Social Entrepreneurship in Athens
This is an outtake from the second half of a two-part interview series between Chris Herron (CEO of Creature Comforts Brewing Company) and Lemuel “Life” LaRoche (Executive Director of Chess & Community). From beer to chess, both organizations are focused on having a lasting impact on Athens. In this clip, Chris talks about how Creature Comforts thrives by giving back to the community.
Interview by Lemuel "Life" LaRoche
Chris: My name is Chris Herron. I'm the CEO and one of the operating owners and co-founders of Creature Comforts Brewing Company, which is a brewery that opened here in April of 2014. We make what we consider to be really finely balanced, artisanal beer in the local community.
We believe that it's important that any community that we operate in be better as a result of us being there. Our mission is simply to build an industry-respected craft brewery that inspires people to pursue their passion. We hope that through our brewery, we're able to one, educate people about beer and provide a product that people enjoy, but at the same time that people will look and dig deeper into who we are and what we're about, and it will inspire them to go pursue their own passions and they'll incorporate their passions into their life. That's our deal.
Life: So where are you from?
Chris: I am from Stone Mountain, Georgia.
Life: Stone Mountain, Georgia!
Chris: Stone Mountain! From the Rock. And I grew up there, born and raised. My parents ...my mother is Canadian. My father is from Indiana. But they grew up in Canada—high school sweethearts. My brother was actually born in Canada. And then they moved down here. My dad was working with the Bank of Nova Scotia.
Life: So why Athens?
Chris: We ended up here really as a part—I'm the last piece of the Creature Comforts puzzle.
Chris: There was a group of guys—Derek, David, and Adam—as well as a series of some investors who were helping them put this thing together, and they all...some of them had gone to University of Georgia, they were aware of the building facility. They felt like Athens was a great beer town, which it is. And it can be, at least. And they decided they were going to start a brewery here in Athens.
I came on just a couple months before we opened. I'm not a brewer. I don't make the beer, so I get to brag about it. And I came on as our CEO here, and I run the business side of it. I'd say we're here because we believe that Athens is one of the great places to build brands, and it's got an incredible, active, and vibrant community. And the culture here is fantastic for what craft beer is all about.
It's an incredible place to be a part of, and that's something that, for someone who wasn't born here and raised here, I was not aware of until I moved here. I'm not the guy who's like, "Man, I've just always loved Athens and I have to start a business here." I was starting a business here, and then came to realize what an incredible place this place is.
”We're here because we believe that Athens is one of the great places to build brands, and it's got an incredible, active, and vibrant community.“
Life: Now, I know I recognized your model of, you're not just coming into the community and take. You're coming into the community, and you're also giving. What inspired you to get into this social entrepreneurship? Giving back to the community to the levels that you're doing?
Chris: For me, personally, it's been a couple of things. I mean, my parents were a great inspiration, as far as work ethic. So starting a brewery, getting all that piece, they were that. For me, my wife helped bring me on a journey that includes church, and then also having kids. Between those two things, it really changed my perspective on even why I wanted to start a brewery.
It became about what's the legacy that you're going to leave behind. I think that the legacy of "we created a brand that people appreciate" is very different than the legacy of "we helped human beings."
And that for us has become, at least for me personally, I'd say between the church and my children in particular, and the desire to leave a legacy and do something more meaningful than simply sell beer is why community is one of the six pillars that we—before we opened our doors, we said, "This is one of the things we're going to hang our hat on, that we're going to be about is making a positive, impactful change in the community that we operate in."
“I think that the legacy of "we created a brand that people appreciate" is very different than the legacy of "we helped human beings.”
Life: What influenced that spirit? Because I hear you say your mom, the kids ...that's the foundation. What influenced? What got you to say, "You know what? This is something that I'm passionate about."
Chris: I think church has been a big piece of it for me. My religion has just individually gotten me to explore and see a broader perspective. I go to Athens Church, and the impact that they have, and some of the programs that they run in the community, just got me to be a little more aware of my surroundings. On my drive into work, I don't see a whole lot of the challenges that Athens faces. And I think being able to get involved with that...there's been some other incredible people, like Fenwick Broyard, who I got to meet very early on, fortunately, back when he was with Community Connection. And-
Life: He used to always tell me, he was like, "you gotta meet!"—he was like, "you gotta meet Chris! You gotta meet him!"
