In the Maryland suburbs north of D.C., Julie Verratti brings experience in politics and Small Business Administration (SBA) policy to Denizens Brewing, which she co-owns with wife Emily Bruno and brother-in-law Jeff Ramirez. As such, she’s become a sage resource for fellow brewery operators trying to navigate their give-and-take relationships with government. Here, Verratti speaks with Jamie Bogner about the importance of building trust with local lawmakers—and how breweries can speak out on the kind of economic relief that will help them get through the pandemic.
CBB // You spearheaded your own personal lobbying efforts with the legislature—that is a skill that not a lot of brewery owners go into business with. What were some of the first steps you took when trying to get a piece of legislation through in the state legislature to help make this change that would help your business?
JV // One, you have to look at jurisdictional power. What is it that you’re trying to do? And what are the rules that either don’t exist yet—or are in place that you need to take away—to allow you to do what you need to do? Look at who controls those rules. With all things alcohol-related, it’s a heavily regulated industry, from local to state to federal and sometimes even municipality, on top of even county levels. There are a lot of layers to it. We tried to be as nuanced as possible, so it wouldn’t turn as many heads and start ginning up opposition. So I thought, “Okay, let’s try to get a bill passed that only impacts Montgomery county.” Then the first thing I did was try to get buy-in from the local county officials, even though all alcohol laws are passed on the state level. But you want to get buy-in, and why wouldn’t a county official want to support a legal change that would allow for business growth in their community?
I have always found whenever I am talking with an elected official, I always want to come in with either an ask or an offer. You don’t want to go in there necessarily wasting time because these folks are very busy—they represent hundreds of thousands of people, and millions at some levels. So, really be succinct in your story, explaining, “These are the types of jobs we’re going to be creating, this is what I think the economic impact is going to be, and we’re just one isolated business. Think about if we knock these rules down, the amount of impact that’s going to have exponentially on other businesses that open up because of it.”
CBB // It sounds to me as if job creation and tax revenue are the primary drivers and motivators for those kinds of officials?
JV // Absolutely. It makes sense: Your job as a county official is to make sure tax revenues are up. You want to make sure job creation is happening because that also attracts new residents to come there, and it’s more money to the local schools.
CBB // Breweries are anchor businesses now for a lot of economic development around the country. It creates a multiplier effect.
JV // Absolutely. We hire local. It’s not like we moved into Silver Springs and then hired a bunch of people from somewhere else. Most of the people who work for us live in Silver Springs; most of the people who work for us in Riverdale Park live in Riverdale Park. So make sure you’re hiring from your community and giving that messaging to your local officials.
Once you are able to build those relationships, they have to be authentic relationships. This is not a thing where you’re going in, and you make an ask, and then you never talk to someone again. I spent years building relationships, and a lot of folks around here I consider friends—not just my representatives—because I try to show up for them when they need help. It can be anything from just calling them casually or sending them an email. It doesn’t have to be testimony every time you’re sharing your opinion. Inviting people to come have beers with you and just saying, “Hey, I just want to check in with you and let you know what’s going on.” I’ve found that there are state, local, and federal officials who—when legislation is coming up, because I’ve been able to build these relationships—will actually reach out to me and say, “Hey, there’s this bill that I’m considering sponsoring or writing. How does this impact your business? I want to know your perspective before I do something.”
CBB // I like that idea of also building those relationships that are two-way, not just negative—when you have any of those representatives who are doing interesting and good things, supporting them and expressing that support. You know, a lot of politicians hear constantly from the people who are angry.
JV // People bitch at them all the time. They get barraged with things constantly. I truly believe that, innately, people are trying to do the right thing. They’re doing the best they can with what they have at any given moment. And that includes elected officials. Elected officials will make decisions or pass legislation or do things, and sometimes I’m like, “Oh my god, I disagree with you 100 percent on what you just did.” But that doesn’t mean that they’re evil people. We have to bring humanity back to this. And politics is about relationships; it is about people.
CBB // Let’s shift gears and talk about some of the COVID-19 impacts and how you’ve been able to advocate for government support around that. The SBA played a big role in this government’s approach to creating stimulus for small businesses. Now looking at it, what has your experience been around that from a perspective as a brewery owner?
