Aug. 26, 2021

Belly Up to the Bar (Exam)

John Szymankiewicz always knew he wanted to be a lawyer. He also developed a life-long passion for beer – brewing it, drinking it, and after a slight detour into chemical engineering, building a law career around it.  

Now, John is one of an elite group of Sticky Lawyers dedicated to counseling breweries, distilleries, and other small alcohol producers.

Although practicing beer law sounds as enjoyable as hoisting a few pints with your friends, the work isn't all fun and drinking games. By knowing the industry so intimately, he can speak clients' language and has become a trusted business partner. 

Whether navigating alcohol label compliance rules, creating employee manuals for brewpubs, or counseling distilleries about manufacturing hand sanitizer during a pandemic, the Beer Lawyer has seen it all. 

Pull up a barstool and listen to a business development masterclass within the context of a unique niche law practice.


Guest Insights

  • John always wanted to be a lawyer but studied chemical engineering in college. [02:45]
  • Working in chemical, plastics, and pharmaceutical industries. [02:59]
  • Wanting to work for himself and attending law school at night. [03:19]
  • Starting his practice after law school. [03:57]
  • Lesson 1: Survival. Do what you have to do to do what you want to do. [04:27]
  • Doing “threshold” law for the first few years, but constantly marketing for the type of practice he wanted to do.
    [04:47]
  • His beer-loving background. [05:28]
  • Lesson 2: Stick with what you know and know your audience. [06:21]
  • Asking people what they need but not advertising his services at first.[07:57]
  • Working with small, independent breweries, he understands clients’ needs and is not a
    “hard sell” guy. [09:25]
  • Want to be a beer lawyer? Marry well. [11:47]
  • Lesson 3: Expectations. Learn what the industry offers and what to expect. [12:30]
  • Currently, there are a small number of exclusively alcohol attorneys in the US. [13:49]
  • Branching out into distilleries, kombucha, mead, and wine. [15:03]
  • Lesson 4: Branding. Beer Law Center is where people go with questions about beer law.
    [15:28]
  • Not focused on paid ads or SEO. Using blog content and in-person interactions to build
    [16:36]
  • Publishing a book about Beer Law from his blog content. [18:28]
  • Book gives him credibility with organizations and an introduction tool for new clients.
    [19:24]
  • Describing his niche practice. [22:24]
  • Lesson 5: Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and don’t burn bridges. [23:41]
  • Alcohol law is largely regulatory and transactional, but it depends where you are in the
    [24:40]
  • Creative lawyering solutions around North Carolina’s prescriptive regulations. [26:25]
  • Adding restaurants to breweries and the laws and issues that accompany them. [28:23]
  • COVID hit breweries and distilleries hard, but many learned the importance of
    [29:51]
  • Lesson 6: Be flexible. Look for opportunities where the clients are. And remember that a
     rising tide lifts all boats. [33:10]
  • Fostering Basset Hounds for a Carolina Basset Hound rescue for 24 years. [34:43]
Transcript

[00:00:00] John Reed: Beer. Faithful companion to pizza, pretzels, and baseball stadium hotdogs. Creator of dad guts, the currency with which to bribe friends to help you move, and the official beverage of college. 

[00:00:14] One of the oldest drinks humans have produced, beer traces its roots to Iran in the fifth millennia BC. From Mesopotamia (shout out to the Mesopotamians, by the way – they never get enough props), there is a 6,000-year-old tablet showing a group of thirsty souls drinking beer through reed straws from a communal bowl (thanks, Wikipedia). 

[00:00:36] Before your hipster cousin Chuck started experimenting with his version of an IPA in your aunt and uncle's garage, Adolf Coors, Arthur Guinness, Sebastian Artois, Gerard Heineken, and other craft brewers were whipping up batches of fermented excellence. 

[00:00:51] Almost as sticky as the floor of a frat house the morning after a raging kegger, there is an elite group of Sticky Lawyers dedicated to counseling breweries, distilleries, and other small alcohol producers. It's hard work – harder than you might think – and success doesn't come from having only a few clients.

[00:01:10] One of those lawyers is John Szymankiewicz, himself a home brewer. He not only found his way to the law after a long stint in another profession but also created a special niche practice that enjoys widespread recognition. There are many interesting parallels between the business of law and the business of beer, and John is the perfect guest to explain what it takes to be a Sticky Alcohol Lawyer. That did not sound right, did it? 

