France Michaud | Desjardins Group
In 2013, Joël Pelletier and Jean-François Cloutier, spirits enthusiasts, decided to go into craft alcohol production. They did a lot of reading and took special courses, which involved trips to Chicago. "There was a lot of excitement about microbreweries in the States, which began to spread to Canada later on, and more recently to Quebec."
In spring 2015 they founded Distillerie St. Laurent in Rimouski. "Initially we wanted to produce whisky," says Pelletier. This production requires 3 main ingredients: barley, fresh water and yeast. "Our region, the Lower St. Lawrence, is the biggest producer of barley in Quebec. We've also got lots of fresh water! All that was missing was a still and expertise, which we're still developing."
In the meantime, Pelletier and Cloutier launched Gin St. Laurent: gin infused with Laminaria Longicruris, a locally hand-harvested seaweed that grows in the St. Lawrence River. The gin, which doesn't have to be aged as long as whisky, allowed them to make a name (and a living) for themselves, before moving on phase 2 of their venture--whisky.
Double or nothing
The young entrepreneurs faced many challenges, and had to do double or nothing. They had to get two licenses from the federal government, and another from the provincial government to produce their spirits. And to get those licenses, they needed the necessary facilities and equipment first. "When we were approaching possible financing partners, saying that we wanted to distill spirits, we weren't taken very seriously," recalls Pelletier with a smile. "We had to prove that we were good enough to interest the SAQ, the only potential avenue for a business like ours. But that challenge was motivation in itself!" he says.
In the beginning, the only thing the 2 intrepid entrepreneurs had was their own savings and "love money" from family and friends. "We were like cow-boys!" says Pelletier. "Fortunately, Desjardins showed confidence in us by giving us a small line of credit. That saved us at a key point in our venture, when we really needed the cash."
And then, they got a small loan from the community credit organization Réseau Accès Crédit (RAC), a partner of the Desjardins caisses in the Desjardins Microcredit to Businesses program. "They really got on board right from the start, even though our venture involved lots of challenges and risks. We definitely wouldn't have been able to launch without their confidence and financial support," says Pelletier.
Access to financing: the crux of the battle!
"Unfortunately, not everyone is equal when it comes to credit," says Étienne Lessard, of RAC. "Some entrepreneurs have the right ventures and the right tools to see them through, but they aren't able to secure the financing they need. That's where our organization comes in: when other doors are closed."
RAC's approach focuses a lot on listening and close support. "We can't prematurely judge the ideas brought to us. We guide entrepreneurs, by sharing our ideas and advice with them, but they're still the captains of their ship!" says Lessard.
Today, Pelletier and Cloutier, respectively "brand admiral" and "production captain," are very proud of being able to successfully launch their venture. "We had a crazy idea and we stuck with it, we took it all the way," says Pelletier. Lessard wholeheartedly agrees. "Throughout the whole process, they remained rooted in their idea," he says. "I wasn't surprised to see on their website adjectives like proud, stubborn and independent, which captures their attitude perfectly!"
Until early May, Pelletier and Cloutier were both still working full-time. "We would do production on the weekend, and bottle in the evening," says Pelletier. But they made the big leap, and are now 100% dedicated to their business. "I have a lot of admiration for those who have the courage to leave a salaried position to focus on their dream and create their own job," says Lessard.
Gin St. Laurent made its SAQ debut in February 2016. The first 200 bottles delivered to the Rimouski store sold in just 11 minutes! Today, Distillerie St. Laurent distills and bottles 3,600 bottles a month. They have an excellent reputation and have won a number of awards. And they've already starting to attract importers from France and Switzerland. Stay tuned!
Some advice for budding entrepreneurs?
- Don't think that it's going to be easy once you become your own boss ... Expect to invest tons of time, energy and money in your venture. Family life can suffer! You have to be persistent ... but not let your business take over your whole life.
- Surround yourself with good people, and don't be afraid to ask questions. For example, in accounting, we needed help with capital. (Distillerie du St. Laurent received support from the RAC, but also from the Société de promotion économique de Rimouski [SOPER], which gave them a small loan and help with their business plan.)
usiness owners: Jean-François Cloutier and Joël Pelletier
Name of business: Distillerie St. Laurent
Activity: Craft spirits production
In business since: 2015