Badass Women in the Detroit Beer Industry: Lea Hunt
by Courtney Burk of Batch Brewing
Detroit’s restaurants have made their beverage program an integral part of their menu offerings. Craft beer taps are constantly rotating and staying up to date on seasonal fare for both food and beverage is a mandatory part of the industry workday.
Your origin story. How did you find yourself working in the industry?
I grew up in Macomb (a northeast suburb of Detroit) with very supportive parents who were excited about all I did and gave me confidence to dream and make a path for myself. At some point in high school, I decided I wanted to own a small business-- likely a coffee shop. The idea of working for myself and getting to serve and interact with people daily really appealed to me. I started dating Kyle in 10th grade, mainly fueled by our mutual love for basketball and our hours together in the gym (and his need to copy my Spanish homework). Who knew that 13 years later, we’d still be together? AND owning our own business?
I played basketball at Hillsdale College and studied Business, with an emphasis in Marketing/Management. The discipline, time management, and working with/ understanding team dynamics that came with being a collegiate athlete really translated into entrepreneurship for me. During that time, I took a part-time job in a local coffee shop, Jilly Beans, where I learned the ins and outs of small business. That was the industry moment for me.
What drew you to owning your own restaurant and craft beer bar?
During our 5 years of long distance in college, one summer, Kyle and I both found ourselves with internships in Chicago. I was working in Sports Marketing, Kyle in Sustainability, and they were great opportunities that likely could have transitioned into our careers. One day after work, Kyle looked at me and said, “I’ve figured it out, we should open a restaurant at home in Detroit.” We both remember that moment of realization so clearly, that moment we knew this is what we wanted to do with our lives.
From there on, our shared dream and vision seemed to make us more powerful. We spent the next 3 years of college sending back and forth business plans, ideas, and articles on restaurants and Detroit. We married out of college, and jobs took us to California and back to Chicago. All that time we saved, gained inspiration from the industry around us, and planned to come home and open our own place. When we finally made our way back to Detroit, we continued saving and coming up with ways to make our dream a reality. One thing lead to another, and somehow we are here today, almost 2 years into business with Gather and about 5 months with Cøllect.
The names Gather and Cøllect – what’s the story there?
Gather is two-fold: 1) gathering food from local farmers especially those who attend Eastern Market, right across the street from us 2) gathering people together around a meal, thus the communal seating and familial dining experience with the open kitchen… like being at a dinner party.
Cøllect was born from Gather, being a synonym of Gather, and also by adding the ø, it has the Danish word “øl” within it, which, as luck would have it, means beer. We loved the continuity of keeping the same meaning but the names representing two very different spaces and businesses.
What was it like starting a restaurant from the ground up?
So hard to describe. It is so very hard, and it takes much much longer and much much more money than you think- no matter how much planning you do. This is why I’ve learned to take the approach of “just doing it”; Kyle likes to call it “shooting from the hip”. While this goes against my entire being as a pretty calculated planner, I’ve found it to be a more productive and effective way to function. “Planning is good; doing is better” is a quote we often put up on our little quote board at the restaurant, and I don’t think anything could be more true. As hard as it was to get started, it is rewarding beyond imagination to have a business where you can employ people, serve people, and create a job for yourself.
What do day-to-day operations for you look like?
Every day is different, and like all small business owners, I wear many different hats. I do a fair amount of computer work comprised of email correspondence (all your reservation requests come right to me!), budgeting, bookkeeping, event planning, marketing, website updating, scheduling-- the list goes on and on. I just upgraded my computer from my 2008 MacBook I bought with my high school graduation money, and I have become wildly more efficient.That was in the fall, and I’m still pretty jazzed about it!
Besides computer work during the day, I am often at the hostess stand or helping the servers clear and set tables, fill waters, chit-chatting with guests, pretty much anywhere I’m needed to make service go smoothly. I bounce around quite a bit between the restaurant downstairs and the bar upstairs.
What is your favorite part of owning your own business?
I have so many favorites, but I think it's the days Kyle and I are out running errands, picking up the endless list of things we need that have either broken, we’ve run out of, we need to change etc. We will often stop for lunch, sit down, have a beer midday, and marvel at how we feel we’ve cheated life. This is definitely hard and not for the faint of heart, but the freedom felt during an afternoon errand-run and lunch makes it feel like this is the best life we could imagine.
What are your favorite spots in Detroit where you like to relax and have a beer?
Urbanrest - Great beer and kombucha, great people, delicious cheese boards.
8° Plato - We love this place, grab a sandwich from Rocco’s drink some amazing beer, and Noah can come!
Motor City Brewing Works- You can find Kyle and I often unwinding and enjoying a late night beer, spinach dip, and pizza here after a long night of work.
