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Hawaiian Hops: How This Entrepreneurial Maui Couple Brewed Success in the Craft Beer Business
Kim Lachance Shandrow | June 16, 2017

Welcome to Becoming the Boss, our series celebrating small business owners who have made the transition from solo-entrepreneur to employer. Check back periodically for new installments.

When Garrett Marrero and Melanie Oxley Marrero fell in love with each other, they had it all. High-flying, successful careers in the finance sector (he in investment consulting and she in mutual funds). They both had their own homes, hobbies and lives. But Garrett wanted more.

He daydreamed about quitting his job and moving to Hawaii to brew delicious craft beer. He’d fallen for the Land of Aloha when he first visited the tropical island oasis when he was six years old. After they’d dated for about a year and a half, Garrett asked Melanie decided to leave everything behind on the mainland, where they lived at the time in California, and to relocate to the Aloha State.

Flash forward to today and the ambitious entrepreneurial couple are the proud co-owners Maui Brewing Company (MBC), which is comprised of a 42,000-square-foot, solar-powered brewery and tasting room, two bustling brewpubs, with additional brewpubs in the works.

Garrett and Melanie initially launched their dream business in 2005 as a humble, seven-barrel brewpub in Hawaii, using their own savings and sweat-equity, and with support from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA).

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Headquartered in beautiful Kīhei, Maui, MBC is now the single largest craft beer producer in Hawaii. Though they often oversee different aspects of the company — Garrett is the chief executive officer and Melanie is the chief operating officer — they say they consider themselves a unified leadership unit, so it seems particularly fitting that, together, they were awarded the SBA’s highest honor, the 2017 national Small Business Persons of the Year award.

SBA Administrator Linda McMahon praised the couple for exponentially growing their company in a relatively short period of time when she presented the special honor in Washington, D.C. last month.

“By 2007, increasing demand led [Garrett and Melanie] to open a second location in Lahaina with a 25-barrel capacity, giving them the ability to provide brewery tours and making it a tourist destination as well,” McMahon said. “By 2013, they were producing more than 19,000 barrels of beer a year, boosting revenues to more than $10 million. They have since expanded with a new 18,000 square-foot restaurant that opened in Oahu last year, and new brewpubs and eateries are scheduled to open later this year. By the end of 2018, Maui Brewing Company will employ a workforce of 700. [They] have shown impressive growth, expanding in size, sales and scope of their business.”

We chatted with Garrett and Melanie recently to ask them about their shared love for entrepreneurship, Hawaii and craft beer, as well as about how they brewed such outstanding business success in just a few short years. Here’s what we found out:

What inspired you to start a craft beer brewing company in Hawaii (apart from the fact that it’s basically paradise)?

Garrett: “Since I was a kid and came here, I’ve always thought, ‘I love this place so much, how can I move there NOW?!’ Then, as an adult, I watched the local craft beer scene develop and really take off where I lived in San Francisco, California. I found out on my trips back to Hawaii that there was no authentic local Hawaiian craft beer here. That’s when I saw an opportunity to create that and, at the same time, create a business I could be passionate about and fulfill my dream of moving to Maui. Then I talked my then-girlfriend, Melanie, into moving there, too.”

Melanie: “I was living in the Sacramento of California at the time, and we’d met there briefly and enjoyed a quick hand-shake. But then Garrett and I met again at a wedding in Maui in August 2003, and we started dating when we returned to California. About a year and a half after our first date, we moved out to Maui together.”

Garrett: “In California, we both worked in the financial sector and we both loved what we did. Six or nine months into dating, I told Melanie what I really wanted to do, and she called me from work one day and was like, ‘Yeah, I’d rather kick these office walls down and work with you in Maui,’ and from that moment on we went for it and never looked back. Now we’re dealing with pints instead of dollars. At the end of the day, we just make beer together in Hawaii and we love it.”

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How did the Small Business Administration help you get your business off the ground?

