Learning to Fly

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At Cape May Brewing Co., Co-Owner Ryan Krill has learned how to successfully navigate through some of the most challenging conditions

Four years ago, Ryan Krill took off from Cape May Airport as a trained pilot taking his friend’s single-engine airplane out for a leisurely flight. In the passenger seat to his right was his wife, Dr. Kaysi Krill; a few hundred feet below was his business, Cape May Brewing Co., which he co-founded in 2011; and dead ahead was a potential disaster.

Cape May’s brand relies on a nostalgic look, beach imagery and plenty of humor

Unbeknownst to Krill and his wife, the engine cowling cover of their friend’s Piper Dakota had not been completely secured before takeoff and was now—as the craft was accelerating rapidly for liftoff—in jeopardy of separating, likely damaging the tail, perhaps even shearing it off completely.

It didn’t take a pilot—or passenger—with Krill’s years of training to know this was not an ideal scenario. With the engine cover starting to swell and bellow, he acted quickly.

“I pulled the power way back and got on the radio,” Krill says. “I said, ‘Hey, we have a minor emergency and we need to get back.’ And so I put the plane right to a downwind position for the perpendicular runway.

“If you can envision two intersecting runways, I took off out of the one and then landed on the one running the other direction, which is the fastest way to get down. By reducing the speed on the airplane, that slowed down the amount of wind force that was put being put on the cowling, so it [was] less likely to rip off.”

After landing and motoring the plane back to the hanger, a quick inspection found the culprit: A small latch piece had failed. It was a learning lesson, for sure, but the close call didn’t stop him from doing what he loves to do.

“My wife was in tears,” Krill admits. “But, we’ve flown tons of times since, and the thing has been fine.”

As a pediatric ER fellow at Nemours Hospital, Kaysi surely understood the potential dangers the incident posed—a possible sudden drop from 500 feet—and the event still lingers in Ryan’s mind along with the notion that it all could have ended there.

But it didn’t. They continue to fly. And, in the years since, the brewery that he helped build just a quick stroll from that runway has been doing gangbuster business, taking off to a place where the sky is seemingly the limit—even in a pandemic.

In New Jersey, the Philly area, and now in Delaware, Cape May Brewing Co. is one of the hottest names in the business. But, when Ryan, his father, Bob Krill, and friend, Chris Henke, started the business in an empty warehouse at the Cape May Airport in July, 2011, none of them had any real experience in the industry other than being “idiot home-brewers, ” as Krill says, chuckling.

“I was in commercial real estate,” Krill says. “My dad was in pharmaceuticals, and Chris was an engineer. We started the business with $25,000 and since then, we’ve only used cash flow to grow the business. That’s it. We’ve never taken on any investors or anything like that.

“We didn’t have a background in brewing. I think that’s part of the reason we started. Because had we been in the beer industry—on one side or the other—we probably would have known too much. So not knowing was, I think, part of the reason it worked.”

Naïveté may have played a role in preventing the group from being discouraged in those early days of struggling. On the other hand, did Krill have any idea Cape May Brewing would be as successful as it’s become?

“Never,” Krill says. “We were always behind in terms of [having enough] space and that sort of thing, which I guess in some ways was an advantage because we never built some giant building and then looked to fill it up.

“It’s always been supplying what we think we can sell.”

Nine years later, that sales number has jumped quite a bit. Bolstered by popularity of its flagship Cape May IPA, 2018 alone saw the brewery increase production by 75% to more than 16,000 barrels. Last year saw a boost of another 40% with distribution expanding into Pennsylvania.

Those figures are even more impressive when you consider the amount of competition. The number of breweries operating in New Jersey has doubled in just the past five years.

So, with Cape May riding the wave as one of the big boys, it looked like nothing but clear skies this year as the brewery launched distribution in Delaware during the first week of March.

Then mid-month, the pandemic hit.

Like most business owners, Krill had no idea what to expect.

“First off, it was really scary,” Krill says. “We had never been in a scenario like this. From Day One, we’ve been successful at growing the business in a healthy and sustainable manner. And it felt like overnight, it was all just tumbling down. And that was horrifying.”

But if Krill’s piloting experiences had taught him one thing, it was this: Don’t panic.

Thankfully, relief came when New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy deemed beer manufacturing, distribution and liquor stores sales essential businesses.

“That was our saving grace,” Krill says. “Luckily, we’d made significant investments of time, money and resources into focusing on wholesale and distribution—focusing on packaged cans. We installed this really state-of-the-art canning line last year.”

Having those cans available in liquor stores—as opposed to relying completely on draft sales at bars and restaurants, which had been suddenly closed—made a huge impact on the brewery’s ability to survive the months to come. Meanwhile, Krill’s piloting skills came into focus again, as he had to think quickly as the captain of the company.

“We made changes swiftly and compassionately,” he says. “We had to make some really hard decisions. But it put us in a position that allowed us to have a business to come back to.

“We had to make the challenging decision to make a reduction. We furloughed some people, and luckily it was temporary. Since then, we’ve brought everybody back with the exception of one position [an events role] that had to be permanently laid off.”

“Flying really does get you outside of your comfort zone,” Krill says. “This whole COVID thing—it’s gotten everybody outside of their comfort zone. But flying teaches you about being comfortable outside your comfort zone.”

Krill and his team figured out how to survive the storm and keep flying. They worked on home delivery, focused more on off-premise liquor stores, and spent a lot of time communicating with their accounts and customers.

“We’re actually doing really well right now,” he says. “We’re ahead of our original plan for the year.”

Moreover, they have continued to brew new beer, just releasing City To Shore, their annual Double IPA (at 7.8%), which Krill describes as a “glass-full of citrusy, grape-fruity yumminess.”

Right now, Cape May brewers are working on one of Krill’s favorites seasonal favorites, their Oktoberfest, which will arrive in stores this fall.

“It is just so good,” Krill says, “It is just a beautiful Marzen lager that is totally crushable. Perfect for the fall. It’s nice and simple.”

For a moment, as he describes the beer, it sounds like his imagination has drifted off to outdoor beer gardens, large steins full of brew, and German sing-a-longs. But he’ll have to wait. Besides, even in the COVID era, his summer doesn’t sound bad at all: overseeing a successful brewery just a few minutes walk from his other love of flight.

“One of my favorite things to do is fly,” Krill admits. “I use the analogy all the time [in business]. It’s the stuff that you do to fly. It’s not hard, but it’s all [about] having a sequence of things you need to get done that makes the whole thing work. If you don’t do them, it’s not going to work.”

That’s not to say taking a single-engine vehicle up above the clouds is for everyone.

“Flying really does get you outside of your comfort zone,” Krill says. “This whole COVID thing—it’s gotten everybody outside of their comfort zone. But flying teaches you about being comfortable outside your comfort zone.”

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