[00:01:37] Hey, John. Welcome to the podcast. 

[00:01:39] John Szymankiewicz: Thanks for having me here. This is gonna be a lot of fun, I think. 

[00:01:42] John Reed: I know it will be. I'm absolutely sure of it. I want to use your story as a business development and personal marketing masterclass because so much of what you've done to get where you are now is what I consider to be a textbook approach. But let's spend some time setting the stage. So, very important question. Which came first – drinking beer or wanting to be a lawyer? 

[00:02:05] John Szymankiewicz: Oh, gosh, that's a really tough one, but if I had a gun to my head, it was probably wanting to be a lawyer first. I tell the story that I wanted to be a lawyer from the time I was like five years old.

[00:02:15] John Reed: When I was five, I wanted to be a dog. How did you know what a lawyer was and that you wanted to be one at that age?

[00:02:24] John Szymankiewicz: I wasn't even really sure what a lawyer was at that age. But I grew up in a middle-class, suburban neighborhood and my parents said, "If you want to do well, you need to be a doctor or a lawyer." I can't stand the sight of blood, so I kind of went off in that direction. 

[00:02:37] John Reed: Focusing on the lawyer part, not the drinking beer part, when you got to college were you pre-law, poly-sci? What were you studying?

[00:02:45] John Szymankiewicz: I wanted to be a lawyer, but in college, I actually studied engineering. I got my undergraduate degree in chemical engineering. I had a teacher sort of inspire me in high school and sent me down a different path. 

[00:02:55] John Reed: What was your career path as a chemical engineer? 

[00:02:59] John Szymankiewicz: I got out of school and went to work for a large company. I started in the specialty chemicals business and eventually moved into plastics and the pharmaceutical industry. I spent a lot of time working on large projects, implementing systems or capital improvements, and that sort of stuff.

[00:03:15] John Reed: And when did law school come into or come back into the picture?

[00:03:19] John Szymankiewicz: It took me a good five or ten years to figure out I didn't like engineering. One, I didn't like what I was doing for a living. It was rewarding. It was pretty financially lucrative. But I knew that I'd always have to work for somebody else. I decided I wanted to make a change, do something that I wanted to do, and give me a little bit more control over my life and my trajectory in life. I went to law school at night, working full-time during the day.

[00:03:43] John Reed: You get your Juris Doctor; you pass the bar exam. Then what? I mean, you said a moment ago that working for somebody else wasn't in the cards necessarily. What did you do when you got admitted? What was the first step? 

[00:03:57] John Szymankiewicz: At least through law school and afterwards, my goal was to work in a small firm, a small group of folks that are more or less self-determining and not a large corporate atmosphere. I graduated sort of at the tail end of the 2008 recession, so there were just not a lot of jobs. I knew people who had graduated the year before me that were still working at Starbucks as a barista who hadn't found anything. I decided to hang out a shingle and give it a shot on my own.

[00:04:24] John Reed: Okay. So, this is where the masterclass lesson begins. First lesson – survival. Tell us what the practice of law year one looked like for you. What did you do to go about building your practice and building your business?

[00:04:38] John Szymankiewicz: It boiled down to two pieces. What I want to do and what I have to do to do what I want to do.And survival's a great way to put that. For the first few years of my practice, I practiced what I would call "threshold law." Whatever kind of problem comes over the threshold, that's the kind of law I practice. Criminal defense and court-appointed work. I did some bankruptcy work. I did contracts and some corporate stuff. I did trademarks. You know, got enough clients, made the bills, drew a very small salary for those first year, two years, and made ends meet. But the point I had in my mind going through that was, "Okay, this is what I have to do to make ends meet. What is it I want to do?" And even while I was practicing that threshold law, but I only marketed for one sort of thing, and I've marketed for what I want to do. And for me, that was alcohol law. 

[00:05:33] John Reed: When did you come to the conclusion about alcohol law being your thing? 

[00:05:38] John Szymankiewicz: I've been a homebrewer for more than 20 years now. I've been a craft beer guy for about as long and going to homebrewer conferences and talking to people and brewers. It's a fun industry, and it's a good group of people. They're almost all sort of what I think of as rugged individualists, people who are looking to buck the system to carve their own path.

