John Machacek, Chief Innovation Officer for the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corporation, has worked with countless startups throughout our community over the past nine years. He knows their ups, and their downs, but most of all, he knows the questions to ask them. Here are John Machacek’s 10 questions for Aaron Juhnke, Founder of Junkyard Brewing which was recently named “Coolest Brewery” in Minnesota by TripsToDiscover.
01: Will you please tell us your Junkyard Brewing Company elevator pitch?
I’ve always hated elevator pitches because when attempting to write them, I feel like I am either boasting or desperately trying to get someone’s attention who doesn’t really care about what I have to say. With that said, I think Junkyard Brewing Company has come pretty far in 10 years. My brother Dan and I started the business with our savings right out of college in our early 20s, and from that scrappy beginning, Junkyard Brewing has come to be regarded as a top-tier brewery in Minnesota. Our busy taproom has become a destination and has helped to spur the redevelopment and revitalization of our neighborhood. People call our taproom the “Cheers Bar” of Fargo-Moorhead. We’ve also tried our hardest to be a positive influence on the culture of our community by creating a welcoming space for everybody, and by giving back to our community through a host of fundraisers, donations and other community-building events.
02: What do you consider your specialty when it comes to brewing?
Our specialty is experimenting and constantly pushing the boundaries of what beer can be. I think people have come to know us mostly for our fruited sours, hazy IPAs, and pastry stouts, but we can do a good job with pretty much any style of beer out there. We are also known for constantly rotating our tap menu and the beers we send out to our distribution accounts. We don’t have what I would call “flagship” beers, although there are definitely fan-favorites that we’ve brewed many times over the years. I think that the constant rotation helps to keep people interested, but it can also be a doubleedged sword in the sense that sometimes people just want something familiar. Our business strategy also requires us to really watch the trends closely and stay on top of anything new that comes along in our industry.
03: I love the vibe and aesthetics of Junkyard. How would you describe it or what you are going for with the design and feel?
When Dan and I were designing Junkyard, there was a design trend that I would call “Industrial” and it used a lot of metal and reclaimed wood. Raw concrete floors were also starting to become more common in retail-focused businesses at the time. The Industrial design trend was attractive to us because it brought together a sense of the manufacturing process that is essential to a brewery and our sense that we needed to be able to execute something that looked really cool on a tight budget. The design of our taproom is a riff on the Industrial design trend and I think the biggest unique component that we added was the graffiti-style artwork all over our taproom walls. The artwork is mostly based on our beer logos, and most of it was painted by my mom, who is a great artist and has patience for doing those large format paintings.
04: And speaking of your space, when you first opened along 1st Avenue North in Moorhead, to me it seemed a little off the beaten path at the time, but the corridor has really improved, including your facility. Why that spot?
We initially found ourselves on 1st Avenue North due to a connection with the homebrew store that used to be operated by Ron Stroh on the north side of 1st Avenue. My brother and I used to get some of our supplies from Ron and at some point, we brought our plan of starting a brewery to him, and surprisingly he was interested. Ron made a deal with us that helped us to get started in a tiny little spot between his homebrew supply store and his cabinet shop in the rear of the building. In that location, we were only offering growler refills on Wednesdays and Fridays, and selling a few kegs to local bars. After about half a year at that location, we began moving to our current location where we added the taproom part of the business that allowed us to sell beer by the glass.
After starting on 1st Avenue in Moorhead in Ron’s building, we really began to appreciate the benefits of being located along this corridor. For starters, this road has really high traffic counts and is my personal favorite route to get through Moorhead if I’m traveling east/west. However, our area of Moorhead was in rough shape at the time we opened the brewery. The 1st Avenue corridor had a bunch of old buildings that were either vacant or were being used for unexciting purposes such as storage spaces. So, another big reason that this area of town appealed to us was that rent was relatively cheap, because there wasn’t much demand for the properties, and that allowed us to get started with very few resources. Since we’ve opened, Moorhead has enjoyed a lot of redevelopment and revitalization. Several large apartments and mixed-use buildings have gone up on the next block east of us on what were formerly empty lots—and several other vacant buildings in our neighborhood have been either torn down or redeveloped. A couple of other reasons why we liked being in Moorhead were the high-quality water and the positive and supportive attitude of the community, versus on the North Dakota side of the river where we got the sense that things were more competitive.
05: You’ve made a number of capital investments throughout your existence. How do you go about deciding what and when to pull the trigger on making these investment decisions?