Garrett: “Like any business owner in America, we started out without the finances, the experience and the credit ratings. We didn’t necessarily have what it takes to qualify for certain types of assistance right out of the gate. Eventually, the SBA came in to support a bank’s approval.

At first, though, the banks wouldn’t finance us to go into the food and beverage industry. The banks would not lend us any money, so Melanie and I had to scrape together what we could, sell everything we owned and live on the floor of a cruddy condo because we could not afford a mattress. We had to do whatever it takes to get the business off the ground.

Then, about eight years in, we started to hit a stride where the banks were willing to lend us the money we needed to grow, and that’s when the SBA helped us facilitate the purchase of land and the building for our new beer production facility through a rather large loan. Without the SBA, would not have been able to be approved for such a loan, that’s for sure.

It’s an honor for Melanie and I both to be recognized by the SBA at the state and national level. There aren’t words to describe the emotion upon finding out about the award … it was almost overwhelming, I would say. I feel this honor is really for our team. Without them, I don’t know where we’d be. It takes almost 400 people doing their jobs and doing them well to make the Maui Brewing Company what is today and it’s definitely a really epic feeling.”

How have you grown since launching and what is your approach to scaling?

Garrett: “We have three locations now. We have original brewpub and restaurant where we started out of in 2005. Then in 2007, we opened a production facility, which we later sold to help start up a new brewpub and now we have two brewpubs on Maui. Our headquarters is our main production facility and that’s where we brew 100 percent of our beer and where we have a tasting room. We’re adding a restaurant location to our main headquarters as well. Additionally, we opened another brewpub in February of this year, so we’re definitely growing fast. Then we have another brewpub coming on board, so, soon, we’ll have several locations in Hawaii.”

Melanie: “I think we definitely had more success than we almost ever thought possible. But, now that I think of it — because of how hard we worked and the choices that we’ve made together, and the many hats we’ve worn and the sacrifices we’ve made with our downtime — we were determined not to fail by any means. But, how we’ve pushed forward, sell our beer in different countries now, and how we’re becoming more independent when it comes to energy and how we literally power our plants, those are all surprises in different ways to me. I would not have been able to look ahead when we first started out and realized that, wow, this is where we are going to be in 10 years.”

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Garrett: “Our beer is now available in 22 U.S. states and 13 countries, but our goal was never to the biggest brewer in Hawaii. We simply wanted to created authentic Hawaiian craft beer and that meant brewing in Hawaii, brewing unique-to-this-area styles of beer and using local ingredients as much as possible, all the things that go hand-in-hand with craft beer. Innovation, a sense of place and quality. It’s because we’ve stuck to that mission since Day One, and because of our team and their hard work, too, that we’re growing at the rate we are today.”

How many employees did you start out with on Day One and how many do you have now?

Melanie: “Once we grew beyond just the two of us, I think we started with 32 or 34 employees. Today, we have around 370 to 380. In 2005, we purchased an existing brewpub that was just emerging from bankruptcy, a restaurant that was brewing on site in seven barrels. We purchased the assets, not the company itself, and it already had a service staff, including a brewmaster on the payroll. So we inherited all of that and, from that, we started Maui Brewing Company. That was our gateway into the craft beer world. A year and a half after that, we started construction on a beer production facility. Two years after we brought the brewpub assets, we were producing and canning our own beer and we had our second location.”

When did you know it was time to hire your first employee(s)?

Garrett: “We grew really organically. We had to run really lean because we didn’t have any money. We were heavily understaffed for quite a while. Melanie and I worked every job in the company and were two ships passing in the night. We hardly ever saw each other, so it certainly impacted our relationship for a few years.

We hired our first help when we came to a breaking point where we just couldn’t take it anymore. Then we decided to grow out of necessity, like, absolute need, right, babe?”

