Clay Robinson took the direct route to building his own brewery. He started at the source.
Robinson is the co-founder of Sun King, Sarasota’s newest brewery, and he’s been working in beer his entire adult life. He started at Rock Bottom Brewery in his native Indiana at the age of 24, and a decade later, he wound up starting his own brewery with friend Dave Colt.
Sun King, opened in 2009, grew by leaps and bounds and eventually spawned another six locations.
Now, Robinson is sitting in the remodeled former JDub’s Brewing Company location on Mango Ave. — which opened on July 22 — and he’s getting ready to move his life and his family to Florida.
“My grandparents lived in Clearwater when I was a kid. So I spent a lot of time in southwest Florida,” he says. “As an adult, coming down and seeing it again, the area's beautiful. Sarasota, in particular.
"As we started talking about our lives and our growth strategies, we realized that if we could open a brewery in Florida — which has been very welcoming and enjoys our beer — then we would have an opportunity to become part of the craft beer community and grow our presence in Florida. We’re Sun King. It’s the Sunshine State."
His life never had to take this turn.
There were no frustrating evenings spent in his garage trying to perfect his process.
Robinson learned the brewery business at Rock Bottom, and then he later moved to work at Ram Restaurant and Brewery in 2005. That’s where he began working with Colt, and as they started to get to know each other a little better, they immediately started dreaming new dreams.
“At the end of our first week together, we were having a beer and the conversation started,” he says. “‘What would you do if you could open your own brewery?’ That conversation lasted three years while we worked together. After three years of talking about it, we were working on some plans, talking with some chef and restaurant partners trying to figure out how to do a brewpub. We realized that restaurants and breweries cost a lot of money to open, so we decided we didn't want to be a restaurant and brewery; we just wanted to be a brewery.”
Things happened quickly for Sun King, which just celebrated its 13th anniversary.
Robinson had quit his job, cashed in his savings and made a bet on himself. His initial five-year goal was to brew about 5,000 barrels a year, and that came quicker than expected.
Sun King went from 500 barrels in 2009 to 5000 barrels in 2010, and it kept on expanding by about 5,000 barrels a year. Robinson says Sun King now brews about 30,000 barrels a year, and he hopes that his Florida location will eventually produce 5,000 barrels of its own.
“What we're sitting in today is what we actually imagined Sun King would look like when we imagined it,” he says. “We started the brewery, and then every year since we had to buy equipment and grow and grow and grow. So there were a lot of logistical challenges. We went from four owners working 80 hours a week (in) year one, and today we have 60-plus full-time employees, and 100 and some part-time employees between seven locations.”
Sun King has some Florida employees helping to build the brand. Joe Burns, the brewery’s vice president of sales, has lived in Sarasota for 20 years, and he previously worked for Cigar City in Tampa.
Tim Marshall, Sun King’s head brewer in Florida, learned the business by brewing at Rock Bottom Brewery in Daytona. Despite all their built-in advantages, Sun King found they had a lot of work to do.
They didn’t have to do any heavy construction in taking over the JDub’s facility, but they did have to replace drywall, resurface the bar, add tile and do some heavy industrial cleaning.
“We actually tore everything apart,” says Robinson. “The concrete floors had never been coated, so they were pitted and cracked. We pulled all the brewing equipment to the other side of the building and we had the floors professionally coated and slanted.
"Somebody who was here the other day was like, ‘You could eat off these floors.’ That’s the point.”
Robinson says that while all the construction was happening, he came to a personal realization.
He brought his wife, Staraya, and daughter, Zaya, down to frolic on Siesta Key while he was doing the hard work of refurbishing the Mango Ave. location.
And then, once they went back to Indiana, the family realized they could just move to Florida.
"We went back up to the Midwest in late spring and it was so cold,” says Robinson.
"We were talking and my wife was like, 'Do you think we could move to Florida?’ I'm like, as it happens, we're opening a business in Florida. We can absolutely do that.”
So now, Robinson is in the midst of his move. He has a son due next month, and his daughter will start school as a Florida resident in January. Everything is coming together for Sun King.
“We're having a baby and we'll move down later this fall,” he says.
“We actually sold our house in Indiana. We're living with her parents right now, so we’ve got family support while my life is crazy with getting breweries open and doing all this. It's a lot of moving pieces."