[00:06:02] And they're also people who are really invested in the idea of a premium artisanal product, creating something special that they pour their heart and soul into. And they're willing to take a risk on it. And I'm like, "Okay, these are the people I want to work with." So, I decided, "Okay, how am I going to help other people do that?" 

[00:06:21] John Reed: The lesson there is, well, actually two, the way you described it. The first is, as you consider a niche practice, stick with what you know. You've got an interest, maybe even a passion, in something. And I think the second part of the lesson is, and you know your audience. The way you described the typical craft artisan brewer and the risks they take, and the risk aversion they may or may not have. You already had some indication of who you're going to be dealing with, and you could speak the language. 

[00:06:53] John Szymankiewicz: You've got a great point about going with something, you know. I've got some good friends that are carving a niche out of video game and e-sports law work --an incredibly interesting and a very sexy topic. And I could not possibly do that because I know doodly squat about it. I don't have an intuitive grasp of the audience, of the kind of issues, all of that sort of stuff. It's not what I know. So, I think that's a really important point. 

[00:07:22] John Reed: So, you got your home brewing experience. And then you've got your homegrown industry experience. How did you supplement that? For the things that you didn't know about the industry, what was your course of study, as it were? 

[00:07:35] John Szymankiewicz: I believe you have to go to where your clients are. For me, it was about being there when the clients were there. Whether it was a new beer release, a festival, a conference, I tried to be at all of those things and talk to people about what their issues were or what they saw, or what questions they had. 

[00:07:57] And it was really, really hard to not try and advertise my services and go, "Oh, hey, I can help you with that issue. That's a trademark thing." But just getting to understand what's out there. What are the things people are seeing? What are they talking about? And then saying, "I'm not sure either. Let me go figure that out. Let me see what I can find out, and I'll tell you about it."

[00:08:17] Or starting to try and work through some of those details with people. I did a lot of reading. The amount of information that's available to us is so much better. So, there's a lot more opportunities to go out and research those little weird questions. "Okay. Here's how this state does it. And here's what this means here. And somebody did that this way. Well, I don't think they're right." And kind of try and synthesize all of that stuff to make something that people would intuitively grasp . 

[00:08:43] John Reed: Again, whether you purposefully intended it or not, you're my instructor here today. You also exercised restraint, which is so incredibly important. You could have found everything you needed to read on the internet and become incredibly well-versed and fluent in the topic, and been the know-it-all at the beer release. You could have been at the conference telling everybody what they should do. But instead, you had the restraint to say, "Let me verify what I've learned." And more importantly, "Let me ask people about their needs and their issues that may have nothing to do with industry, technology, science, brewing processes, whatever else." Is that innate? Where did that come from? 

[00:09:25] John Szymankiewicz: I tried to put myself in these brewers' or entrepreneurs' shoes, and one of the last things they want is to listen to an attorney tell them what an attorney can do for them. Or be pitched at for something they don't think they need. The vast majority of my clients are small breweries, small, independent breweries, wineries, distilleries, where they probably have less than ten employees total, up to 50 maybe, right? These are not large companies. It's always a challenge trying to get them to spend money on something you see that they need, but maybe they don't see that they need it. So, part of that is just the education of them understanding what value I can bring. And what is innate for me, I think in that sense, is I don't believe in that hard sell.

[00:10:13] I am not going to try and force myself down that potential client's throat. My approach is always, "Here, let me tell you what I know. And if you want help, I'm happy to help you." That part, for me, I think, is sort of natural, but it fit with the audience and the clientele I'm going after. 

[00:10:31] John Reed: You talked about being there at these different events –beer releases and conference and trade shows and whatever. Were you the only lawyer in the crowd? Were you the only attorney that was presenting or exhibiting or speaking or appearing? 

[00:10:46] John Szymankiewicz: I remember four or five years ago, I was at a conference here in North Carolina, and there were maybe, I don't know, a hundred, 110 exhibitors at this trade show. And I think there were seven attorneys. And that's a lot of attorneys for only a hundred or so folks where most people come in there to look at equipment or artwork or materials and grain and hops and everything else that the industry needs. Initially, yeah, I think I was like the only one that signed up at the first North Carolina brewers conference. And then a couple more showed up, and then it got really busy, and it kind of fell off again. But when we talk about like the other events – festivals, brewery tours, bottle releases, those kinds of things, oh, I guarantee you, there were other attorneys there. They may not have been alcohol attorneys, but there were definitely attorneys there drinking. That's not a question at all. 