Melanie: “Agreed, Garrett. When we saw our company growing, when our sales were growing, and we had more customers coming through the door, we realized that we couldn’t wear as many hats as we were in order to get the job done and done well, and stay on top of things. It’s only been in the last two years that we’ve expanded to hiring upper level management. We hired a CFO and we hired a marketing manager. We also brought on brewery and restaurant management when I saw that I wasn’t going to be the general manager at the restaurant any more. We never stop looking at our staffing and tweaking it depending on our needs. It’s never a done deal, so to speak. It’s an evolution that grows with us over time.”

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What does “becoming the boss” mean to you?

Garrett: “I think that it means that you have to lead. It also means that you need to trust your team to a point where you’re able to trust that they’re going to do a good job — and oftentimes even better than you can in some respects. Listening and leading are the top two skills that resonate with me when I think of the word ‘boss.’”

Melanie: “I think now we’ve gotten to a point where we know a little to a medium part of every aspect of our business, yet, as ‘bosses,’ we are good at guiding the experts who sometimes know more than we do about the day-to-day goings on at this point. Luckily, we’ve gotten to that phase we are dealing with people who know more about their one position or job in our company than we know, even though we still have a great overview — this umbrella look — of our entire business that no one else has. We still drive what our company is and what are goals are moving forward.”

What does it mean to you to create jobs, not only for yourselves through your entrepreneurial dream, but for others, too?

Garrett: “It’s a pretty cool feeling to me to not only create jobs, but to create jobs that are in manufacturing at a small, independent American craft brewer. We’re a main street business that creates jobs that are well-paying and that carry health benefits. Our company is very invested in the community as well. We’re not just creating a job for someone, we’re creating a quality job in manufacturing specifically, which is an area that we’re losing in America, and we’re trying to bring that back so we can make great things here. Then again, I have to balance all of that with the worst part of creating jobs, which is occasionally having to let someone go.”

What’s your best advice for running a business with your spouse?

Garrett: “It’s not easy. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone [laughs heartily]!”

Melanie: “I think we can both agree that it will never every day be peaceful either. When you go into starting a business with someone, you are not always going to have the same opinions on how to do things. And, when that person is your significant other, it’s hard to also leave that at the office and not have those discussions at home. If you don’t create clear boundaries from the start, your business life can bleed into your personal life. That’s probably one of the most challenging things, but you really need to leave your business conversations that you have at the office together and not bring them home with you. It’s hard to hold back when business is on your mind and your spouse, your business partner, is sitting right there next to you on the couch, but you have to resist the urge and keep those worlds separate. That’s the time to work on your relationship, not your business.”

Garrett: “I would add to what Melanie said that maintaining boundaries between your business and relationship is key, or you may not come out on the other side in one piece. So, it is challenging, but it is important to make that separation a big goal and to maintain it. It’s also important to realize that you will be sacrificing a lot together to make your business succeed, and you have to agree on what you’re willing to give up and to recognize together that there are some personal-life things that you might want they you might not get because of life as busy entrepreneurs.”

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What’s next for Maui Brewing Company?

Garrett: “We’re doubling-down on our sustainability initiatives. Melanie is working on a huge solar-power project, where we’re putting in a ton of solar and other renewable energy equipment. Our goal is to have grid independence. Our Kīhei location produces its own energy. We feel it’s not only the right thing to do financially, but also the right thing to do for the environment. We do believe there is global warming and climate change and we do need to do our part to manufacture environmentally responsibly. At the same time, it also works out to be a very fiscally responsible to do undertake sustainability goals because, in the next couple of years, we will be in control of our energy future.

Beyond that, we’re opening our third and fourth restaurants over the next year and a half. We’ll also continue to grow the brewery and diversify from craft beer to distilling. We can also make whiskey, bourbon and gin, etc., and other cool liqueurs with the distinct flavors of the local agriculture. We’re also working on a natural soda line, with an eventual goal of combining the sodas with our distilled spirits program into craft canned cocktails. Ultimately, we’re becoming more of a craft beverage company and we’ll integrate that into our retail side, which is the restaurant side.”