By Catherine Lyons
Earlier this week, New Orleans Lagers and Ales Brewing Company announced it will be canning its popular beers, including NOLA Blonde and Hopitoulas, in the coming months. But behind the news, which excited many of the brewery’s loyal customers, is the story of a startup helping a fellow startup take their business to the next level.
Two years ago, NOLA Brewing started with an idea and a little capital. Kirk Coco, a native New Orleanian, moved back to his city after Hurricane Katrina with the idea that he would “just make something.” After realizing that Dixie Beer had departed for Wisconsin, and that there was in fact no brewery left in New Orleans, he decided to start one.
Coco worked on his business plan, and was able to secure a loan for $390,000 to start him off. In those two years, NOLA Brewing’s output has doubled from 1,300 barrels the first year, to 2,500 barrels this year, and a projected 4,000 barrels next year.
“We work really hard,” Coco said. “Our kegs and [mini-kegs] say ‘Made with love. Made in New Orleans.’ It’s really true. We care so much about this product and we always make the decision of what’s best for the beer.”
Despite the steady demand and growing capital, when Coco asked for a loan of the same amount as his first loan – $390,000 – to start canning their beer, he was turned away by every bank he approached.
“It was harder to get a loan now, then when I started with nothing,” Coco said. “We just really want to have a real six-pack in the stores.”
Enter Idea Village, and Rebirth Financial. Earlier this year, Coco and NOLA Brewing participated in Idea Village’s Entrepreneur Challenge, a series of classes that help startups move their businesses to the next level. Rebirth Financial, a peer-to-business lending platform founded in February, was in the same class. When Chonchol Gupta, co-founder of Rebirth Financial and a Tulane business school grad, heard about Coco’s lending woes, he suggested a different approach.
“We try to connect businesses with individual and institutional financing options,” Gupta said. “We’re like an E-Trade for loans. Our idea is to change the financing system. For this particular instance, we know all the banks and how they package loans, and ASI Federal Credit Union seemed like the right fit, so we pitched it right away.”
Though ASI originally turned down Coco’s request, they reconsidered when Rebirth Financial brought it to the table, and a few weeks later, Gupta and Coco posed with a giant check for $390,000 where the canning line will soon operate, in NOLA Brewing’s Irish Channel warehouse on Tchoupitoulas Street.
The loan will also purchase four additional fermenters and two bright tanks, allowing them to double their capacity and produce enough beer for the cans and six-packs.
Coco said companies like Rebirth Financial, which, like Kiva, a microfinancing nonprofit, finds individual and institutional lenders for small businesses, allowing more startups to go through with their idea.
“There are so many people with great ideas, but banks are going to say no, because it’s just an idea,” he said. “With this model, it allows great ideas to be heard, and it allows [the investors] to make money.”
“It’s New Orleans helping New Orleans, and investing back in their own community,” Gupta explained. “Instead of investing your money on Wall Street, put it into companies in your town, in your community.”