Tim Piotrowski develops craft beer that crafts real change
Running a business

Tim Piotrowski develops craft beer that crafts real change

In honor of Pride Month, QuickBooks is spotlighting the LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs who play a vital role in creating an inclusive and vibrant small business community.

Name: Pio (Tim Piotrowski)

Location: Madison, Wisconsin

Pronouns: He/Him

Business: Delta Beer Lab

What does your business do?

We manufacture craft beer and distribute these products throughout the Madison, Wisconsin market. We also run a taproom attached to our brewery to offer guests the opportunity to connect directly with our brand, our products, and our team.

Pio (Tim Piotrowski)

Why did you decide to start your own business? How did you get started? 

After working through the brewing industry for a decade—from advanced education, to packaging beer, to starting a brewery for a restaurant group—it was time to set off and operate a brewery based on the mission and values that are important to me. With my professional experience well honed, I raised startup funds from investors I had personal connections with, and secured the funding of a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan to launch our facility and brand. 

What is the biggest lesson you learned in the first year? 

It is very difficult to get your name out there, even with a diversified marketing strategy. Getting guests to spread the word is the most effective way to spread brand awareness. 

What was the most surprising thing about becoming a business owner? 

Rent and loan payments are really expensive. While necessary, the first payments each month have been a massive amount of our monthly expenses and ate up most of our revenue. Chasing the break-even point can be very stressful. 

What is an aspect of running a business that you needed to learn more about when you started? How did you learn about it? 

Raising capital was an area of business that I was least informed about. When you don’t grow up with a lot of money, you tend not to socialize in circles with folks that have a lot of money. I sought out some SBA resources, talked with economic development professionals in my community, and spoke with other business owners to learn strategies for fundraising. 

Finding investors that believed in our mission while hoping to make some return on investment added an additional challenge to finding the necessary capital. The 17 households that invested in Delta Beer Lab all share a personal connection with me and understand that, in this venture, business can do good and do well at the same time.

How does running your own business make you feel? 

I love the ability to make decisions that improve peoples’ lives. It would be easier, in many ways, to punch a clock, do my work, and collect a paycheck. But I know that Delta Beer Lab has made a positive impact in our community and is recognized beyond for our quality and commitment. It is gratifying to know I lead this effort each and every day. 

What are some of the challenges you’ve overcome or are working to overcome as a business owner? 

COVID-19 presented us with our greatest challenge to date. Revenue was slashed. Government aid was well intended but incredibly inadequate to meet the challenge we faced, having been open for just 13 months before our county health order closed our highest margin business function—our taproom. 

The duration of the health crisis and associated restrictions caused extreme tension between my friend/business partner and I. Many folks don’t truly understand that once the pandemic is under control, the impact it has on small businesses will last for years beyond. We have more debt. Relationships are strained. Cash flow is a daily concern. And we are just tired. 

What are your proudest moments? 

Delta Beer Lab’s beertenders do not accept tips. We built this business model from the very beginning. Instead, we choose a different non-profit partner to donate all our tips to each month, supporting their impactful work in and around our community. Since we opened in February 2019, our guests have given back over $113,000 to our community. We took a risk to change the model of tipping, and our guests have understood the assignment… we’re all in this together. It works because we pay our beertenders the city of Madison’s living wage plus revenue sharing.

Additionally, all proceeds of our Black Is Beautiful beer (Black IPA) is donated to support black-led community organizations in our local area. Beyond that, we’ve committed 1% of all of our revenue to 1% for the Planet, an organization created by Patagonia to support nonprofit organizations that work hard on environmental issues. 

Delta Beer Lab directs our money locally with organizations that work on water quality resources and to curb climate change. Craft brewing relies on clean water and we use a lot of it, and climate change has already impacted our suppliers’ ability to grow quality barley and hops. We all should be doing our part, and Delta is committed. 

All that being said, we have not yet shown a profit in our business. Our mission is the most important tenet in our daily operations, and we see the ways that we support our team and our community as investments in a stronger and more sustainable future for all. 

What are the next big plans you have for your business? 

We need to get through the pandemic impact. We are currently investing in key employees to allow my business partner and I to further develop our reach and impact. We are looking at expanding our self distribution… and it would be nice to open a second retail location or taproom, but we need a break before we can take on this next big challenge. 

What are three things that you feel have contributed to your success as a business owner? 

Passion, service, and commitment. 

I worked my way up the industry. I put in the time to learn, develop, and experiment. My passion for craft beer and this industry was foundational to our success and the quality of the liquid we produce. 

My business partner, Speedy, and I both worked in youth camps for many years. We’ve had service to our community ingrained in us, and that is how we developed many of the ways that our for-profit business gives back to non-profits that craft change everyday.

Before starting Delta Beer Lab, I hiked the 2,189.8 miles of the Appalachian Trail in 2017. I suffered an injury just 150 miles in that took me off the trail for nine days and could have ended this dream. Through commitment to the challenge, I altered my plan, changed my preparation, and doubled-down on my efforts to achieve this goal. I often feel like COVID-19 is the injury that Delta Beer Lab is experiencing so early in our business’s adventure. The future is daunting, but if my experience on the trail is a metaphor for our current business experience, we have vistas to summit in the coming years and we’ll achieve great things through our commitment to the original goal. 

What challenges do you feel are unique to small business owners in the LGBTQIA+ community? Have you come up against any bias? 

We set out to ensure that our public taproom was inclusive of all people. We want the LGBTQIA+ community to know that they are welcome from the moment they walk through our doors. We have several rainbows integrated into artwork around our space. We also only have a gender-neutral restroom facility, with each full-length solid door painted a different color. (Just wash your hands!) 

We didn’t want to be a “gay bar,” we’ve always wanted straight allies and folks who just like great craft beer to feel comfortable in our space as well. We don’t hide our pride, but we do choose occasionally to do business based solely on the quality of our product… without mention of our mission or LGBTQIA+ representation. We find balance.

Beyond that, we are a certified LGBT-owned business enterprise under the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC). We are proud to be gay and lesbian owned. However, we hope that this national organization will change their chosen language to be more inclusive and representative of our community. Onerous acronyms are an issue in our community—we need to include businesses owned by bisexual, transgendered, queer/questioning, intersex, asexual, and Two-Spirit peoples. We don’t have all the answers, but it’s time for change and a greater representation of everyone in our community.

What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs in the community? 

Know yourself. Know your audience. Make great products and provide top notch service. And build bridges. We break down barriers when we are our authentic selves and good citizens of the overall community. 

When you’re having a tough day, who or what inspires you to keep going? 

My backpack and five pairs of shoes used on the Appalachian Trail are hanging from the ceiling in our taproom. When I look at that gear, I am immediately reminded about the strength required to overcome adversity, and that big goals are worth working extremely hard to achieve. You just need to put one foot in front of the other! 

What’s your “power song” and why? 

There are so many songs that pump me up and inspire me to be me, to be better, and to change the world. Today’s choice—since I can only have one—is “March March” by The Chicks. This song has a heartbeat, the messages match the mission and vision of Delta Beer Lab and our nonprofit partner program lockstep.

To learn more about Delta Beer Lab and support the business, visit their website or them out on Instagram.

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