Lenny & Amy Eckstein, of the craft distillery Deerhammer, on big career changes and taking risks, leadership and crafting company culture, and squirt boating
(Publication Date: 3.07..23)
In this episode of the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast, host Adam Williams talks with Amy and Lenny Eckstein, the married couple and entrepreneurial energy behind the craft distillery Deerhammer.
Lenny and Amy tell about their East Coast origin story, how they met and made their way west, and why they left behind successful careers in other realms to buy a building on Main Street in a rural mountain town in Colorado and start a distillery.
Amy shares fantastic stories about growing up with a dad and family that hustled to make business ideas happen in Boston. And Lenny introduces Adam to the sport of squirt boating, a form of whitewater kayaking Adam had no idea existed. Among other topics that come up.
SHOW NOTES, LINKS, CREDITS & TRANSCRIPT
The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Departments of Public Health and Housing, and is supported by the Colorado Public Health & Environment: Office of Health Disparities.
Along with being distributed on popular podcast listening platforms (e.g. Spotify, Apple), Looking Upstream is broadcast weekly at 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, on KHEN 106.9 community radio in Salida, Colo., and can be listened to on-demand via khen.org.
Amy & Lenny Eckstein
We Are Chaffee
Looking Upstream Host & Photographer: Adam Williams
Looking Upstream Engineer & Producer: Jon Pray
Producer & We Are Chaffee Community Advocacy Coordinator: Lisa Martin
We Are Chaffee Graphic and Web Design: Heather Gorby
Director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment: Andrea Carlstrom
Director of Chaffee Housing Authority: Becky Gray
Note: Transcripts are produced using a transcription service. Although it is largely accurate, minor errors inevitably exist.
[Intro music, guitar instrumental]
Adam Williams: Welcome to, "We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream," a conversational podcast of humanness based in Chaffee County, Colorado. I'm Adam Williams. Today, I'm talking with Lenny and Amy Eckstein, the married couple and entrepreneurial energy behind the craft distillery Deerhammer.
They tell about their east coast origin story, how they met and made their way west, and why they left behind successful careers in other realms to buy a building on Main Street in a rural mountain town and start a distillery.
More specifically, Amy tells how her shift from a career in nursing to running a whiskey business actually wasn't as out of left field as I thought it might be. And Lenny talks about the passion that led him from graphic design to distilling as an outlet for self-expression. We talk about risk tolerance, and leadership, and successfully shaping a company culture in a time and place where hiring and retaining employees year-round can be extremely challenging.
(00:58): I asked them about community too, and about why Amy entered local politics a few years ago, but then stepped away sooner than expected. Along the way, Amy also shares some fantastic stories about growing up with a dad and a family that hustled to make big business ideas happen. And Lenny introduces me to the sport of squirt boating, a form of whitewater kayaking that I had no idea existed.
And though we do talk about kayaking in this Looking Upstream conversation, I think it's worth the reminder at this point that what the name Looking Upstream refers to is less about the beautiful Arkansas River that drew Amy and Lenny and a lot of us to this piece of Colorado. It's far more about what are known as upstream health factors.
Those factors are all the things that go into making a community healthy, vibrant, and connected. And they present some really big challenges when priorities and policies get out of whack, like with housing affordability, for example.
(01:53): I recommend that you listen to the Looking Upstream trailer on any podcast player to hear more about upstream health factors and what this podcast is all about, and to go to WeAreChaffee.org to learn more.
Okay, so here we go, my conversation with Amy and Lenny Eckstein.
[Transition music, guitar instrumental]
(02:22): All right, well welcome to Looking Upstream. Thanks for being here, Amy and Lenny.
Lenny Eckstein (02:27): We're stoked to be here.
Amy Eckstein (02:27): Thanks for having us.
Adam Williams (02:27): So I want to talk about something in your history. Let's start with, I believe you both came from the east coast, and you are by the way, the co-owners of Deerhammer, which is a craft distillery in Buena Vista, right?
Amy Eckstein (02:42): Correct.
Adam Williams (02:42): Okay, so let's go back to this east coast thing because I'm curious, did you know each other there? Did you meet in Colorado? What brought you to where we are in Colorado? What's that origin story of your relationship and life together?
Lenny Eckstein (02:54): Well, on my side of it, I grew up just outside of Philadelphia and lived in the city for four years, and I made my way to Colorado, and God, I suppose it was I think three or four years into living throughout the state in various areas. This was when the internet was doing its thing, and then the whole bubble burst tech thing happened.
And Amy... And she could speak more to this, I met Amy in Boston. I was on the hunt for a job after a year of doing the ski bum thing in Summit County. And I started getting offers out in the Boston area and took a diversion out that way. So that was a roundabout way of how I was able to even cross Amy's path.
Amy Eckstein (03:47): So I'm from the Boston area. I grew up in Wakefield, Massachusetts, 20 minutes outside Boston. I grew up in an entrepreneur family, and I picked up kayaking just whitewater in early 2000s, I think 2000-ish. And then I was in nursing school in Boston area in Medford, and I had met Lenny. We met kayaking, essentially.
Lenny Eckstein (03:47): That's something that... I don't know, maybe-
Amy Eckstein (04:17): That's how we met.
Lenny Eckstein (04:19): Folks in the Ark Valley might be aware of this, but I think whitewater kayaking is a weird thing for a lot of people, even if they are familiar with it. And one of the... So there's only so much boating or river running that could be done in the winter. And for those that are a little too deep into kayaking, and Amy and I were at the time, swimming pools become a spot where you end up finding your way in the winter; just flopping around in the boat whether you're working on tricks or not. And as it would have it, there were only so many pools and I ended up being in the same pool as Amy at one point.