We have always based our investments on customer demand, so when we’ve become unable to keep up with demand in one way or another, that’s when we have decided it was time to expand. I think this business strategy is generally going to mean that we are relatively slow growing, but that’s okay with me. Some of my greatest influences and role models in the brewing industry are family-owned companies that have grown quite large, but they’ve done it over the course of decades. I also like that it’s generally pretty financially safe to expand the business in response to demand, versus hoping that demand will catch up with growth, or trying to go out and drum up some demand. We moved from our tiny spot at Ron’s shop to our taproom location in 2014 in response to our customers telling us they wished we had a place to hang out and drink beer by the glass. When we started selling out of beers in the taproom we started adding more equipment. Eventually, the taproom space and our brewing equipment couldn’t keep up with demand anymore and we needed to expand the brewing space in 2017 and then expanded our taproom in 2018.
06: Your social media and videos are very creative and active. What’s your strategy behind that?
Our social media accounts have been run by several different people over the years, and each person has had their own style and way of using our social media to promote the business and engage with people. When we started the business, Dan and I did a lot of our social media posting ourselves, and I really enjoyed the creativity of trying to constantly come up with interesting ways to convey information or get people interested. My wife Michelle and I started managing our social media ourselves around January of this year, so we’ve been doing that for around 7 months now and it’s been a lot of fun to get back into it. I enjoy doing most of the video content and she does most of the photo content. For the video content, I just keep a list of ideas that I think would make fun videos and when I have some time to shoot the footage, I can just reference my list and get right to shooting content.
07: I imagine there are a lot of armchair brewers out there that have a dream of opening a brewery, and you probably get a lot of those conversations at the brewery. What are some misconceptions and advice you may have?
It’s not easy. There are many breweries that appear to be knocking it out of the park, but there are many more that have quickly crumbled and fallen.
It’s common for entrepreneurs to look at the positive examples in an industry while ignoring the negative examples. In a way, that mentality probably helps people take the leap into business, because if you don’t focus on the positives, you probably won’t ever go into business. But, at the same time, it’s important for entrepreneurs to be realistic and recognize the negative examples in their industry, if only to avoid the pitfalls that have led to the downfalls of other businesses.
For any industry, even if it’s as crowded as the beer industry has become, there is always room at the top if you can come in and do something better than everyone else. If there’s a single secret to success in business, then I haven’t figured it out yet. What I’ve found is that the key to success is to try to do every single thing perfectly.
08: Also with the hopeful brewer entrepreneurs, I’ve noticed that it seems like it’s often a group or team of founders, as opposed to one person going it alone. I know you started Junkyard with your brother. What are your thoughts about going at this with partners?
I don’t know if I could have started Junkyard Brewing without Dan’s help, because we both worked full-time on the business without drawing any pay for around the first year of our operation. We both also worked construction jobs on the side to pay our bills. So, I don’t know how I could have gotten as much done on my own without having the resources to be able to pay any staff to help me do it.
Over the years, Dan and I started to express different visions for the brewery and different comfort levels with growth. Dan wanted us to stay smaller and more hands-on, while I wanted to continue to grow with demand. Dan and his wife Courtney also wanted to move away from Minnesota, and they fell in love with Asheville, NC after taking a vacation there. Together these factors led us to do a deal to buy out Dan’s ownership in Junkyard Brewing so he and Courtney could go and start a new brewery in Asheville with their friend Brian. Michelle and I were there to visit and help out when they opened New Origin Brewing Co. in the summer of 2021.
I think that it’s tempting for a lot of entrepreneurs to go into business with partners because starting a business is scary and many people might assume that doing it with a group of other people will somehow be easier or at least less scary. However, there are many additional unique challenges that come along with having partners in business, so it’s important for entrepreneurs to recognize that and weigh their options carefully.
Having a business partner is an important decision. People often say that it’s like a marriage, and it really is. In many cases, you are forming an emotional and financial bond with your business partners, so it’s a really serious decision to get into business with someone. It’s also important to have an exit strategy because things change in life and people might eventually want to leave the business. The exit strategy is something that I think is easily overlooked because at the beginning everyone thinks everything is going to be great all the time. An essential part of any exit strategy is a buy-sell agreement which outlines all of the important things that need to be agreed upon beforehand in order to make a business separation go as smoothly as possible.
09: If you could go back in time to Aaron from several years ago, what hindsight advice would you give yourself?
I’d tell myself to “eat healthier and get more exercise because you’re not getting any younger.”
10: What can we do as a community to help Junkyard Brewing succeed?
As long as this community maintains an appetite for really tasty beer, I think we’ll be doing great for many years to come. The only things I would ask of the community are to come out and show support for the charitable events that we host, and to tell your legislators that Minnesota should do better to support small breweries with legislation that removes more of the restrictions on small and medium-sized breweries. Small breweries bring value to Minnesota in a couple of big ways. First, there’s the economic impact of the beer being made and sold in Minnesota and all the jobs that go along with that. Second, there’s the cultural impact that breweries have by producing beer that’s associated with a particular region, and in the many ways that breweries tend to give back to their communities.
To learn more, visit www.junkyardbeer.com