leaving the business at the end of summer.

This isn’t a case of a struggling company at all. It’s about resetting priorities - a side effect of COVID-19. 

Brad is refocusing efforts on a part of the business that is really taking off: The Unknown Ginger Ale line.

We stopped by the tap room to talk to Brad about the decision.

Jamie: A couple weeks after this announcement, has it sunk in?

Brad: No, not really. We’ve got so much work to do, and so much moving forward that we haven’t really had time to process everything. It’s a fun whirlwind of what we’re going through now.

Jamie: What was sort of the biggest thing that surprised you about the reaction you got when you made the announcement?

Brad:  I guess I didn’t know people cared. I mean, I guess, fundamentally, you know that somebody cares. The outpouring was crazy. I thought there would be some of the local fans that say, ‘Oh, you know, another brewery,’ but like, to actually see the outpouring of social media, text messages, emails, like, wow. We actually had something to do with our community. That’s awesome.

Jamie: Because you think about a business, right? It’s the books and the numbers, but it’s really relationships, isn’t it? Is that what you’ve learned here?

Brad: Yeah, I mean, without relationships, you can’t really do the books, right?

Jamie: How long did you wrestle with it before it became public?

Brad: Probably since July of last year. Probably in the midst of COVID. I was in a bad spot. I was up to 318 pounds. My blood pressure, I mean, I could literally feel my heart, every pump in my head. My five-year-old son, I’d see him at nine o’clock every night for like five minutes. That’s when I started wrestling and trying to figure out what’s best for my family, but also what’s best for my employees, my investors, and try to make sure I do the best for our community as well.

The community impact can’t be understated. The Unknown was known for offbeat fundraisers that over the last eight years raised about a $1 million.

Brad: I just believe that community comes first. But also, it’s in the culture. And when you say, what is Charlotte known for? We have to always work to cultivate our own culture as a city. And I always believed in that. So, whether it be our No Pants Bike Ride, or our World’s Shortest Marathon party, or the chili cook offs or smoke offs or charity, or all the collaborations we’ve done with local breweries and local businesses, it kind of creates that community. It creates culture. And there’s many people carrying that torch. We were just happy to be one of them.

Jamie: But why was that important for you to be involved that way?

Brad: Because the community has given so much to us. I mean, to allow us to do our passion and create beer and create these amazing events, you have to give back.

Jamie: And what’s it like to meet the people whose lives you’ve impacted that way?

Brad: I don’t know how to handle it. You see the veteran that’s literally lost his legs defending freedom. And they come to you and they’re telling me “thank you”. Dude, I didn’t do anything. We barbecued some stuff this afternoon, listened some bands and wrote a check. You gave your legs. So, just to be a part of that is so humbling, to be part of that experience.

Jamie: All those years ago when you were making that first batch of beer - if I’d have told you, ‘No, no...ginger ale is going to be where the bread is buttered’. What would you have said?

Brad: I’d have said, ‘Man, you’re smoking something crazy’. It happened by accident. I was just making it for myself to mix with whiskey at home. I made it in a keg and accidentally left the keg on tap one night. They started pouring it for customers, and they’re like ‘Man, people loved this stuff’. I’m like, that was for me. I didn’t know y’all were selling it. And all of a sudden, it’s now in thousands of stores and stuff. So total accident company.

Jamie: What’s it gonna be like to sit on this side of the bar as a customer when you come in here?

Brad: I’m not sure I’m gonna be able to do it or not. I think there’s gonna be a moment of, it’s gonna be tough to go from 1,500 miles an hour to just 50 miles an hour. But it’s going to be interesting. It’s been my whole career for almost 20 years now. So, I don’t actually know what’s gonna happen when I do that.

Jamie: I think you should be proud of yourself, though, that you’re doing it for the right reasons. I mean, are you?

Brad: I think so. I know this is the right call. It’s a hard call. I had to gut check myself to do it. You have to sit there and dig on, but you love beer...but you need to do this...but it’s my life...but my family, and so you do that. It’s the right call.

Things will be pared down toward the end of the summer. All new beer and distillery releases, events, music, and fireworks are still planned to go on until then.

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