Waverly Brewing Company Taps Into Supportive Community and Fair Financing
Melissa Yukna’s husband was disappearing for hours late into the night. Melissa wasn’t worried though. She joked that he was having an affair, but she knew he was actually spending his time with their fellow business partners painstakingly cutting, sanding, staining, and painting reclaimed wood planks in an empty warehouse. The planks would later be installed on the walls of the taproom of the brewing company co-owned by his wife: Waverly Brewing Company.
Bringing an Idea to Life
Funky colored, handmade wood walls exemplify the vibe at Waverly Brewing Company: cozy, homey, and welcoming. “The Shed” is what co-owners Melissa and her co-founders fondly call it. Melissa says of the décor, “Almost everything was donated. This (the bar top) was a bowling alley floor. The wood on the walls was reclaimed from an old collapsed barn in Maryland farm country.” The seating area screams John Waters kitsch, with a vinyl booth salvaged from a plumbing company that no longer needed it in its breakroom, and by two taxidermized stag mounts (nicknamed “Buttercup” and “Snowball”) from a thrift shop in Hampden.
Waverly Brewing Company was first conceptualized by Roy, an experienced home brewer, and Melissa’s husband while gathering with friends in 2013. Melissa initially brushed off the idea. After all, she was raising four young children and they were all enjoying successful careers. But they started drawing in a few silent partners and angel investors, and idea really came to fruition when they mentioned it to their friends, John Marsh and Bill Stevenson. Both were smitten with the idea. The crew decided to put their business relationship to the test by co-operating an art gallery of local artists’ work in a vacant building in Hampden for a few months. The venture was successful, motivating them to seriously pursue the next steps for opening the brewery.
Joining a Tight-Knit Community
The crew found the perfect location in early 2014: a former supply storage warehouse in the Hampden neighborhood of Baltimore City. They rolled up their sleeves to build it out, doing most of the work themselves and with the help of family and friends. It took over a year to procure and install the equipment, fixtures, and bathrooms, not to mention navigating the red tape of numerous inspections and permits. But it was all worth it when Waverly Brewing Company opened its doors in November 2015, with Melissa assisting in management and Roy as Head Brewer.
The brewery was welcomed as a member of the tight-knit community. Nearby small business Artisan Glass Works gifted them a custom sign for their display cooler. Union Brewing lent them specialized tools when they needed to install their equipment. A tiny library allowed customers to contribute and take books. And Waverly Brewing joined in on the tradition of serving their beer alongside beers made by local breweries. Curious residents became loyal customers, drawn in by the low-key environment that encourages casual conversation, relaxing, and unwinding and discourages what Melissa calls “beer snobbery.”
Surviving the Covid-19 Pandemic
Business was booming until the Covid-19 pandemic hit. When the city shut down non-essential businesses due to the state of emergency, Waverly’s profits halted, and Melissa was forced to let go of her nine staff. “It was difficult to find days I didn’t wake up and say, ‘that’s it, this is over,’” she recalls. When the city eventually allowed essential restaurants to re-open, Waverly Brewing didn’t qualify because food wasn’t served. Melissa spent her days driving all over the state of Maryland delivering beer orders instead.
When the city lifted its restrictions on business operations, Waverly Brewing Company took every precaution to ensure the safety of its staff and customers before opening. Thankfully, Melissa’s diligent maintenance of Waverly Brewing Company’s financial records contributed to the small business getting approved for numerous emergency loan funds – all of which were eventually forgiven. The funds were used to purchase essential equipment and hire staff such as Darya Abbassian, the Taproom Manager, whom Melissa considers to be her right-hand woman and a silver lining to the Covid pandemic.
From Bad Debts to Fair Financing
When the brewery re-opened in August 2021, the owners recognized they needed to take their business to the next level. The craft beer industry was becoming increasingly competitive, and they needed more capital to compete. A line of credit with a traditional bank kept them afloat, but one day Melissa got a call that changed everything. The bank was calling their line of credit. Despite Waverly Brewing Company having a good relationship with their banker and never missing a payment, the bank unexpectedly turned their line of credit into a balloon loan, meaning they were required to pay off their entire debt by a specific date. To add insult to injury, a loan from a fintech lender was eating at the business’s profits. These predatory lenders entice small business owners with too-good-to-be-true offers, easy online applications, and quick approvals. However, these small business owners end up in hot water when the excessively high interest rates and demanding repayment schedules kick in. They often get trapped in continual debt cycles or end up defaulting.
Melissa started scouring the internet for a solution, which was how she came across Baltimore Community Lending. She began the process with David Freeman, BCL’s business coach, who reviewed her required documents with her. Next, she worked with Don Cutwright, one of BCL’s loan officers. Melissa appreciated Don’s honesty and came to view him as a trusted advisor. She valued BCL’s approach of making loans based on a partnership built on shared goals and consistent follow-through. In one instance, when Melissa consulted Don about a potential business opportunity, Don advised against it and explained his reasoning. Grateful for his counsel, Melissa declined the offer. The feeling was mutual for Don, who says, “Melissa was open to feedback and totally transparent. BCL’s goal was to improve the cash flow position of the business and to help Waverly Brewing Company with their plan to scale business operations. All of this was possible due to Melissa not being afraid to let us know about some of the challenges faced by their small business.”
A Positive Outlook
Waverly Brewing Company’s loan request was approved in January 2023. So far, the owners have used the funds to pay off their prior debts, repair and purchase equipment, and for payroll. The latter is particularly important to the owners, as the ability to pay fair wages and offer growth opportunities to staff has always been a core tenant of the business’s operations. They’ve also been able to procure oil cans, which they fill with their beer as well as that of local breweries, that can be purchased by customers to take home. This is an additional revenue stream for the business that they couldn’t previously access due to skyrocketing aluminum tariffs, a consequence of recent economic volatility. The owners are also excited to launch their own line of canned beers in the near future.
Melissa is optimistic about Waverly Brewing Company’s outlook. She’s proud to manage the small business in alignment with her values and is grateful to be part of the community. She also knows how hard it is being an entrepreneur, dealing with barriers and setbacks while raising a family. Some days are harder than others, but the brewery’s close staff, loyal customers, and supportive business community keep her going. Melissa hopes other small business owners can have a similar experience. Her advice? “Appreciate your community, learn from them, then focus on what you do.”
Waverly Brewing Company is located at 1625-C Union Ave., Baltimore, MD 21211.
Visit Waverly Brewing Company’s website.