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When Ryan Lang and Brady Konya founded Middle West Spirits, the artisan distillery industry was scarce and the sky was the limit. It still is, but now that sky is a lot closer than it used to be. Unable to secure suitable space elsewhere, and committed to the neighborhood that supported them from novelty to [...]
J.R. McMillan

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When Ryan Lang and Brady Konya founded Middle West Spirits, the artisan distillery industry was scarce and the sky was the limit.

It still is, but now that sky is a lot closer than it used to be.

Unable to secure suitable space elsewhere, and committed to the neighborhood that supported them from novelty to name brand, Middle West Spirits grew up — with an innovative renovation that turned the Short North warehouse they’ve called home into a five-story cathedral of polished copper and stainless steel.

Amid the chaos of construction, I sat down with Lang and Konya to discuss their journey, their future, and the creative curiosity and “maker” philosophy that inspire the company culture.

How is Middle West Spirits more than just a distillery?

Ryan: “It’s more than just a steel box, which is what a lot of distillers are or become. When you walk through on a tour, it’s more than that. It’s a brand experience. I’ll bet you I’ve been in a hundred facilities — and without fail, most of them are rudimentary at best. Middle West Spirits is a brand company first.”

Brady: “I can’t imagine building the front end of our distilling operation in any neighborhood other than the Short North. We’ve always wanted to have an urban distillery, to be part of the heart of the city. From convention goers to travel writers covering the drink scene, there has been a lot of support from the city to include us in the narrative of Columbus.”

Was expansion an operational necessity, a marketing opportunity, or a bit of both? 

Brady: “When we talk about capacity, we’ve really gone down two paths with our business model. One is our house of brands: OYO and any other spirit brands we may produce in the future, or other categories outside of vodka and whiskey. But then there’s this whole partner production side of the business.”

Ryan: “We decided to control our destiny by controlling our own costs. We don’t want to be beholden to anyone for product or pricing. We’re a craft-for-craft contract distiller, and there’s legitimacy for what we do. There is credibility in that, when people trust us to make their product for them. But at the end of the day, that becomes an engine to run our own brand. It creates a halo effect around the entire company.”

How much intuition and insight goes into an undertaking like this?

Ryan: “I don’t think we anticipated how quickly our business would grow. We were the among only 50 or 60 so craft distilleries in the United States. And then there was a shortage in dark spirits from the larger suppliers, which opened the door for craft distilleries. You see that a lot in our world; they start with the clear spirits — the vodkas and gins. That allows for immediate cash flow. But they put as much as they can back into dark spirits, but often it’s still not enough.”

Brady: “We needed to grow up a little when it came to engaging with the city’s influencers and private sector development people. Every conversation we got a little better, a little braver, a little more thoughtful. It became clear to us after the course of about a year and a half that if we waited any longer it would hurt our business. A distillery of this scale is an engineering project with a building around it. You can’t just move it to another building.”

Could Middle West Spirits have continued to survive at its previous scale?

Brady: “One element that cemented our decision to go big was the regulatory nature of our business at the time. The markups here were very high and the assumption of liquor revenue by JobsOhio was really focused on what they considered mid-size companies, and there seemed to be a resistance to partner with the distilling community because we were an unknown quantity. We were a revenue center and a cost — but because of our size at the time, we were irrelevant. We were a rounding error.”

Ryan: “You have two real paths you can go down as a distillery. It’s not like the brewing industry where you buy a fermenter, and another fermenter, and another fermenter. Because when you make a gallon of beer in production, that equates to 90 percent finished beer. In our world, you end up with eight percent.

Distilleries have a model where if you want to do anything of substantial volume, you either have to partner with someone who has the infrastructure, or make the decision to build your own.”

How tight did your previous space get before your knew you needed to expand?

Ryan: “We already had the opportunity to take over the back space in 2011. We did a little bit of a build-out and moved our equipment over, but in three months we filled the space. We actually had to create walkways to get to the office and the bathroom. It got to the point where it was starting to compromise production. If we wanted to make vodka, or wanted to make whiskey, we had to move so much. We knew there was no way for us to take our products nationally.”

Brady: “There were moments when we would bring 30 guests in for a tasting and we’d have to spend the whole day forking all of the materials out onto the curb in the parking lot so there was enough room for people to sit down. There was one time in 2013 when it was snowing and 20 degrees outside, and we had to move most of our production materials to have enough room to walk a tour through. We were probably spending 20 percent of our time just moving things around. It was awful.”