Chris: And he played an incredible role in teaching me very quickly about what was going on in this community. Because that wasn't...I think I naturally had sort of a servant-mindedness from the way my parents had raised me, but really understanding the needs of the community, and trying to figure out a way to get involved at a greater level, was something that we didn't—it wasn't there when I first moved here.
We knew we wanted to get involved, yeah, we're going to make this community better by us being here, but we didn't know how. And so we've been really fortunate. And now, somebody like Matthew Purkey at United Way has really helped carry that torch since Fenwick has moved off to Vanderbilt to their School of Divinity.
And Matthew's been an incredible guidepost for us to look up to and say, "Hey, how do we impact the community?" And that's a learning curve for us—we're not non-profits, we're not community stewards. We're not experts by any stretch. But we're learning, and we have a couple things that we can do, which is, we can build awareness. We have a voice that people listen to, and it's a unique voice that's not normally being used to talk about the community. So we reach a different audience than those that are normally tied in to the community outreach stuff.
And we have the ability to raise money, because we've got a pretty good brand. And we have an opportunity—we use our tasting room to give away all the profits from our Wednesday tours for five months of the year into the Get Comfortable Fund, which we then use to support Athens-based non-profits that are fighting hunger, homelessness, and poverty.
I think it's been this huge whirlwind of influences since I moved into the city here. They have taken me under their wing, and said, "Hey, you're interested in getting involved with the community, now let's teach you how." And I think that's been imperative. That's one thing this community has, is a lot of people willing to help you.
Life: I agree, and it's almost a blessing, it—it's not almost, it is a blessing that you connected with Fenwick, a man that has his hands on the pulse. Because with Community Connection, he's on the front lines, seeing all the things. Now what does the Athens community look like after Creature Comforts? What is your vision for the Athens community?
Chris: Well there's two sides to that:
One, it's the best beer town in America. We think this place has all the potential to be an incredible craft beer town.
And we have, obviously, a genuine belief in what craft brewers can do for communities as far as creating jobs, building...changing the conversation around alcohol. We think we do have an opportunity to change it from something that people use to enjoy just pure alcohol consumption, as opposed to a beverage where they're understanding the science behind it, they're understanding the creativity behind it, and they treat it differently as a result of that. That's one aspect of it.
The other side is that when we look back, and sort of a legacy, whatever happens to Creature Comforts that people in a hundred years are coming down here, and like, "Oh, man, this city...oh, that's here because of Creature...or that's here because of Creature." And that's from community beautification. How can we get involved in helping the community and the city with funds to support projects? To non-profits that are successful, and thriving and achieving their missions, or at least making material impacts.
So I think there's two sides, right? One, where the community's grateful, and I think that people look back and say that we were a positive influence on this place. And two, that there's a lot of other little breweries around here, that create a lot of jobs and create a unique culture.
Life: So what can the Athens community, or what can we do to keep Creature Comforts here? And that's a two-part question. And the other one is, what do you feel that you, Creature Comforts, the organization, needs to continue to grow and continue to be the staple that it is in the Athens community?
Chris: I mean, just that community keeps doing what it does. Supporting the brand. That's the paramount, right? I mean, at the end of the day, we're a business, and we're a for-profit business. And we thrive because people support our brands, and support what we're about. So the easiest thing people can do is purchase product. Tell their friends about the brewery. Bring people in. That's the biggest thing that we can ask of people from a "How do you support Creature Comforts?"
We are growing in our industry. We're a manufacturer, basically. And as such, it's a capital-intensive business, which means it takes a lot of cash. And so the city, even through us getting ready to build the new brewery, and them supporting with a lease on our capital equipment to allow us to buy some of the equipment necessary to continue to grow. That's the kind of stuff that the city has shown it's willing to do and that I'm sure, down the road, there will potentially be other opportunities.
Our commitment is to not just take that money and put it in our pockets, but to put it back into the community, as well.
”Our commitment is to not just take that money and put it in our pockets, but to put it back into the community, as well.“
Hopefully, in six, seven, ten years, five years, three years, when people look at the investment that the city's made in us, they'll be able to see and equate that to the return that the actual city has gotten. That's important to us.
It's important that this doesn't just go away. We want the people to look in five years, and be like, "Man, you know what? It's like, I wasn't sure about that investment. I am now. We gave them this much money for equipment, and they have put twice as much back into the community over that time period." And that's, ideally—we set the example, right? For other for-profit businesses to follow. The goal would be that every business that starts getting money, it's like, "Well, we'll give you money, but here's the example of what you do when you get it." And that's just the standard that we hold ourselves accountable to.
Life: That's what's up.