[00:11:43] John Reed: That's quite a commentary.

[00:11:44] John Szymankiewicz: And I say that because probably five, six years after I started Beer Law Center, I would get two or three calls a week saying, "How do I get to be a beer lawyer?" And I said, "Well, first thing. Marry well because there was no money in this." It's a lot of work, and it's not as lucrative and as exciting as a lot of people think it is. I've been doing this exclusively for going on 11, 12 years now, and I just now made slightly more than half of what I did my last year as an engineer. I took an enormous pay cut to do what I liked doing. And my wife will tell you that she would do that in a heartbeat cause I'm a much happier person. 

[00:12:28] John Reed: Back to the lesson plan, this lesson is expectations. You don't have any misconceptions about the industry or where this path will take you, probably because you have done such a nice job of understanding your audience and the individuals and the marketplace. You know what your earning potential is. There's no disappointment when something doesn't happen because you've got your expectations laid out. 

[00:12:55] John Szymankiewicz: And I think that's borne out as well because my practice is dedicated exclusively to alcohol work and there just aren't many attorneys really in the country that are exclusively alcohol. Do I want to have part of my practice as alcohol and maybe some other area as a more lucrative practice area? Or do I want to focus on this and miss some of that opportunity cost? And that's something you kind of have to, in my mind, re-evaluate on an ongoing basis. Is this still what I want to be doing as my nine-to-five, full-time job, or do I want to do something a little bit different? I keep having that conversation with myself, and I keep coming back to, "No, this is what I like doing." I like working with especially small and independent businesses, working with startups, and bet the house we're going to make this company work. Those are fun people to work with. 

[00:13:49] John Reed: How many of there are you in the U.S. right now?

[00:13:52] John Szymankiewicz: All they do is alcohol work? I'd say there's probably less than two dozen. You know, I think there's probably five or so in the Southeast; I can think of two or three, four, maybe five or six on the west coast. And then sort of dotted throughout the rest of the country. There's, again, some great folks, folks that I go to for advice that only have alcohol work as a part of their practice, but they've got a lot more depth in one area.

[00:14:20] John Reed: You represent yourself in certain ways as a beer attorney. Is there a whiskey attorney? Is there a gin attorney? Are there alcohol lawyers that are devoted exclusively to the wine industry?

[00:14:33] John Szymankiewicz: There are, there are. I think what we've seen in the last, at least 10 or 15 years is that those lines are getting more and more blurred. The craft wine industry is probably 15, 20 years ahead of the craft beer industry. And craft beer is probably again, 10 or 15 years ahead of where the craft spirits industry is.

[00:14:54] There were wine lawyers out there, and there's still wine lawyers out there. And then, over time, they've branched into those other areas as they've come up. And even though I put out my shingle as Beer Law Center, the last six or seven years, I've had to branch out into distilleries and kombucha and mead and wine and all these other kinds of things as those hard and fast lines kind of break down.

[00:15:18] John Reed: Well, you know, John, you were talking about the limited earning capacity. I do think the mead market is going to totally take an upturn. So just mark my words.

[00:15:26] John Szymankiewicz: I hope so. I've got three of those clients betting on it. 

[00:15:28] John Reed: So that brings me to one last lesson here before we take a break. And that is branding. Your official law firm is Mathison & Associates Law Office PLLC, but you've put a lot into Beer Law Center. It's a division of that firm. It's got its own website. You readily promote that name when you're out there. The decision to have that brand, where did that come from? 

[00:15:54] I knew I always had to do something because there is nobody who's going to type in the last name Szymankiewicz into Google. I had to have some other thing that people would know, whether it's me or what I do, know what it is we do, some brand that they would know that by. Where would you go for a question about beer law? The Beer Law Center. That's what we're going to do. And it kinda stuck. 

[00:16:15] John Reed: You've got to have the website, and I understand that. Are you paying for search engine optimization? Are you running Google Ads? Are you spending money to promote that name for people to recognize it? Or is it more of an organic approach where you're blogging, you're creating content, and you're promoting yourself that way?

