Flipping The Switch At Spotlight Brewing

Podcast Episode 71 Sometimes it’s the small ideas that can have the biggest impact and this is certainly the case with this week’s guest Ric Womersley from Spotlight Brewing. Ric founded Spotlight Brewing to make great beer whilst providing genuine employment opportunities for people with additional needs. Not only is Spotlight Brewing doing this very successfully but through their products they are educating their customers about the challenges people with additional needs can face.

In this episode Ric discusses some of the practical issues around setting the brewery up and running it. He also talks about the challenges they faced as a small business finding equipment, training as well as the obvious challenge of how to fund everything they needed. Spotlight Brewing is a social enterprise and Ric also outlines why he chose that structure over other options. He also talks about what’s next for Spotlight Brewing.

Spotlight Brewing is a perfect example of taking an idea and flipping the switch to get it started. The results are already amazing. Spotlight Brewing might be small now but it’s growing fast, not only in sales and the reach of its products, but, in influencing opinions and changing perceptions of what people with additional needs can contribute to business and community.

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Podcast Transcript
DEBRA: Welcome to Episode 71 of the Journey Skills podcast. I hope you’ll agree that this podcast has always been pretty diverse in the terms of the people and organisations that I’ve spoken to. If you listened to the last episode which was about Yoocan which is a global initiative to encourage collaboration, it makes this episode even more poignant in my opinion.

I’m talking to Ric Womersley from Spotlight Brewing which is a small social enterprise in the North of England. So one extreme to the other, really. The reason I mention this is because I think it’s important to remember that no dream is too big or too small when it comes to our young people. These projects couldn’t be more different but they used to do something amazing; they provide opportunity, they provide hope, and they provide all of us with the knowledge that if we want to do something similar, we now have that example to learn from.

We all want the same thing for our young people — a positive future, and interestingly I was somewhere last week where I heard parents talked about how they weren’t sure about what next. And I think we all get to that when we get near that infamous cliff edge after full-time education finishes. So really what this podcast to in a way share a light in what’s happening out there. Because there is a lot. And every single time I interview someone, I’m amazed and inspired by what people are actually doing.

Talking to Ric was no different. What he has done was simply amazing. I call this episode Flipping The Switch, partly because it’s about Ric just deciding to get on and do something but it’s also about Spotlight trying to educate people as well. But perhaps switching the light on for them that people with additional needs are capable of so much more when given the right opportunities.

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned that I don’t actually drink beer. Yes, and if you’re wondering that’s the reason I was asked to leave Australia but it seems to me that this one of those industries with low barriers to entry and it has task that are labor intensive and to extent, there’s a sort of system– a systemised way of doing things. So I wonder if that’s one of the reasons why I fell in a lot of brewers to talk to in the podcast.

What I also like about Spotlight (another brewers I’ve spoken to), is that they all say that people are buying the product. They’re buying the beer, they’re not buying it because of who made it. And in my mind, that’s the true definition of a social enterprise. Ric and I are gonna discuss that but he also talks us through some of the practical issues around what Spotlight does and also the challenges he has faced along the way. You’ll also hear that when you listen to Ric that he’s managed to get to where many of us wanna get to– doing a job that he really loves.

DEBRA: Today I am talking to Ric Womersley from Spotlight Brewing. Welcome, Ric.

RIC: Thank you very much for having me.

DEBRA: Can you tell me first of all about yourself and then also about Spotlight Brewing?

RIC: My name is Ric. I’ve set up this social enterprise called Spotlight Brewing. I come from a background with working with people with learning disabilities. My parents set up a care home when I was about 4 or 5 years old. Ever since then I’ve been involved somehow with people with learning disabilities. Obviously, first job was working for my parents but also we’ve lived on site so I shared a home with you know these twelve people that lived with us. I’ve always been involved people with learning disabilities.

I got to the point where about I wanted to a separate project away from what my parents have done. I wanted to do something where… work is quite out in the state from where we are and there’s not that much for people with learning disabilities to do for the day in a lake farm. So, I came with a concept of trying to… a social enterprise which would pay for itself but would involve a few people with learning disabilities. I’m also quite keen on sort of meaningful activity. A lot of times, these guys and girls can end up doing activities that are bit blunt– you know sort of activities that, that said activities, I wanted to create something which are a bit more meaningful and then I thought, “Right, what can I do? I’ve got to say my life was into the beer, love home brewing. Why not set up a brewery?” And yeah, and then we ended up with Spotlight Brewing.

DEBRA: Okay, so how long has Spotlight been going?

RIC: It’s been going about a year and a half now. The idea is maybe sort of 3 years old and it took a while to get the project running. I know, I involved with the guys sort of we’d sit down and we’d create recipes, we’ve had them brew them on my home brewing equipment, sort of taste test, we’d go out and visit local bars with our bottles, see if they were interested in the beer, see if they were interested in the concept.