Batch Brewing- While I’m a fan of a wide variety of their beers (I consider the Son of Batch my gateway IPA, I still dream about it and rush there when its back on tap), there’s not much more I need in life than a clean, crisp Audacity and an order of nachos on the patio in the summer with our dog, Noah.
If you have free time, what are you up to?
Walking Noah to the beer garden in West Village- it serves as a dog park during the day- then grabbing a coffee at Red Hook. I also love to read. We often spend our Sunday’s off with our parents and siblings.
What’s it like owning an adorable “puptender”?
It’s the best! Noah’s always on top of making sure popcorn is cleaned up off the floor quickly, and he makes people happier than I ever could. He often tends bar on the weekdays. He gets tired and takes the weekends off. He makes his own schedule, and we work around his busy social calendar, it’s worth it because he’s cute and fun to have around.
Who’s been your greatest influence in business?
My Grandpa Bloss who owned his own tree transplanting company out of Ypsilanti. His whole life embodied hard work and servitude, and he was the most positive person I’ve known. I’d like to be as much like him as possible.
All the small business owners in Detroit, that I’ve either met, who have offered advice or direction or just camaraderie, and even some I haven’t met that I’ve been inspired by. When we were still living in California, we started hearing about Phil Cooley opening Slow’s then Jacques and Christine Driscoll opening Green Dot Stables in Detroit. They put faces to our dreams, making the reality seem all the more possible. If they could do it, maybe we could too. They unknowingly gave us motivation and hope that literally made what we are doing today possible. Just by doing, they helped shape our path. When we finally got a chance to meet them in real life, they were as we envisioned: gracious and hard working. They offered advice and shared the same frustrations. They say, “you should never meet your heroes,” but I beg to differ.
After moving to Detroit and continuing our planning to open a business, we were lucky to meet and work with a plethora of small business owners, and a lot of women doing incredible things, inspiring me all the more. I worked at Café Con Leche for Jordi Carbonell and learned a ton from him and his wife Melissa. She was smart and strong and a heck of a woman to look up to. I worked at Detroit Institute of Bagels while building out Gather and learned so much from that incredible business and from Ben Newman. Dave Mancini sticks out as a great neighbor in the market at Supino and an ever-present example of hard work. He’s always doing and going, watching and learning from him makes us better every day.
My list of ladies and all the ways they’ve influenced me is wildly long. Emily Schaller, Owner of Rock CF has taught me more about positivity than anyone I know. Her constant reminder of “It is what it is” always changes my perspective when I get caught up in some little issue or another. But seriously, check out all these wonderful and inspiring ladies that make Detroit’s industry so amazing.
Rohani + Kiki (Farmer’s Hand and Folk), Ping (the Royce and Marrow), Terra (Detroit Body Garage). Karen (Lost River), Liz (K-9 to 5), Lisa (Sister Pie), Miriam (Boro), Bethany (Well Done Goods) Rebecca (Trinosophes) Brigid (8° Plato and Urbanum), Mary (Urbanrest), Mindy (SheWolf), Sandi (Red Hook) Gwen + Alison (Coriander Kitchen + Farm), Carli (Good Neighbor) Libby (Goldeluxe).
I feel so lucky to have so many incredible, hard working women to learn from every day in this city. I’ve never had a shortage of inspiration, influence, or support with the powerful network of small business owners in Detroit.
With the moves Detroit’s industry is making towards equality, what challenges have you faced being a woman?
I honestly haven’t faced too many (maybe that I’ve been aware of). I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of men that really understand the value the women around them bring, and respect their ideas and influence. I’ve also been lucky to have a lot of women role models who own incredible businesses in Detroit. Emulating their "can do” approach has helped make it possible for me to do what I do.
I have been asked on more than one occasion by a guest or sales person “is this your father’s restaurant?” That seems like an odd question to ask anyone, but I think they end up feeling sillier than I do after the answer.
What is the biggest struggle right now?
Staying even keel with the ups and downs. Some days are great and you feel on top of the world; some days are terrible and you fear going out of business and that no one will ever come in again. Turns out, it always evens out. You don’t really ever get ahead (right when you think you are, something breaks or a random huge bill arrives), but if you plan correctly, you don’t really get behind either. It’s easy to be aware of, but day in and day out, it’s really hard not to fluctuate with those extreme highs and lows. Being content in life I think is something we pass while always striving for more and comparing ourselves to others. I think there’s a lot of growth and power (and joy) possible in learning to be content.
If you could change one thing in the industry, or magically educate every consumer about, what would it be?
The actual cost of goods and labor, and why restaurants and bars have to charge certain prices to function and pay their employees. For example with our beer at Cøllect, a lot of it has to go through two distributors, making our end price higher, but it is very rare for our region and that gives it quite a bit of value when you can’t purchase it anywhere else. A lot of thought and care goes into keeping our prices fair but still possible for us to survive. Seems like common sense, and there’s quite a few consumers who understand this, but you’d be wildly surprised at the amount that don’t.