[00:16:36] John Szymankiewicz: We try and stay away from paid advertisements and SEO work. My personal belief is you put information out there, you put content out there, you put yourself out there, and that's the basis of how you get people to trust you, want to work with you, believe in you, or have value in what you say. The vast majority of our clients are folks who found us either through one of our other clients, or I've got clients that I talked to for two, three, four years at festivals or conferences or events before they finally came and said, "Hey, can you help me with this?"

[00:17:16] And I've got a lot more value for that because that was one where they sought us out because of who we are, not because they saw us on an ad somewhere. So, we keep a lot of that to a minimum and try and grow from a grassroots perspective. Don't get me wrong. Instagram, Facebook – we'll do an occasional boost of a post or something like that. But especially early on, I'd say 90, 95 percent of my marketing was in writing, was in blogging and going out and talking to people and leaving a business card. I said, "I'm not trying to sell you anything, but if you ever have any questions, give me a call. I don't charge for a consult." You know, those sorts of things. And then, of course, all of that stuff led to the book from a couple of years ago. 

[00:18:02] John Reed: Tell us about the book.

[00:18:05] John Szymankiewicz: There's a lot of books out there about how to start a brewery, how to start a winery, or what have you. Whether it's the book from the Brewers Association or Stan Calagione from Dogfish Head's Brewing Up a Business. Great books. But they're 100, maybe 150 pages long, and I think there's about nine pages on legal stuff. I make my living in that nine pages. And so, I felt like this just isn't enough for people to understand the breadth of what's going on from a legal perspective, when you try and open an alcohol business.

[00:18:38] After a while, I had a lot of blog content. I had a lot of writing and a lot of notes, and so forth. I gathered all that stuff up together. And so, we published a book a few years ago called Beer Law, and really try and take folks through, "So I know I need to buy brewery equipment. I know I need to have a place to put it. I know that I need to have recipes. I know I need to have employees. But how do I do that from a legal side?" 

[00:19:02] And so there's a chapter on forming your corporation. There's a chapter on leases and contracts. There's a chapter on federal licensing and state licensing and trademark issues. And just try to step through all the things that we do on a day-to-day basis. At least give people some ammunition to at least know what they don't know in a lot of cases. 

[00:19:22] John Reed: How else are you leveraging that? 

[00:19:24] John Szymankiewicz: As a marketing tool for me, it does a couple of things. It gives me more credibility with organizations that I haven't worked with before. When I say, "Hey, I want to speak to your members," or "Hey, I want to do this, or let me provide you with information. Let me help you generate content." It opens that up a little bit more cause it gives me some sort of built-in credibility. 

[00:19:46] Beyond that, I do give those out to select clients, especially when I get an early brewery or a winery or distillery, that's sort of early in the planning stages. And I'm like, "Okay, I don't know whether to form a corporation or an LLC. Okay, timeout. I will be happy to take your money, but here's a book. And if you read through this, you will save yourself a lot of money and me a lot of time. And then let's talk about where you want to go with it after you have some basis in this." And people really appreciate that. Like, "Oh, I didn't know there was something like this out there. "

[00:20:18] John Reed: We're going to take a break, but when we come back, we'll continue our business development and marketing masterclass with alcohol lawyer, not alcoholic lawyer, alcohol lawyer, John Szymankiewicz.

[00:21:23] We are back with alcohol law attorney – wine, distillery, craft beer law attorney John Szymankiewicz. 

[00:21:34] John Szymankiewicz: If it ferments or inebriates, we work with it. So yeah. All of those things. 

[00:21:39] John Reed: You are the fermentation lawyer. Maybe that's the replacement for the Beer Law Center. So let me ask you probably the ultimate question, and that is: you and I meet for the first time over a beer at a networking event, and I ask you what you do. What do you say? 

[00:21:55] John Szymankiewicz: So, my normal spiel to folks is, "I have a very unusual sort of practice niche. I work almost exclusively with breweries, wineries, and distilleries." 

[00:22:07] John Reed: And then I say, "Well, what does that entail?" And how do you describe the nature of the services you offer?

[00:22:14] John Szymankiewicz: Okay. And that's a good question. Because as anybody who's practiced law for 10 minutes knows, the law can be lots and lots of different things. What I tell people is that I'm essentially a business attorney with an alcohol overlay. We are basically a transactional firm. Most of our stuff has to do with pushing paper around contracts, leases, state and federal agencies. We very rarely get into litigation. And it's all about helping businesses knock down hurdles that are in their way. And if we can do that without litigation, everybody's happier. 

