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2023 Top Entrepreneur: Jen Whyte, co-founder of Fort Myers Brewing Co., Fort Myers

Jen Whyte has turned Fort Myers Brewing Co. from a sudsy side hustle into a much-loved local beer maker.


Jen Whyte, co-founder of Fort Myers Brewing Co., is a 2023 Business Observer Top Entrepreneur.
Jen Whyte, co-founder of Fort Myers Brewing Co., is a 2023 Business Observer Top Entrepreneur.
Photo by Stefania Pifferi
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When Fort Myers Brewing Co. first opened its doors to the public 10 years ago, co-founder Jen Whyte didn’t have high expectations. The taproom was open only from noon to 6 p.m. on its first day of business, and Whyte thought  if 50 people showed up all day, the opening would be a huge success. “But the entire time we were open we had a line out the door, wrapped around the building,” she says.

Whyte and her husband and co-founder, Rob, were clearly on to something, and the brewery hasn’t stopped growing since. After that first day of booming business, the couple ordered two new fermenters (with help from Whyte’s parents) to take them from an annual capacity of 336 to 1,296 barrels of beer. Today the brewery produces 15,000 barrels annually and occupies more than 23,000 square feet of space, and its beers and hard seltzers are available at some 1,600 area bars, restaurants and retail outlets.

From the moment the brewery opened, “we felt the entire community embrace us,” says Whyte, 45. “That’s been true ever since in so many ways, and we’ve done what we can to embrace the community right back … and we have been really, really blessed to have incredible people come into our lives and be a part of our business. Every single one of them has been integral to our success.”


Best advice

Early on, Whyte was advised to use the brewery’s taproom to test out new products. That went against her natural tendencies. “I can be a little bit of a perfectionist, and I want things to be exactly right before we release something,” she says. “But you need to balance that, and for me that was really good advice.”

Whyte had also been told to let go of things you can’t control — advice she drew on during the uncertainty of the pandemic.

“That’s a really hard thing for someone like me to do,” she says. “But I made an effort to do that in the thick of 2020 and definitely after 2020, and that’s a big and important lesson. I used to stress about the weather, something that you have zero control over. Once I started letting go of those types of things, it really allowed me to trust in our abilities and in our team and in what we’ve built.”


Tipping point

Things got serious at the brewery’s one-year mark. That’s when Rob, who’d previously worked from home in the computer software industry, quit his job to concentrate on the brewery full-time.

“I was very, very nervous about it,” Whyte says. “But as soon as he could focus full-time on the brewery, that was when it became very clear that we had something more than a hobby.”

Today, Jen and Rob have lots of help: The brewery employs 23 people, up from 17 in 2020.


Biggest mistake

“I think some of the things that I would now look back on and go, ‘That was an error,’ probably also contributed to our success,” says Whyte. “I don’t know if I would necessarily categorize them as mistakes.”

She and Rob have taken a conservative, strategic approach to growth over the past decade. “Could we build this faster? Probably,” she says. “But it’s also made us not get out in front of ourselves. While being more conservative could be looked at as a con, it’s also very positive for us. Recognizing that that’s how we’ve been and recognizing the challenges going forward, making sure that we don’t ever get out ahead of ourselves is important.”


Up-at-night worry 

Whyte struggles with balancing the conservative approach that’s worked so well for the business with the desire for forward momentum. “There’s a time to be conservative and stay where you are, and then there’s a time for expansion,” she says. “And knowing when, getting that timing right, keeps me up at night.”

Timing has tripped up the Whytes in the past couple of years, after buying a large parcel of land next to their current facility for an expansion. A planned 2020 groundbreaking never happened because of the pandemic. In 2022 they had started moving on things again, then Hurricane Ian hit. Now they’re back in decision-making mode as to when to make the next move with the land.

“We need the new facility,” Whyte says. “But is now the right time? Are we waiting at a greater expense? But we also don’t want to get out ahead of ourselves. Those are the big conversations that we have at night and on vacation all the time. And they’re conversations that we never could have dreamed we were going to have when we first opened.”

Where will Fort Myers Brewing be three years from now?

Whyte expects the business to be bigger three years from now. She also expects there to be a greater focus on corporate culture and strategic growth.

“The first 10 years were so go, go, go,” she says. “Rob and I have been very much in our business, in the nitty gritty. We’re trying to take a step back and look at growth even more strategically. In three years, I think that we’ll be even more strategic and even more professionalized than we have been in the last 10 years. And I think we’ll be a top place where the community wants to be and where people want to work.”

In 2020, the brewery’s revenue was flat compared to 2019, but the performance of the past two years bodes well for the future: Revenue rose by 148% in 2021 and 106% last year. (She declines to provide specific revenue figures.)


What would you do if you weren’t an entrepreneur?

Whyte can’t imagine that scenario. “When I look back, I think I was destined to be an entrepreneur,” she says.

Whyte recalls working at a cheerleading camp while in college and going through an extensive training and onboarding session. “I remember sitting there and thinking, ‘I want to own my own business and own my own destiny,’” she says.

Even back then, Whyte was mulling what she could bring to the table, and she’s realized over the years that being an entrepreneur doesn’t require coming up with the next iPhone or another revolutionary product.

“If you do something well that people need, whether it’s bringing a new beer into the world or starting your own roofing company, it doesn’t have to be something that nobody has ever seen before,” she says. “That’s become a big realization for me over the last 10 years, that there are great, great opportunities there if you’re passionate about what you’re doing and you care about people.”


What do you like to do outside of work?

Whyte admittedly doesn’t take much of a break from work, but when she does, she and Rob head out on the water. But even while boating, the conversation often shifts back to the brewery.

“We can be out on the water cruising a canal and we’re talking about our next product or our next hire or the state of the cost of goods,” Whyte says. “So work is constantly being weaved into our life … that separation can be a bit of a challenge, and it’s actually one of the things that we’re working on, as well. In order for us to be at this for the next decade or two decades, we need to work on that so that we have some down time.”

 

author

Beth Luberecki

Nokomis-based freelance writer Beth Luberecki, a Business Observer contributor, writes about business, travel and lifestyle topics for a variety of Florida and national publications. Her work has appeared in publications and on websites including Washington Post’s Express, USA Today, Florida Trend, FamilyVacationist.com and SmarterTravel.com. Learn more about her at BethLuberecki.com.

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