Bootstrapping their way into profitability

Home brewing gives way to an iconic Sarnia landmark for craft brewing (and more)

In at least some respects, Nathan Colquhoun is similar to many young people who grew up in the area.

Raised in Point Edward, Colquhoun went off to Toronto to attend York University, where he earned a bachelor of religious studies.

Four years later, in 2006, he returned to Sarnia with the idea of establishing a downtown church, the Story, a “different” sort of place of worship that seems more like a place that people decide to connect and live into their faith than the sort of traditional church establishment.

And at least in part because finances were tight, and the fact that Colquhoun and a group of friends (and now partners) had the marketable skills to create an income that would allow them to build the Story without taking a salary, Storyboard Solutions, a marketing agency, was born.

With a growing client base and based in a portion of the downtown space that the church was meeting in on Sundays, Storyboard carried on its business and still does today, although from a different space just around the corner on Lochiel Street in the shadow of Bayside Centre.

But this story really begins a few years later when Colquhoun and a group of friends he’d connected with since re-establishing roots in the area, began doing some brewing at his home on College Ave., a renovated former church that has the sort of ambience that someone like Colquhoun would naturally find as having a mix of comfort and unique difference that speaks to his personality and that of the people he’s gathered around him, all with the idea of doing life a little deeper than what a traditional society might have expected.

And here’s where the business that has become Refined Fool Brewing Co. was born, although maybe at the time it was just a group of 17 friends—teachers, pastors, business owners and so forth.

One of the ironic points was that for most of his young adult life, Colquhoun didn’t drink at all, although some early visits across the Blue Water Bridge to Michigan were an introduction to the kind of “flavourful” brews that he would pick up and bring to parties back in Canada.

“People would think I was a big weirdo,” he says. But Ontario was just starting to explore what craft beers were like and with only a couple of varieties available in town, here was another point of distinction for which Colquhoun was becoming known.
The home brewing gathering really only took place two or three times in Colquhoun’s College Ave. home, but it was enough—with enough people involved—that talk began flowing around what would be—could be—a next step toward making what they were doing with one of the most basic (and oldest) productions of tasty, healthy and (at least in theory) profitable enterprises known.

And remember, at the time, around May 2014, there weren’t any craft breweries in town.

“There was a subset of that group,” Colquhoun recalls, “that got together to talk about taking it to the next level.”

So what was that next level?

Essentially we’re witnessing the birth of Refined Fool, a name that one of the friends, now partners, had put forward as a kind of homage to the area’s industrial heritage of refineries plus a bit of a “let’s not take ourselves too serious”—something that five years later has definitely become part of what Refined Fool seems to deliver (along with some tasty variations of craft beer).

Starting small would seem to be an understatement to hear Colquhoun explain things.

“We began with very tiny batches of beer,” he recalls, referring to the 1.5 barrels—150 litres—of product made in maple syrup barrels that were converted into kettles.

“The whole thing was bootstrapped,” says Colquhoun, although to be clear there was a plan.

“We had 10 of us who were willing to put $300 a month into the enterprise to make this work, so we knew we had $3,000 a month coming in that got us our space [on Davis Street] plus some random equipment. And everyone involved had to put in 20 hours of work a month as part of the plan.”

From the very beginning, it must have been clear that something bigger than even the 10 friends and their $3,000 a month was happening.

“We open the doors and sold out the first weekend,” recalls Colquhoun. “We had to make more beer and one of the things we found out was that things just weren’t big enough for the demand we were seeing.”

That “not big enough” theme would (and still does) carry Refined Fool throughout much of its now five year history.

“It’s happened every time we’ve bought equipment, where almost immediately we say to ourselves that we should have bought the bigger tanks.,” says Colquhoun. “Capacity has always been our issue, which to me is the biggest problem you can have—people buying the product and being excited about what’s going on.”

Somewhere in that growth spurt—and yes, we’re still seeing that occurring—was betting the Refined Fool brand on the shelves of what at the time was the only public spot outside of the brewery where people could buy what Colquhoun and friends were making.

“Yeah, that was pretty important,” he ack acknowledges in his soft-spoken manner. “At the same time we were putting a lot of emphasis on restaurants, delivering one batches, three kegs, that were enough to keep things moving, although he also admits that “not many” restaurants had Refined Fool during those first couple of years.

What was coming together was a sense of the market the Refined Fool brand was playing to: people who would gravitate to beers that had distinctive flavour and who were willing to pay to get a taste that went beyond the “buck a beer” philosophy made famous in a recent political campaign.

“We laughed at that because we can’t afford to hit that point—we don’t break even at even double that,” said Colquhoun.

Another piece of the Refined Fool story that continues to be told is just how community focused the business has become and will remain, whether it’s retirement parties, charity events or concerts.

“We’ve even hired an event coordinator to make this happen in our spaces.”

Yes, spaces.

In addition to Davis Street, the location just east of Christina St. where Refined Fool was born, expansion into the former furniture discounter space just west of Lambton Mall Road is a much larger—and demographically distinct—gathering spot with the production space needed to drive growth and at least make a dent in fulfilling demand.

In fact, it’s about 10 times what Davis Street offered in terms of space.

It’s also allowed Refined Fool to buy in bulk, which means better costs.

There’s also a bigger tap room and opportunities to partner with other ventures that the owners of Refined Fool have a hand in, like Burger Rebellion.

And with expansion to the Davis Street location, which started with about 1/3 of the building but quickly grew beyond that, there’s now a kitchen, staffed by the owners of March Hare, a couple of fine chefs from Wallaceburg that Refined Fool Davis Street has partnered with in delivering an upscale bar food menu.

Even now, Colquhoun, who owns something around 7 percent of the business but who is mostly the public face, has plans for expansion, although he’s not talking much about it.

“I don’t necessarily want to be the public face but it’s something that I care about and people say that it’s the one that doesn’t want to lead that is where people turn to.”

That said, Colquhoun mostly deals with “culture stuff” and the hiring and training as well as leadership development.

Plus, he puts in a lot of energy around the enterprise, as well as leadership around Storyboard Solutions, which acts as the marketing agency for the businesses, including a new one Café Mexico, which is about to move downtown from a location adjacent to the Bicycle Shop on Front Street.

Taking space formerly occupied by Republik, Café Mexico will face Front Street, with Burger Rebellion facing Christina Street in what was the Olympia Restaurant.

The origins of Burger Rebellion had much to do with filling a hole in market, as Colquhoun explains.

“We’re always looking for opportunities,” he says, referring to the “we” as being Chris Lewis and Daniel Slade, his partners at Storyboard.

“It was glaringly obvious,” said Colquhoun, referring to major cities where there’s a burger specialty place.

“But not Sarnia. Again, we very much bootstrapped it, buying a small piece of property at Front Street and Davis, a truck that didn’t run, running power to it and a bunch of work to open it.”

With a special blend of beef, Burger Rebellion opened its doors.

“Sarnia welcomed Burger Rebellion with open arms,” says Colquhoun, clearly pleased.

And while this summer, the “truck that wouldn’t run” won’t open, there’ll be a location in Corunna (now open in a location where a couple have retired), las well as the space just north of Davis Street and, of course, the kitchen at the London Road location.

What is also clear is that Colquhoun and friends aren’t done yet.

Stay tuned.

This article originally appeared in the May/June issue of Lambton Shield magazine.

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