Flood tests new owners at Craft Beer Cellar

Craft Beer Cellar staffer Isaac Colby is on the retail floor as the specialty shop rebounds from a rocky summer. Photo by Gordon Miller

by Will Thorn for the Community News Service

When you’ve just bought a new business, “flood” is not a word you want to hear — or an event you want to experience — after just one month of ownership.

That’s the position the new proprietors of the Craft Beer Cellar found themselves in when the Winooski River overflowed into downtown Waterbury during the massive Vermont flooding in July. Nate Dunbar, 37, and his wife Elizabeth, 33, bought the Elm Street alcoholic beverage market at the end of May, never expecting the deluge that would hit the store’s basement just a few weeks later, causing $20,000 to $25,000 in damage, Nate Dunbar estimated.

Those losses, though, failed to dampen the owners’ spirits.

“The joy of being a business owner is absolutely incredible. I wouldn’t change it for the world,” Dunbar said, sitting on a bench in front of his shop. “It’s incredible to be part of this Waterbury community.”

The Craft Beer Cellar is part of a small chain with 11 locations in eight states. Dunbar says that although they are members of the Craft Beer Cellar franchise, it really only functions as the shop’s namesake. “We own this business and oversee all of the operations…it is very much our own,” Dunbar wrote in an email. 

In Waterbury, the shop sits a few feet higher than the street unlike the neighboring ground-level businesses and homes that were hit harder by the flooding. The Cellar’s main floor sustained little damage as the water crept up the steps leading to the front door, stopping short of entering the main retail space. The basement, however, took on six to eight feet of water and equipment located there was damaged. Two compressors — each costing $7,500 — for the store’s coolers, the water heater and dehumidifiers stopped working and needed replacing. Potentially contaminated water and mud tainted about 500 growlers, holiday decorations and operating supplies such as printer paper, Dunbar recounted.

Despite the disruption though the store closed for only one day.

July flood water fills the space around Elm Street businesses – the Craft Beer Cellar on the right, Prohibition Pig restaurant and brewery across the street, and the commercial block with the WineVault and Red Poppy on the left. Courtesy photo

Learning lessons on the fly 

Step by step, the Craft Beer Cellar has gotten back on its feet. The coolers and dehumidifiers were up and running a week after the flood and Dunbar said he replaced the water heater last month. Several flood-recovery programs provided assistance. The business received about $4,000 from Vermont’s Business Emergency Gap Assistance Program and $2,500 from Vermont Main Street Flood Recovery in grant money, which Dunbar described as “paramount to help us get back to where we’re at today and back to operating.”

The grant covered only a fraction of his losses, he added. Like many business owners, the Dunbars have had to tap into their personal funds. Craft Beer Cellar carries no flood insurance, Dunbar said, adding that it wouldn’t have covered the cost of the July damage. 

“We didn’t get any support from our insurance providers,” Dunbar said. “We very much appreciate the grants and supports, but at the end of the day it’s on the business owners for the most part to rebuild their businesses after a natural disaster like this.”

The need to put thousands of dollars back into an enterprise only a month into ownership “isn’t the most fun,” Dunbar said. “It’s part of owning a business. It’s the risk that we take as being owners and not working for corporations ourselves.”

Doing business in a small town 

The decision not to work in a big corporate structure was a conscious one for Dunbar who hails from Southbury in southwest Connecticut and has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business, accounting and financial management. He played soccer while an undergraduate at Nova Southeastern University in Florida and went on to an assistant coaching position at the University of Hartford before joining Gramercy, the investment and hedge-fund management firm based in Greenwich, Connecticut.

After about five years at Gramercy, Dunbar moved to Vermont to join his future wife, who is from Stowe. Both love hiking, skiing and biking, he said. The couple bought the Craft Beer Cellar from previous owner Mark Drutman because the store is a staple of the Waterbury community, Dunbar said. “My wife and I turned a hobby and passion for craft beer into our livelihood.”

The same Vermont landscape that drew them also created the July floods. But the disaster stirred up something else: the small-town camaraderie that becomes all the more clear during times of need. At the Craft Beer Cellar, eight volunteers whom Dunbar had never met arrived unexpectedly to help clean out the basement soon after the water receded that mid-July week. 

“We were all covered in mud for days and all the silt from that flood water. We were just caked in it,” Dunbar recalled. Without those volunteers, Dunbar said he believes it would have taken weeks to get the job done. Besides the assistance, he got to meet and build new relationships with people he may not have met otherwise, he said. 

The disaster dealt the business a blow, but the trend since is moving in a positive direction. In July, Dunbar said the Craft Beer Cellar had a 50% decline in revenue, operating at a net loss for the month. 

Dunbar said he could have closed for longer than a day to save the costs of operation but opening quickly seemed like the right move at the time. “We wanted to stay open for the public and still be able to provide our services,” he said. “It’s our goal to support everyone with the products that we have.”

Still, the disruption from the flood in the Elm and Randall streets neighborhood was significant and having the street partially closed and bustling with cleanup activity also cut into the Craft Beer Cellar’s sales. By August, neighboring businesses began to reopen and foot traffic slowly came back so that the beverage store was able to break even, Dunbar said. 

It’s time now to let the community and visitors know they are welcome to come and support Waterbury’s “incredible” restaurants and retailers, like his store and those next door and along Main Street.

“We need to find a way to get people back into our town and a reason to come see us,” Dunbar said, adding that he carries “the best-curated beer selection in the state in my opinion. We don’t carry every beer, but we try to carry the best beer that we can get our hands on.”

Categories: Business