[00:22:51] Our bread and butter is we touch and help businesses. Everything from, "Gosh, I need to form an LLC," up to, "Hey, I've been running my brewery for 20 years. I'm ready to sell out." "Can you help me buy or sell a brewery?" And sort of everything in between.

[00:23:09] We're a generalist, like I said, in that sense, and you know, that's where I rely on a lot of good and even great colleagues and lawyers not only here in North Carolina where I'm based, but around the country for stuff. I know if I've got a distribution agreement question, I need to call this guy. If it's a trademark dispute or opposition, I need to call this lady over here in Colorado. And we really kind of pull on each other as a sort of countrywide bar, if you will, that's kind of in this fairly narrow niche. 

[00:23:41] John Reed: There's another master class lesson, which is, don't be afraid to ask for help. There is a collegiality, and sometimes I find in niche practices – and the nichier the better – that collegiality is very strong, and people are willing to help each other out, and you're certainly proving that. 

[00:23:59] John Szymankiewicz: Well, and it's got two sides to that. Don't be afraid to ask for help, and don't burn bridges. If you're in a very narrow practice area, you're going to see these people again. I've got folks in other states and even in my home state that I refer people to, and I've had people referred to me from some of those same attorneys. I think in any narrow practice area, you kind of get to know the people who practice in that space. And if you make enemies, it just hurts you. 

[00:24:28] John Reed: So about this area of the law, what you do, is it largely a regulatory or transactional practice? What's the law that governs what you advise clients to do? 

[00:24:39] John Szymankiewicz: That's a great question. I would say our practice is largely regulatory and transactional but, in terms of what law governs, it depends on where you are in the process or where you are and what's going on. 

[00:24:52] For example, if you're an alcohol producer, you have to be licensed by both the federal and the state government. And there's federal statutes and laws that govern what you can do and how you can do it. And then there's this whole other set of state laws and regulations that govern as well. And if you're really lucky, they don't conflict with each other. 

[00:25:13] A good example is alcohol label compliance. Whether it's whiskey or beer or wine, all those labels on all those packages have to have some sort of approval process. And if it crosses state lines, there's a federal process for that called certificate of label approval. Here's the list of things that have to be on that label. And here's the list of things that cannot be on that label and down to things like it must be in this size font or bigger, those sorts of questions. And then. Okay. So, let's say a brewery in Virginia has an approved federal label. That doesn't mean that that same label is going to be okay in North Carolina because North Carolina has its own set of requirements for labels.

[00:25:56] So really kind of helping folks understand, "well, here's how you have to do it to be compliant and avoid enforcement actions or violations of code violations." That sort of thing.

[00:26:08] John Reed: With both the gaps, as well as the duplication between state and federal law, one would think, it still leaves a lot of room for creative lawyering. I'm curious to hear about creative solutions that you've brought to the table with clients. 

[00:26:25] John Szymankiewicz: In North Carolina where I'm based - and I practice in North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and DC. But here in North Carolina, our alcohol regulations are prescriptive rather than prohibitive. So as a producer or a seller or wholesaler, you can only do what it says you can do. If it doesn't say anything, then it's not allowed. That's different from state to state. Some states just tell you, like every other area of the law, here's what you can't do. 

[00:26:53] So, for us here in North Carolina, our regulations don't say anything about social media. Does that mean it's the wild, wild west, and anything goes? No, it means you're governed somehow. But how are you governed? And here in North Carolina, the answer is social media is advertising. So, you have to abide by the advertising regulations. Well, that's not always intuitive either because, unlike radio ads or newspaper ads, or TV, social media is interactive.

[00:27:25] How does that work? If you promote a Facebook post and you want to boost the people who see that, is that more like a billboard or is that more like a radio announcement? Is that more like a flyer, or is that more like a sign on the side of the building? And they're all kind of governed slightly differently.

[00:27:43] How do we be creative and convince somebody at the regulators that we want it to come out this way, and here's why that's the right answer? So, we do a fair amount of that. 

[00:27:53] John Reed: Here in Michigan, we've got some pretty noteworthy craft breweries. And a lot of them have now restaurants. They have places for customers to come in and enjoy their product, as opposed to just manufacture it and distribute. Is that common in the industry?

[00:28:12] And do you also deal with the issues that go along with that? Not just from a zoning perspective, but where you now have a place of business where you're hosting the public? 

