The economics of running a brewery–any small business, really–during the pandemic are familiar to most of us by now. True Respite faced rising costs, supply chain issues, customers understandably going out less, and changing consumer preferences–in particular a shift in demand from 4-packs of 16 ounce cans to 6-packs of 12 ounce cans, a move previously mentioned with the Bright Spot brand. These issues necessitated cuts. “We’ve never cut the pay of our staff or laid anyone off,” True Respite’s co-founder and co-owner Brendan O’Leary tells us. “We’ve always, Bailey and I, personally taken the salary hit.” Brendan and Bailey O’Leary still own True Respite, but now they’re doing it from afar, having removed themselves from the day-to-day operations of the Rockville brewery. With some rumors percolating, we chatted with them via a phone call.
We’ve seen at least one article posit that the brewery is for sale, with an asking price of $1.5 million. However, what’s for sale is the physical space in Rockville, not the intellectual property of the True Respite brand. So yes, they’re kicking the tires, they’re listening. They also might have another location lined up if they sell the Rockville assets.
With higher profit margins in retail as opposed to distribution, the O’Learys have entertained at least one offer to move True Respite to Bethesda, where there would be more foot traffic and thus the potential for more on-premise sales. It’s the same Bethesda location offered to Black Viking last year. Here’s how we got here.
The pair simply couldn’t take any further personal salary cuts, so they removed themselves from True Respite’s books and are back to day jobs… in Colorado. Both O’Learys are engineers by trade and lived there prior to opening the brewery. “We started looking for engineering jobs in Maryland and the District,” says Bailey, but nothing palatable materialized, so she put the word out with her previous colleagues in Denver and quickly received multiple offers.
The O’Learys make it clear that this wasn’t an easy decision, and they’re still involved with True Respite, running payroll, overseeing label artwork, and more, while fellow co-owner Steven Moore handles the day-to-day as Chief of Operations onsite in Rockville, moving into a more visible position. “It’s been hard,” says Bailey; the O’Learys had to uproot their family on short notice and Moore had to transition to a more public-facing role. “True Respite has been our baby, I’ve been doing it full time every day since 2016 up until now,” adds Brendan.
“The situation at True Respite is indicative of a broader trend in the industry,” notes beverage attorney and former DC Beer writer Greg Parnas. “More than half of all breweries currently in operation started in just the past seven or eight years. Their business plans did not, could not, take into account the present high inflation and corresponding high interest rates, let alone the pandemic.” Even Small Business Administration loans can have variable interest rates, so monthly payments may have increased along with rising costs of brewery inputs. “The O’Leary’s situation is not unique,” says Parnas. “You’re going to see a lot more brewery and business owners facing the choice between closing or going personally broke.”
In short, the pair continue to manage some aspects of the brewery after hours from Colorado, and the physical brewery space is listed for sale. “The assets are for sale; the intellectual property, the True Respite brand and name are not for sale,” both say, though if a perfect offer were made, they’d consider it, as would most business owners. They also note that they’ve “laid themselves off, we’re working for free” from a distance to help keep True Respite, and their staff, afloat.
In actual beer news, Brendan and I share an affinity for the same True Respite beer, Bobcat, a Czech-style dark lager, which will return this fall. Look for it in cans and on tap in both Maryland and the District. Our own Brandy Nicole Holder recommends Scrum and Hook, their brown ale, available now.