And that sort of process maybe took about a year, a year and a half. And then we had to build the brewery basically so we had some availability of some premises which were some old sort of farm building damages which we changed into the brewery. So, the 2 main brewers in the project, Kevin and Neil, were involved from the beginning. So they helped with brick laying, with painting, clearing out, cleaning and just turning this old farm building into a suitable premises for a brewery.

DEBRA: What would the biggest challenges then in setting it up? What would you say the biggest challenges were?

RIC: So many. The first one was finance. I was hoping to be able to get some sort of grant for doing what we’re doing but unfortunately, never managed to lay my hands on anything. I think the fact that we were working with alcohol seems to be a little bit of a hurdle for some of the organisations that can provide grants. So, finance was very hard. I ended up putting a lot of my own money into the project and also a business of my own.

It was a selection of many hurdles along the way and because I didn’t have the amount of money to finance brand new equipment which was the first plan, ended up getting hold of some secondhand equipment but that secondhand equipment had lots of problems so ended up having to get a new equipment to sort of budget together. Finally, ended up with some great brewery equipment and which is.. it is half secondhand but we’ve been able to customize it to our needs. So, in the long run, it’s turned out really well but back then, it was like “Oh no, another issue with this equipment”.

I’d say it’s challenging but it’s all part of the process was getting the two guys that are in the brewery up to a safe standard. Myself as well. I had done a few days work with different breweries, done a few coasters but didn’t have lots of experience in the brewery so the first few brews were quite intense I mean to concentrate on providing a service to the guys in the brewery making sure that they were safe, learning and enjoying their time while they were here. And also, try to create a great deal at the same time, so that was the first few brews are very tricky. But we soon sort of fell into the great. We soon fell into sort of working well together and a great routine. And as the brewery gone on with all the people learning which is what it’s all about then. The goals that we’ve got to social enterprise is to get people with learning disabilities to focus on their strengths and hopefully create somebody who’s employable in the future.

DEBRA: So, the two guys that you have working for you who had been with you from the beginning, they’re the brewers?

RIC: Yes, so we’ve got Kevin and Neil which I mentioned which they work in the brewery during the brewing. We’ve also got a chap called Matthew, he’s a very entrepreneurial guy. He’s our salesman and he sort of comes along to sort of farmers’ market and Christmas market and things like that; selling out bottled beers. Also, to look into customers and accounts that we have and sort of he work on that side of the business. We then have a chap whose got bit more severe learning disabilities but he’s a very sociable guy and he’s sort of like my assistant tradesman. He loves sitting and driving around, a perfect assistant tradesman. He’s great company but he’s also a real good laugh, so whenever we deliver, we can always have a laugh with people, have a laugh with the landlords, with customers. So, that’s everybody that we’ve got involved at the moment.

DEBRA: When you’re brewing the beer, what kind of processes do you have involved because you mentioned you’ve got your brewers so they’re obviously involved in the creation of the beer, do you automate the bottling and things like that?

RIC: Unfortunately not, no. We would absolutely love a nice bottling machine, but no, we’ve got a quite basic set up again due to costs but it does involve everyone. So we set up a nice production line with everybody with their own individual jobs on bottling day. So we’ve got one guy pre-rinsing the bottles, I run the little bottling plant that we’ve got then the full bottles go over to Neil who got say taps on the bottles, they then go to be checked for the volume of the beer in the bottle by Kevin who checks that and then put some away to dry in a box until we will spend sort of half a day bottling. I mean, it’s quite a slow process and we maybe due sort of 200-300 bottles in the morning and then we spend the afternoon after lunch labeling the bottles and dating them. It’s very hands on.
But it gets the guys involved; we’re doing tasks, learning new skills and we have a laugh as well, the music’s always on roll, we’re having a joke.

DEBRA: Your accounts, you mentioned, so you sell to pubs, go out and selling at various places, what are some of the accounts that you have and how have you got those?

RIC: Most of the customers are sort of smaller premises that focus on good quality beer. 90% of that beer goes within 30 miles of the brewery in cask and crate. So you know, the best way to go out and gain customers is go out and speak to the landlords which means taking a visit to a pub which isn’t too bad and that’s not how we’ve gained most of our core customers. Some does go out for field so during festival season, we get a lot of beer going all over the country to different festivals and then we just started a little bit of wholesale as well with beer sort of going all over the place with wholesale but yeah, most of it is in the local area.

DEBRA: I assume that when a landlord or a pub takes your beer, they’re most concerned about the actual beer rather than who made the beer.

RIC: Yeah, I mean, I try not to push too hard. I let people know what we’re about. I try and let the beer and the quality of our beer speak. I don’t want people to sort of chooses us as a charity case, if that makes sense. I’d rather a landlord buy a cask of our beer, it goes down well and then go, “Wow! Look at what they’re doing. This is amazing. The beer is good.”