[00:28:21] John Szymankiewicz: The answer to all of those questions is yes. In the last, I don't know, five or six years, I've helped five or six dozen breweries open. Maybe more than that. And I'd say, I can only remember like two that didn't have some sort of onsite retail component, whether it was a taproom or a restaurant or something like that. For folks in this industry, the margins are so much better for that over the bar top sale versus putting it in a package and selling it at the grocery store or offsite. That part, that on-premises consumption, is a huge part of the craft beer and wine and distilling industries, quite frankly. We then start working with folks on, all right, now we don't have just a manufacturing facility. We have a place that's open to the public. What does that mean? And particularly when you're selling alcohol, think of some of the strangest employment law issues you've ever heard of and then think, "Well, what if they were also selling alcohol at the same time?" So, helping people with things like employee manuals and having policies about can you have a beer during your shift or after your shift, or how many beers can you have, or what's our policy about that?

[00:29:33] Are we giving it away? Are we charging half price? What's our tolerance for accidents, and what has to happen from an investigation standpoint if they're inebriated? It just adds an entirely different layer than most people are comfortable with or understand intuitively from a work environment. 

[00:29:51] John Reed: Both from the perspective of those types of breweries and distilleries as well as your practice, what impact did COVID have? 

[00:30:00] John Szymankiewicz: Unfortunately, the entire industry took a hit. The onsite sales dropped to nothing in a very short period of time. And it has been a fight to get things back to where they were. Some states and some areas were able to do that more quickly than others. And that overall helped the breweries, wineries, and distilleries in those areas. That being said, COVID kind of shut things down going right into late spring and summer, which is prime time, especially for the beer industry. That's a huge gap in where people thought their income would be versus where it is. 

[00:30:39] I'm very fortunate. Most of my clients are in the recovery phase from that now and have weathered the storm. But one of the things that I think COVID taught the industry was the importance of diversification. Because, as I said, that the conventional wisdom for years has been focus on your taproom sales. That's where the margins are high. That same keg that you can sell wholesale at $130, that's probably worth over a thousand dollars if you sell it one pint at a time over the bar top. And so lots and lots of breweries, especially, had to pivot to, "Okay, how do we get stuff in packages? How do we get things for people to take home? How do we get things to go?" Where before, their only way of serving was by the pint glass on site. So, I think the main lesson the industry overall is going to take away from this is how do we have multiple income streams off of this one type of product? 

[00:31:40] John Reed: Distilleries that rose to the occasion and converted over to producing hand sanitizers. What were the legal issues with making that switch? 

[00:31:48] John Szymankiewicz: That was an interesting time. I remember working with some of my distillery clients last year. They're like, "Hey, we need like 24-hours' notice, and we can switch from making whiskey to  making hand sanitizer. What do we need to do that?"

[00:32:03] And so, you know, we'd go through some of the guidelines and both the FDA and the TTB, which is the tax and trade bureau. The folks who regulate alcohol producers really tried hard to get guidelines out there quickly to go, "Okay. Make the hand sanitizer. Don't worry if you're not licensed for that, we'll take care of it later."

[00:32:22] "Go ahead and do it. And don't worry about your tax rate. We'll take care of that later." And so, lots of folks all over the country, especially at distilleries, really pivoted and were able to turn out a lot of stuff. You know, one of my clients I was very proud of, he was devoting half or more of his production just to feeding the hospital down the street from his distillery. He basically provided all of their hand sanitizer alcohol or sanitizing alcohol for months because they couldn't get any in. 

[00:32:49] To their credit, the federal government, the state governments did step in. There were a couple of hiccups where government agencies didn't quite talk to each other, but overall, it was surprisingly smooth. And again, it makes me feel good working in the industry where you saw a lot of people drop what they're doing to do what they knew was right.

[00:33:10] John Reed: The master class lesson – be flexible. You didn't let a good crisis go to waste. Being on top of the regulations so that when your clients wanted to do something different, you were prepared to advise. Sometimes faster than the state and federal government could keep up. But also, you mentioned earlier -- and I wanted to point this out -- initially admitted in North Carolina, you are now also admitted in West Virginia, DC, and I forgot the other jurisdiction.

[00:33:39] John Szymankiewicz: In Virginia, as well.