JV // The CARES [Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security] Act actually did create a lot of good programs for small businesses across the country—breweries as well as lots of other retail-facing companies and industries. But the thing that I actually found kind of frustrating—and I don’t know if it’s just because of my background—[is that] basically, Congress handed [it to] one of the smallest federal agencies in the entire country. The SBA literally has fewer than 2,000 employees—as a day-to-day organization, it’s very small. That was such a heavy load to put on the SBA’s shoulders, to literally be in charge of saving the small-business economy. That being said, I think the way that they’ve implemented the PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] has been really helpful. That certainly helped us. The EIDL [Economic Injury Disaster Loans] program has been helpful. And one of the programs that the CARES Act created had the SBA pay six months’ worth of monthly payments toward [our SBA 7a] loan, which was, quite frankly, one of the things that helped us the absolute most.
When I’ve been talking to elected officials—federal, state, local—I say, “You’ve got two strategies here. One is, how do we keep cash in the bank accounts of small businesses? And number two, how do we put more cash into those bank accounts?”
Don’t force us to make bank-loan payments that we would normally have to pay, obviously, in a pandemic situation. And then adding cash as a tactic was the PPP program, as well as the EIDL program that the SBA did. There’s a myriad of other things that the government can do on the state and local level. Maybe waive licensing fees that you’re supposed to pay every year? Put a kibosh on that for the time being. This is an emergency situation, and even though this is not a physical disaster, this is absolutely a financial disaster and a public-health hazard going on. So, [maybe make] sure that businesses don’t have to get things notarized? It comes down to the little things, in terms of making sure there’s not a huge heavy lift on applications and documents that businesses need to apply for. I’ve always said, “The government could just get money to people now.” There should not be any means-testing going on right now. You can always claw back the money in the future, once we’re on the other side of this economic disaster. These are things that I have been pushing with officials up and down, as they look to add more programs, to make sure they’re thinking about those things.
CBB // What do you think the brewing industry needs to lobby for at a federal level, at a state level, or various levels in order to get through the next six or eight months, until we somehow have more widespread vaccine access and—hopefully, theoretically—can return to a more normalized economy?
JV // I highly recommend that if you haven’t already, please reach out to all of your officials that represent you—not just where you live, but also the jurisdiction where your business is located—and tell your story. I also think, on a broader scale, commercial landlords need to be backed up right now. And that is a federal issue. Banking laws are run by the federal government; they’re not run by the state. I’ve heard a lot of people talking about and demanding, “Oh, the states need to put a pause on all rents.” You can’t do that if you’re not backing up the landlords because the landlords still have to pay their mortgages. And believe it or not, a lot of landlords out there are small landlords; they’re not these big, behemoth, corporate landlord companies. Our landlord in Silver Springs, I always describe him as a photographer who happens to own a commercial building. This is not what he’s always done, but he has a mortgage, and he has to pay on it.
It’s a federal issue, and we need to be asking Congress to back the banks up—back off on some of the regulations for the time being, in terms of the banks being able to forgive some of the mortgage payments to these commercial landlords. And as a condition to that, those commercial landlords are then working with their renters to make sure that they don’t have to pay them rent. But it has to start at the federal level because leases are a matter of contract law. This is all a big moving wheel that needs to be worked together from the federal to the state to the local area.
I’m just hoping that people can work together more. I wish there was more of a task-force orientation, where you’ve got members of the Senate working with the governor’s associations, working with the state legislative associations, making sure that all of these people are being represented at every level and just sort of saying, “Okay, what can I do at my level of authority? And what can you do at your level of authority? Let’s try to work together to come up with a solution to save the economy.”
If this country and our elected leaders allow small businesses to die—because that is absolutely what will happen—we are going to have millions more people who are going to need government assistance. And you will have just completely eviscerated your entire tax base. Small businesses are 50 percent of the economy, so we need to make sure that we are helping small businesses survive at every level. At the beginning, I said—when we were trying to open our business—we talked about, “These are the jobs we’re creating; this is the tax revenue that we’re going to bring.” It’s the same messaging in terms of protecting small businesses. It’s, “These are the job losses that you will stop, if you do this. This is the tax revenue you will be able to maintain, if you do this.” And so there have to be long-term strategies implemented right now; and [you need to think] about the forest and not just some of the trees. Please talk to your officials and just share your experiences.
*This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Listen to Podcast Episode 163 at beerandbrewing.com/podcasts