It's hard not to be inspired by the artists and makers of the Cleveland Flea. Brilliant, talented, creative. They're tough as bleepin' nails on their ways to making their dreams come true. We began The Maker Series to take a look — behind the scenes, beyond the booth — to see what drives our makers to do what they love and love what they do.
Q + A with Shelley and John of Brewnuts
Brewnuts owners Shelley and John Pippen amaze us. Without any industry experience they started a business making donuts from beer, and Cleveland hasn't been the same since. Their booth at The Flea almost always has a line snaking from it's frontside. There's good reason for it: their recipes are out of sight. Have you tried their smoked peach lager donut? What about an orange blossom donut? Not even a bite of a watermelon mint donut? Ugh! How sad for you! Read on to learn a little bit more about what you've been missing... and then eat a donut, damnit!
Cleveland Flea: How would you describe Brewnuts?
Shelley Pippen & John Pippen: Brewnuts is the lovechild of two Clevelander's who decided to combine their two favorite guilty pleasures in to one: beer + donuts. We're different from the average donut shop in that all of our donuts are inspired by local craft beers and incorporate beer into the recipes. One thing we were sure of from the beginning was that we didn't want to be the mom and pop corner bakery. We've always known that we wanted to bring a totally unique experience of a Donut Bar to Cleveland where beer and donuts would be the main draw.
CF: What was your path to beginning your business?
SP & JP: Both John and I were feeling disenchanted and somewhat burnt out working corporate gigs. We began talking about finding some kind of hobby on the side that we could pursue outside of our day jobs. Cut to a few weeks later, I was experiencing my usual evening insomnia and I bolted upright in bed and asked him what he thought about the idea to make beer donuts. Sounds weird, but that was where it all started. From there, we enrolled in two business incubator programs (Bad Girl Ventures & Cleveland Culinary Launch Kitchen / ECDI) to fully start fleshing out the idea. As soon as we started vetting the idea we got a lot of really excited, positive feedback and we knew we were on to something.
CF: What are your roles in the business?
SP & JP: I’m sure every small business owner says this, but our roles are really fluid and somewhat all encompassing. We have fallen in to a natural division of labor where John manages the financial end of the business and handles a lot of the logistics and I handle the more creative aspects of the business like recipe development, social media and marketing. Our previous careers lined us up for those responsibilities pretty organically since he was in accounting and I was in marketing. But I’d also be lying if I didn’t mention that you can find both of us doing demo at our new space, answering emails and fielding phone calls and working side-by-side in the kitchen almost every day… there’s just a lot of ground to cover.
CF: Why do you love what you do?
SP & JP: I’ve always wanted a job where I could make people feel special and happy. Doing this lets me fulfill that purpose. For a long time I thought I had to achieve that goal on some huge scale… then I started making donuts for people and I realized it didn’t need to be so grand.
CF: Why does Cleveland need a business like this?
SP & JP: I can’t think of a city in the world that needs a business based around beer and donuts more than Cleveland. It’s the perfect representation of blue collar roots being met with innovation and creativity. We do things a bit differently in this city… sometimes it’s not the easy way. That history and DNA runs through every ounce of our business and how we approach things. Plus, we’ve got Midwest hospitality in spades and everyone could use more of that.
CF: What's the best part of running your own business? What's the most difficult part?
SP & JP: The best thing about running your own business is twofold, it’s the sense of pride that comes with making something on your own terms and seeing it succeed, but also stepping back from that business and seeing it evolve and grow in to its own identity that becomes less and less about you and more and more about your customer and what the business means to them.
I’m still amazed every single time someone hires us to be a part of their special occasions because it means everything to me that someone has entrusted us with being a part of their life. To be welcomed in to people’s lives like that… and to know that you built this business from scratch based on your own hard work… it’s an indescribable sense of fulfillment.
The most difficult part of running your own business is the psychological rollercoaster that comes along with it. Caring so deeply about something and trying to bring it to fruition is exciting but it’s incredibly depleting… not to mention terrifying. In some ways, it’s like realizing all of a sudden you’re an adult. Somedays it’s really cool to call your own shots… other days the plumbing breaks, the bills are more than you’ve got in your account and you get yelled at by someone in traffic and you’re thinking, “I just want someone to come make this all better.”
CF: What's your biggest struggle from a business standpoint?
SP & JP: My biggest struggle is trying to manage something that isn’t entirely within your control. Working on getting our brick and mortar open has been quite an exercise in patience that I knew would be challenging but never anticipated would be this difficult. There are a lot of players involved and a lot of factors that you simply cannot impact. As business owners, we have to take responsibility for our businesses 100% of the time which often leads to us wanting control of those businesses 100% of the time… what you come to learn is that is simply not possible. Trying to find my balance walking that tightrope has been a real challenge.
CF: What are your goals for the business this year?
SP & JP: Our biggest goal for this year is to get our brick and mortar open. It’s been a delayed process with a lot of twists and turns and we’re chomping at the bit to get the doors open. We also are beginning the hiring process which is an awesome but scary step for us. Both of these goals really get at a bigger goal of growing the business and putting processes and procedures in place to let John and I run the business a bit more and not be run by the business as much.
CF: Did you see yourself growing up to be a creative vendor?
SP & JP: I always envisioned myself doing something with a high level of creativity but I never would have pictured it being this.
CF: What's the first big moment where you knew you were headed in the right direction with your business?
SP & JP: I think the first moment was when we started taking some samples of donuts out to friends and family and we were getting really excited, enthusiastic responses. It didn’t feel like it was just your friends / family appeasing you and saying “that’s nice honey, good for you” it really felt like we were on to something.
CF: Who inspires you?
SP & JP: My niece and nephews. Anyone who has managed the feat of work-life balance. Also, people who don’t yell at others in traffic.
CF: Have you learned anything about your business by participating in Cleveland Flea?
SP & JP: I’ve learned a lot about what our business means to other people. Interacting with thousands of Clevelanders who make a point to support us month after month and shop local… you get to know people on a whole other level and see what you’re doing is important to the direction our city is headed. I’ve also learned a lot about the importance of a small business community being a cohort and advocating for one another. The things that other small businesses have done for us and that we’ve done for them is the best kind of mutual admiration society there is.
CF: What's your favorite piece of advice as it relates to your business?
SP & JP: I was once told that if you’re going to be an entrepreneur you need to be able to be both the jockey and the horse. Meaning, you need to be able to have the foresight of strategy but also the perseverance and strength of the work horse.
CF: How would you hope to hear your business described by your dream customers?
SP & JP: I always say that we make donuts and that’s great, but it’s not the most important thing that we do. The most important thing we do is share some time with people and make them feel happy for a little while. If our customers described our business as being not only delicious but an incredibly welcoming and grateful business, that would make me feel like we’ve done well.
CF: What's one thing people would be surprised to learn about your business?
SP & JP: Neither John nor I had ever made a donut before starting Brewnuts and we have zero professional training in culinary / pastry.
CF: What's your favorite booth at the flea?
SP & JP: Robin Sweeney (Cosmic Collectibles / Cosmic Girl Goes Home) has a booth of vintage home goods and plants that I always have to scope out. She styles it so beautifully every Flea that I end up walking over and wanting to buy everything because its been curated to perfection.