[00:33:39] John Reed: So, you were flexible in looking for new markets, looking for blue oceans,  underscoring this idea of being flexible and looking for opportunities even when times are bad. 

[00:33:49] John Szymankiewicz: I would sort of throw in that sort of trifecta – be flexible and looking for opportunities, go to where your clients are. And the third one is a rising tide lifts all boats. Right? So, are you fighting for your part of a fixed pie, or are you helping to grow the pie? I tell clients this all the time, "Look, I've been doing this for a while. I know I'm not the right attorney for everybody. The important thing is you find an attorney you want to work with. And then what that means is you get what you need, and we all get better beer, or we all get better wine." Because we're talking about growing the pie, and from my perspective, that's a huge part of sort of being genuine and caring about what you do and the industry you're serving.

[00:34:32] John Reed: We are unabashed dog lovers here on Sticky Lawyers. So, John, talk to us about your relationship with Bassett Hounds.

[00:34:43] John Szymankiewicz: Oh, my wife and I have been a foster home for a Carolina Bassett Hound rescue for about 24 years now. At last count, we've had something like 100, 120 dogs go through our house over the last 20 odd years.

[00:34:58] John Reed: That is a lot of drool.

[00:35:01] John Szymankiewicz: That's a lot of drool. We always make sure and get the gloss paint, so it's easier to clean, you know, as slobber is slung along the walls and so forth. But yeah, we love Basset Hounds. We've had many what I refer to as foster failures -- dogs that came into the house and never left because we adopted them. We've been a Bassett retirement home for a few years, working with a lot of senior dogs. We've had an unusual love affair with the Basset Hounds as a breed. One of the stories I like telling was when we got our first Basset Hound, my daughter was about two and a half, three years old. And we had a few simple rules that we were kind of looking at. Had to be good with kids. It couldn't be too bright because both my wife and I worked, and at the end of the day, I did not want a dog that was trying to outsmart me. It had to be more or less sedentary. Again, at the end of the working day, I really don't want to have to take the dog jogging for a couple of hours to burn off that dog's energy. I'm already tired. And then the other one was, it had to be heavier than my daughter's body weight. As a breed, they fit our lifestyle. Their temperament is wonderful – such sweet dogs. And we love working with rescue.

[00:36:11] John Reed: Well, it's good that you're doing that. And I love your criteria. Probably more dog owners or prospective dog owners should apply those factors when considering what they're going to do.

[00:36:20] John Szymankiewicz: Well, it's always one of those that you always see occasionally that person jogging with their Basset Hound. And really, at that point, you know both of them are miserable. So, you know, you pick the dog that's going to work for you, not the dog you think is cute. 

[00:36:33] John Reed: I, too, love dogs. They're all wonderful creatures.

[00:36:36] John, this has been a fabulous conversation, and I appreciate you indulging me in this masterclass approach that we've taken today. If people want to learn more about you and your practice, maybe buy a copy of your book, where should they go to find out that information? 

[00:36:52] John Szymankiewicz: The easiest place is our website: Beerlawcenter.com. We're also on Twitter and Instagram and all those wonderful things @beerlawcenter, or just drop me an email at john@beerlawcenter.com. 

[00:37:04] John Reed: We will certainly put that information up on the various places where our podcast appears. John, I cannot thank you enough. It's been fun. I really enjoyed this conversation. 

[00:37:14] John Szymankiewicz: Absolutely. I had a blast, and anytime y'all want to talk some more, I'd be happy to. This was a great time, and I really appreciate you having me on.

[00:37:20] John Reed: Thanks, John. 

[00:37:20] John Szymankiewicz: All right. Cheers.

[00:37:22] John Reed: And thank you, Sticklers – our Sticky Lawyer listeners – for pulling up a stool and sharing a pint with us today. Please be sure to check out other episodes for engaging conversations with attorneys who stand out. You can find them wherever you get your podcasts or visit stickylawyers.com, where you can also view episode transcripts, read about our guests, and recommend a standout attorney who might be a future guest. 

[00:37:46] Until next time. I'm John Reed, and you've been listening to Sticky Lawyers.

John Szymankiewicz

Beer & Alcohol Lawyer

John focuses his law practice on delivering outstanding service to clients by helping them create, grow, and maintain their businesses. He has a special passion for the craft beer and artisanal alcohol industry and is often the attorney-of-choice for the new brewer, vintner, distiller, owner, investor, or manager.