How quickly has the craft distillery industry grown nationwide?

Brady: “Two or three years ago, there were hundreds of small brands, and a few large brands who were sourcing the industrial suppliers for all of their dark spirits, and some clear spirits. In one year alone, from 2014 to 2015, the number of new craft distilleries exceeded all previous years combined.”

Ryan: “We were the second craft distillery in the state to be licensed. There was another in Cincinnati. Now there are more than 40 in Ohio. When we first started, we went to what is considered an alumni reunion for our world, the American Distilling Institute. We’d basically get together to see our friends there, just 50 of us sitting around talking. There are now thousands who go to the ADI every year, and we rarely see someone we know.”

What is the long-term market potential for craft distilleries?

Ryan: “The distilling industry is still in its infancy. But there is a fever pitch of growth. When it comes to craft beer, you can turn a product in 20 days. The craft distilling industry has a huge headwind now because the craft brewing industry is up to 17 percent of the market, and 20 percent of revenue. The craft brewers are competing with the macro brewers.”

Brady: “We’re less than one and a half percent of the market right now. Craft beer, depending on whom you ask, is between 15 and 17 percent. As long as consumers are willing to buy local products that are higher quality, there is huge upside for craft distilleries to capture a big part of that clear spirits market. Even if it’s only five percent, that’s still five times more than what they have right now.”

How unique was the financing of such a large-scale project in an emerging industry?

Brady: “As a result of consolidating our distilling and storage operations in the city, we also received incentives. Columbus fought hard for us to stay here. The mayor’s office helped us through the process. JobsOhio, who had initially shown great resistance to work with our industry, offered us a grant for equipment. All of those things came together to help us hire more people and invest in more product categories.”

Ryan: “This expansion really put the emphasis on how to manage a midcap distillery, and what is actually needed to fuel the operation.  Distilling is very capital intensive, with a need for patient capital — as we have to age our product for years. We needed to change our philosophy to make sure the cash well was something we could control better. General sales alone are not enough to really make huge dents in distribution chains.”

What kinds of unforeseen obstacles have you overcome during the expansion?

Ryan: “It’s been a little challenging. The build is behind schedule — eight months. We’ve reengineered the plant at least a dozen times as the scope of the project has expanded. The building itself has changed significantly. The original estimates we had for the steel needed increased four times. That’s the big lesson for me in all of this, that we should have trusted our guts a little more.”

Brady: “In many ways, we’re right back where we were in 2010. We’re like a stage-one startup all over again. We are still in the middle of the storm and we have the bumps and bruises to prove it. Seven or eight years ago, I don’t think we would have envisioned where we are today as the exact outcome — but it’s not that far off from where we wanted to take it. It was never about just being a great local brand. It was always about putting Ohio on the map.”

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Arts & Culture

Columbus rockstar lands spot on eccentric putt-putt show

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Photo by Medusa Lullaby McGee

Reality shows sure do attract their fair share of eccentric contestants, people who seem too bizarre for this world. That usually comes with the territory when you’re dealing with naked people trying to survive in the woods or game show contestants swallowing every species of worm imaginable.

Heading into its second season, extreme miniature golf competition show Holey Moley--hosted by NBA All-Star Stephen Curry and comedian Rob Riggle--does not sell you short on its bounty of peculiar putters. Columbus rock star Lizard McGee of indie rock band Earwig fits the mold of quirky golf professionals, internet influencers, and celebrities who are chosen for the show to a T.

“I was definitely not a shoo-in when I started, but I pushed the Rock Star angle,” McGee said. “The sharp David Bowie-inspired suit that I wore helped.”

It can be gathered that part of McGee’s selection on the show had to do with his work on the appropriately-named new duo The Müligans. The golf rock band (I thought math rock was going too far) also features Nashville singer-songwriter Trapper Haskins. McGee is also a suitable pick for the show given that he has a true Scottish-style 9-hole course on his remote property in Southern Ohio.

While waiting for the show to air, be sure to check out the debut single from The Müligans, “Heart Shaped Bruise.” The introspective track helps the listener gain the experience of getting hit by a wild golf ball, the perfect segue into Holey Moley’s uncontrolled chaos. You can download the song for free on Bandcamp by clicking here.

You can also watch a music video, which also serves as a Holey Moley promotion, by clicking here.

“I had a blast and I’m very happy with how I perform on the show,” McGee said. “It’s encouraged me to set even bigger goals for myself. The sky’s the limit.”

