Fort Myers Brewing, Jen Whyte, co-owner
Company: Good times were supposed to flow at Fort Myers Brewing in 2020. The brewery/tasting room/social hub — the oldest and largest brewery in Fort Myers, founded in 2011 — began the year planning a major expansion project. Approved by Lee County commissioners in 2019, the project revolved around building a 40,000-square-foot brewery, office, tasting hall and beer garden on land previously owned by the Lee County Port Authority. Fort Myers Brewing owners Ron and Jen Whyte acquired the 23-acre vacant parcel for the project, near Southwest Florida International Airport, for $2.05 million.
Instead of making major progress on that project in 2020, the company did something even more essential: survive the pandemic. Sales dropped 5% in 2020 over 2019 — a decrease Whyte consider a win given all the obstacles in running a business that relies on people being close together, drinking and socializing. “In March everything was all doom and gloom,” Whyte says. “But the year has turned out better than we expected when all this started.”
Opportunities: The savior in 2020 for Fort Myers Brewing — and Whyte expects that continue in 2021 — is packaged beer, sold in Publix and a host of other retailers. Fort Myers Brewing products are also available in some 250 restaurants across Southwest Florida. “Packaged beer has grown consistently since May,” Whyte says.
Threats: An issue at the forefront for Whyte is the timing of when things, for a brewery at least, will return to any semblance of normalcy. February and March are usually two of the busiest months of the year for Southwest Florida restaurants. Even with the vaccine, Whyte is unsure those upcoming months will be much different than the last few months of 2020. “I’m less optimistic than a lot of other people,” Whyte says. “We are pretty much going to lose our high season again. That will wipe us out for a lot of 2021.”
Another issue is planning and forecasting. A data-driven planner, Whyte has been flying almost blind as 2020 winds down and she preps the business for 2021. Fort Myers Brewing spent about $500,000 on new equipment in 2019 for 2020 and didn’t need all of it. She’s forecasted about $200,000 in new equipment for 2021.
“Everything from how do you staff the bar to how much equipment to buy — everything is unpredictable,” Whyte says. “It’s a very odd and difficult time for businesses. What 2020 has really shown us is how little is really in our control.”