Meads made by Colony Meadery in Allentown

If spending six years in a manufacturing business incubation program makes an owner a veteran, then the co-owners of The Colony Meadery qualify for the title. Like all veterans they spent time in the trenches raising the money needed to get off the ground with a RocketHub campaign that produced about $8,000, as well as investments from family members and $30,000 of their own money.

The sweat equity part of the equation would manifest repeatedly over the years with plenty of late nights, hands-on machine maintenance, and even giving up their Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays to fill their tanks or do some bottling of their product.

Since applying for their state producers’ license in late 2013, Greg Heller-LaBelle and Michael Manning have been on a mission… and a runaway train of sorts. The mission has been to not only make great mead, which has resulted in numerous awards, but also to educate the alcohol-consuming public as to just what mead is. And the results of that work have led to the runaway train part because the meadery has taken off!

Colony Meadery was started at Bridgeworks Enterprise Center with four flagship flavors, Woofie Dog, Straight No Chaser, A Good Sarsaparilla, and Mo-Mead-O, which has now grown to dozens of flavors. This product line allowed Heller-LaBelle and Manning to take their mead around the Lehigh Valley region, and eventually beyond it, directly to consumers, bars and restaurants who were looking for something different than the usual wine or beer.

In addition to the tasting room inside Bridgeworks, the owners spanned out initially to downtown Bethlehem, a location that was recently replaced by the opening of their new site on the city’s Southside in a building they bought instead of leasing a space again.

“One thing we learned is that your business plan changes several times from its initial draft, and sometimes that happens in the first year in business!” explained Heller-LaBelle. “That first version is what you want to happen, and, in my experience, it almost never plays out that way. We envisioned a production and distribution business model for our original concept. But then the market changed, we ended up placing a higher priority on retail. The distribution is still successful, but it changed too. There ended up being too many brands to compete with when it came to selling wholesale.”

When it comes to product distribution, they figured out that for customers in the Lehigh Valley, it was more cost effective to handle that distribution on their own because they would get to keep the margin. “We’ve been teaching ourselves efficient habits to make the company more profitable moving forward,” said Heller-LaBelle.

Making Bridgeworks Colony’s home base

When looking back at the last 6 years as clients of the business incubation program, Heller-LaBelle remembers needing to convince the former Bridgeworks program manager that mead was actually good, that people liked it, and that a business based on it could work. Once convinced, he helped them find the right space, and once the lease was signed, the rest was history.

“It made sense for us to set up shop here. The flexible space really helped because it would allow us to expand as our production increased,” he said. “Shared equipment like the forklift, and access to a loading dock were definitely pluses, along with the shared reception area so our guests would be greeted by a real person.”

The monthly owners’ roundtables (now known as the Peer-to-Peer Advisory Meetings) were a way to connect the business owners with each other at Bridgeworks because they offered fresh perspectives. “We could learn as well as contribute. We related to each other despite how different all of our businesses are. Helpful ideas on efficiency were shared, and there was also mentoring taking place with some of the more established startups.”

A glass of mead at Colony Meadery in Allentown

As Colony Meadery continued to grow, it expanded its footprint inside Bridgeworks and the owners applied for a $35,000 low-interest loan through the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center Revolving Loan Fund to buy additional equipment. Today Colony Meadery has a staff of 15 employees including its owners.

“Mike and I wanted the same things out of the business from day one which is why we worked so well together. He focuses on the operations side of the business and I focus on the development, wholesale and retail side of it. You have to know where your strengths lie. But we are still sounding boards for each other. It’s critical to like your business partner when you own a startup together.”

And that carries over to who they hire to be part of the team. “You have to know who you are as a company and the things you prioritize when making decisions. So, when we interview potential new employees, we ask ourselves if they fit our mindset and culture before we offer them a job.”

What’s next for Colony

In the next several years, the duo envisions more tasting rooms in other parts of the state, which could potentially lead to the challenge of finding warehouse space. “I want to see our product in more places,” said Manning. “And I want us to be in a leadership role in the mead industry.”

When choosing locations, Heller-LaBelle takes a pragmatic approach. “You can’t let personal things dictate your business or things like location choice. You have to do what’s right for the business based on the research, data and budget in front of you.”