The second season of Holey Moley tees off this upcoming Thursday on ABC at 9 p.m. Make sure to tune in a week later to see McGee’s wacky performance on the season’s second episode.

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Veggin’ Out: Vegan chik’n and waffles from Lifestyle Café are a must-order

Mitch Hooper

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Veggin' Out is a new series from 614Now taking you around the city finding vegetarian and vegan options that break the traditional mindset of eating plant-based. While there are plenty of great spots serving greens and salads, this series is focused on a different approach: plant-based food that serves to bridge the gap for meat eaters as well as vegheads looking to simply satisfy a craving.

With all the restaurants around the city specializing specifically in chicken and waffles, it's only fair vegetarians and vegans have an option, too. And thankfully Lifestyle Cafe, located on 891 Oak St., is here to balance the scales.

Lifestyle Cafe is an exclusively vegan restaurant started by Shanna "Chef Bae" Dean and Dawn Dickson where the menu spans breakfast, lunch, and dinner with options ranging from vegan breakfast BLTs to vegan shrimp quesadillas. But, the focus today is on the most important meal of the day, breakfast. And more specifically, we are looking at one of Chef Bae's specialties: the gluten-free Lifestyle Waffles served with oven-fried soy-based chik'n topped with red pepper infused maple syrup and vegan maple cream.

Photo by Olivia K. James

The dish starts with the waffles; a careful combination of Red Mills Gluten-free Flour with a cinnamon and coconut sugar brûlée. They are crispy on the outside while still light and fluffy on the inside. There's also many flavors complementing each other in this dish; the sweet coconut and the spicy cinnamon pair nicely with the sweet and spicy red pepper infused 100 percent maple syrup. It's all rounded out with the vegan maple cream which is drizzled atop the creation.

And not to be forgotten, there's also the vegan chik'n Chef Bae and her sous-chef Christi Jackson are making nearly every day (except Monday). While the chik'n is oven baked, it's exterior is crispy and salty just like its real meat counterpart would be had it been deep fried. And again, those flavors come back complementing each other. This time it's the chik'n providing salty contrasts against the sweet ingredients as well as soaking up some of the spice from the red pepper maple syrup.

Photo by Olivia K. James

As mentioned above, Lifestyle Café is open nearly every day of the week except for Mondays. During social distancing and shelter-in-place, delivery through third-party services are available as well as curbside pick-up.

To keep up with Lifestyle Cafe, visit facebook.com/PlantBasedLifestyleCafe.

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Coronavirus

To mask or not to mask, that is the question

614Now

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As we near the Ohio peak of the coronavirus outbreak, government leaders are working to develop the guidelines around the re-opening of the local economy. One of the areas of debate is shaping up to be around the public wearing of masks.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday that all New Yorkers will be required to wear masks or have their mouth and nose covered while out in public and where you cannot maintain the 6-foot social distancing rule. The governor said there could potentially be civil penalties if there is widespread non-compliance. 

As for Ohio, so far both Gov. DeWine and Dr. Amy Acton have only 'strongly suggested' the wearing of masks while out in public. However in Thursday's press conference, DeWine said wearing masks, "will be part of what we do until we're done with this virus in a year or so."

That has business owners expecting mandatory mask rules to be part of re-opening guidelines which the Governor says will begin slowly, starting May 1.

Despite the official urging as to the importance of wearing masks in public, a quick trip to the supermarket shows compliance rates fairly low as of this date. This may be due to the relative shortage of mask availability or to public confusion surrounding early declarations from public health officials, including the U.S. Surgeon General, that 'masks do not work for the general public'.

Yet Gov. DeWine in remarks Friday said the wearing of masks will be commonplace by both workers and consumers and 'part of our daily lives for some time to come'.

Adding to the confusion, the Surgeon General doubled down in comments to FoxNews Tuesday saying, ""What the World Health Organization and the CDC have reaffirmed in the last few days is that they do not recommend the general public wear masks," Adams told Fox News' "Fox and Friends." "There was a study in 2015 looking at medical students. And medical students wearing surgical masks touch their faces on average 23 times. We know a major way that you can get respiratory diseases like coronavirus is by touching a surface and then touching your face."

Despite the changing narrative, state officials are widely expected to make the wearing of face masks part of our lives for the near future. The only question is whether this will come in the form of a legal declaration with enforcement penalties

Now it's your turn to tell us what you think...

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