How the 'small business owners of the year' turned a Maui brewpub into Hawaii's biggest craft beer brewery
In 2004, Melanie Oxley was sitting at her cubicle watching a crew paint the walls of her office in Sacramento. She thought how much more she would rather be holding a paint roller and helping out than continuing to sit in front of her computer at her finance job.
After work, Oxley told her boyfriend Garrett Marrero that she was ready to help him pursue his dream of building a business on the Hawaiian island of Maui.
Thirteen years later, Melanie and Garrett are married and are 2017's Small Business Association's Small Business Persons of the Year. The Marreros risked virtually all of their own money, as well as a significant amount of their parents', on that project, but it paid off. Maui Brewing Company is Hawaii's largest craft beer brewery - and it's on track to bring in $18-22 million in revenue this year.
Garrett told Business Insider that he fell in love with Maui after his first visit in 2001. He grew up in San Diego and worked in San Francisco, and figured he would move out to the island after he retired. But in 2004, when he was 25, the seed he had planted had begun to grow, and he was envisioning himself running a business on Maui while he was still young.
When Melanie decided to take the plunge, as well, they began looking for businesses for sale on the island. "We were looking for something that could scale," Garrett said.
On one of his trips to Hawaii, Garrett noted that whenever he went to a bar or restaurant, he was never able to find a local beer. Growing up around California's robust craft beer culture, he developed a taste for local beers over their mass-produced counterparts.
And so while he personally had no experience making beer, he decided there was a major opening for developing a culture around it on Maui. He even registered the name "Maui Brewing Company" after one of his early Hawaii trips just in case.
His instincts were right, and came right around the time that craft beer consumption started to grow exponentially in the United States.
He and Melanie found a brewpub for sale and, drawing from their backgrounds in finance, drew up a business plan.
"We were short - we didn't have the money that we needed when we moved out here but we had faith that we'd figure it out, and we did," Garrett said.
It was not as if he and Melanie had hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank, or had wealthy families to prop them up. They scraped everything they could, selling whatever could bring them cash. Melanie refinanced her house in Sacramento and pulled out money from her 401k. Her parents mortgaged their house. Garrett's mom took money from her retirement fund, and his grandmother found a way to contribute, too.
All together, they managed to amass about $500,000 to kick off Maui Brewing.
"It was rolling the dice and we were running things extremely, extremely tight for a few years in the beginning," Melanie said. "There were some times there when, you know, we questioned what we had done."
Garrett and Melanie bought out the owners of the Fishing Game Brewing Company and Rotisserie but kept the space and its roughly 30 employees, including a head chef and brewmaster. It turned out that Maui did have a brewery (this one), but its owners saw their brewmaster's beer as just a perk to accompany food, and they served it alongside Budweiser and Coors.
Fishing Game opened in the early 1990s, and while their beer and food was well received, it was clear to an outsider why they failed. The space consisted of a sports bar, a brewery, a stand to buy raw fish and meat to bring home, a high-end restaurant, and a cigar lounge.
"I remember when we purchased the restaurant there was a review that said, 'When this place figures out what it wants to be, it's going to be great,'" Garrett said.
His and Melanie's vision was simple: enhance the beer offerings, offer food that goes well with the beer, and use local ingredients for both.
In the early years, Garrett and Melanie had to work nonstop. It was straining, but even when they doubted themselves they felt that quitting was not an option, given how much they and their families had invested in this idea. They both credit their long hours and determination with their success.
"We basically might as well have been roommate business partners because we never saw each other or took a day off," Garrett said. "And that's how lean we ran it, so that we could meet our obligations and be safe. We were doing all the shopping for the restaurants. I was doing all the maintenance that I could, jerry-rigging equipment to keep it alive. Whatever it took to get it done."
The company had always been profitable, but the Morreros consider 2008 to be the year they went from getting by to actually being successful. The recession had crushed the tourism industry, pushing them to double down on their vision of Maui Brewing as a place where locals could hang out. They closed their restaurant for six months to renovate while they aggressively pushed beer distribution. By the end of the year, they had produced 1,500 barrels of beer, triple what they did in 2007, and sold their beer throughout Hawaii and California. (For context, one barrel of beer contains the equivalent of 280 12-ounce cans.)
Today Maui Brewing is acclaimed in the beer community, and the Morreros say they are on track to bringing in $18-22 million in revenue and distributing 53,000 barrels of beer. They have nearly 400 employees, and are expecting to increase that number to 700 by the end of next year, contingent on their plans of expanding their brewery and opening their third restaurant.
Garrett said that if he and Melanie received the SBA award during their first few years in business, they would probably see it as recognition of their personal achievements.
But 12 years in, he said, "it's on behalf of the other almost 400 team members that we have. So it's for everyone. Everyone in the team who comes up and says congratulations, I'm like, 'Congratulations to you, too. This one's for us, man.' Today that's the way I look at things a lot more."
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