So yeah, I mean, no matter what you do, you can’t tell it’s hard to sell a beer at price we’re asking but it’s good quality beer is important like a brewery our size and then I’m just hoping that social enterprise side is a little bit of a bonus for people. And also, helps educate as well. So, if you look at what we do, we’ve got a range of cold beers which are related to different learning disabilities and our goal apart from providing a meaningful activity at workplace with people with learning disabilities is to raise awareness. And so, each cold beer has that relationship that takes us session pale ale for instance it’s called One More and that’s related to people with Down Syndrome because they have one extra chromosome. On our bottles, we then got a paragraph sort of explaining some simple facts about Down Syndrome, got a little bit more information on our website. It’s just a chance for people at the end of the day to sitting down with one of our beers to be drinking it and have a little read and hope they’re learning something as well.

DEBRA: You’re a social enterprise, so when you make money, does it go back into the business? Do you pay your brewers?

RIC: The money is all gets reinvested into the business, nobody gets paid at the moment. It’s all on like a voluntary basis that’s including myself at the moment. There’s no money taken out as profit because we never got any grants or anything like that. It’s been sort of a quite organic growth that we’ve had and every penny we make then just straight back into the business to help grow it, get more equipment so we can keep up with the demands. And yeah, that’s sort of the stage our business that we’re at at the moment.

DEBRA: But I assume that long term your plan is to have more people involved and I would assume eventually pay people because it’s a social enterprise so it involves making money as well as providing you said activities but I’m assuming that you’d like to pay your brewers at some point.

RIC: Absolutely, yeah 100%! And also, our aim over the next year or two is to open up a couple of taprooms in the local area. This will help with the profit from a social enterprise but it will also provide new establishments for different people to get involved with. When we look at working with us is a certain individual, we look at their strengths and so, you know, the guys that work in the brewery and maybe not the most sociable by people but they’ve got great strengths; Kevin is fantastic at cleaning, Neil is really good at picking up practical spiels really quickly. And if we open up some taprooms, we can look at all their strengths that individuals may have to really help them play to their own strengths and involve more people. And if we can get a little more profit out of it, start paying a wage.

DEBRA: Let’s talk a little bit about what you plan for the future, so we’ve sort of covered that but can I just ask you if someone’s looking at doing something similar because you clearly taken this from sort of nothing and created something amazing, if someone else was around the country or overseas or wherever, because I know that… one of the reasons I’m talking to you is because there was an article about a number of different breweries around the world that were doing similar things to what you’re doing. But what advice would you give someone who’s in the situation when they think, “Actually I would like to do something similar for either my son or daughter or for a group of people I know” or you know, something like that. What kind of advice would you give them? Where would they start? And what are the things that you’ve learned that would help them?

RIC: Well I think, take the time to plan it out and really get it in your head how your project is going to work. If it’s for people with learning disabilities, get to know, make sure you fully know the people that you’re going to get involved in the projects because it’s very important that they’re happy in what they’re doing there and gotta figure out if everything’s gonna work together, where you look at their strengths and also prepare for their weaknesses. Maybe choose something with a little bit less health and safety issues in a brewery. That’s my take. A lot of investment has got into making the brewery as safe as possible than you know, there’s lots of processes within a brew day which really slow us down compared to another brewery because there’s sort of like there’s a dangerous section all about ethics, close off the section of the brewery whereabouts here no bringing this and that or anything like that. So yeah, think about what your project is, how appropriate is for the people that you’re wanting to help and how it can all fit together before diving straight in maybe a little bit like I did.

DEBRA: It’s interesting you’re talking about social enterprise, can I ask why you didn’t go down the charity route? Why you chose a social enterprise over a charity approach?

RIC: I did consider the charitable approach. When I was looking into it, I wanted it to be… the brewing industry at the moment is actually quite tough. There’s a lot of small breweries around, a lot of people who produce and brew brilliant products. And my concern with going to charitable route was extra red take and not be able to (with the business head on) make the charity work as a business and that was a sort of a challenge that I wanted the business to run on its own sort of two feet, if that’s making sense. I wanted to create something which isn’t asking from all over the place and I want a little business to run itself and involve the people that we work with. And that was sort of more my goals. I wanted an enterprise to solve the issue that I saw in the area.

DEBRA: Thank you very much for your time, Ric.

RIC: Pleasure. Thank you very much for taking the time to speak to us .

DEBRA: Key takeaway? If you have an idea that you think is worth starting, you should just go and do it. There are other people out there that will help you, there are other people out there like Ric that have done it before you. And no doubt would support you along the way.

Resources
Spotlight Brewing Website
Spotlight Brewing on Facebook
Spotlight Brewing on Twitter

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