Adam Williams (04:54): Okay.
Amy Eckstein (04:55): [inaudible 00:04:55]. Massachusetts. So that's how we met. And then we were buddies for a while, camping a lot. And then I finished nursing school, and we moved out to Colorado, and we moved out here together-
Lenny Eckstein (05:09): Yeah, well-
Amy Eckstein (05:10): ... in 2005.
Lenny Eckstein (05:11): That's very true. I felt like I had an interesting path in that as soon as I got to Boston, I knew something wasn't right. I was like, "Oh, what happened to Colorado?" I was like, "Boston is a great place." I got nothing bad to say about it, but I just knew it wasn't my thing. There was a reason why I felt the need to leave Philadelphia. And while it was very cool to explore Boston, and I'm glad I did, I knew I was leaving. And when Amy was finishing nursing school, I was like, "I'm going back to Colorado, and it'd be awesome if you'd come with." And it worked out.
Amy Eckstein (05:41): And I was excited to just check out the west. I had spent so much time. Started guiding in Alaska is where I started, and then spent a lot of time in Maine; loved Maine so much. That's where I did a lot of my whitewater boating, and camp counseling, and just that whole Boston area, learned to become a healthcare professional really. But I was stoked to come out and check out the west. We'd camped so much together and boated so much together.
(06:06): And I really loved Denver, man. I got out here, and I got a fantastic job as a nurse; just really taught me how to be a nurse. It was my first job out of a nursing school was Pres St. Luke's, Presbyterian St. Luke's 10A. It was a surgical step down unit, and I'd learned so much. And then that's when my nursing career started, and that went on for, I don't know, eight years until we opened the Deerhammer in 2012 when we moved here to Chaffee County. And honestly, kayaking is and is really what brought us here too, and we wanted to open a business in a small town. So that's really where BV checked all the boxes.
Adam Williams (06:48): And that's a great segue because I want to talk about Deerhammer. I know that you both had these career histories prior to running all the operations that go along with a craft distillery. Lenny, you had, I think it was around 15 years or so in graphic design in some form or another, in a career in that path. Amy, obviously, you've talked about the nursing. So I do wonder what brought you to this place where you decided you're going to come to BV, and you started this business that was completely unlike what you had had a career in, had experience in. How did that come to be?
And I know that this is part of a story that you share quite a bit in other venues, so I don't want to bore you with you having to answer this question, but if you want to find a medium nutshell version to share with people, let us know. How did you end up deciding, "Wow, we're going to take a totally different path in life"?
Lenny Eckstein (07:50): I don't know that there's an abridged version of it, and the long version's pretty long, but there's a few aspects I reflect on sometimes that I might like to share, I suppose. And I think that, while Amy and I both journeyed towards this at the same time, in a lot of ways they are two very different journeys. I know that mine was one of... I think a lot of people... Whiskey's cool, and a lot of people might fall into it for that reason, and that's great.
I think whatever drives someone towards doing something great and realizing the potential of it is a very good thing. For me, it wasn't that it was cool as much as it was a medium of sorts that wasn't... It was a more compelling medium, a more something that had passion behind it. I felt that it was an outlet for expression, whereas I had exhausted that potential outlet for expression on the design, commercial art, creativity side that was growing dull.
(09:04): And by no means was I at the top of my game in commercial advertising marketing, but I was far enough along that I think I was looking for a challenge of sorts. Where do I start at the bottom and work my way up? And I was actually, I didn't just fall into whiskey. What I fell into in a long stretch of time was just this fascination with making things that I really enjoyed and expressing myself through things I enjoyed.
And at the time, in the early 2000s in Colorado and throughout the front range, craft beer was blowing up, and home brew was blowing up, and Boulder at the time was the epicenter for that surrounding all things. Great American Beer Fest and these home brew shops popping up, that became a creative distraction for me. And even though it's flavors, and it's liquid. And it's not necessarily something that you could frame and put on the wall, that occupied a lot of my time.
(10:07): And I guess hitting the fast forward button a little bit, it just kept progressing. And this passion for fermentation and creation, and even I compare this a lot to visual art. The idea of creating something for the enjoyment of others where I didn't have to really be at the forefront of someone's enjoyment. I could just hang out in the background and shove it forward and let good times happen. Whether the good time is an appreciation or in the case of whiskey, actually enjoying flavors and laughing with friends. So it's hard. Again, it's hard to encapsulate the journey of that, but that was the impetus for it. And I felt like I, in some ways tugged Amy along in a sense, but you could better tell your path in parallel.
Amy Eckstein (11:03): I think if we talk about the partnership; the partnership is the basis of Deerhammer. I grew up in a family business, and all my family just talked about business all the time. All of us worked in the business, and my dad would run all these different businesses.
And so it felt really natural when Lenny and I started dating. It was always camping and kayaking. We're going to do this. And then once we started to talk about business together, and we talked about a brew pub for a while. And then Lenny's like, "You know, whiskey." And that was so early, I was like, "Whiskey? What are you talking about?" Because it hadn't really existed yet.
(11:40): But for me, my pull was just I could see supporting Lenny's vision because I just have such huge respect for you as a creator, you as a visionary. You just know what experience works and what. Then for me as the business, it was, "How do we make it happen? How does this work? What does the execution on this look? How does this grow?" And also just trying to make his vision work is I think where the basis of the partnership was.
Adam Williams (12:10): It was enough to draw you away from nursing. It seems like such a left turn.
Lenny Eckstein (12:15): Sort of wasn't, not at first.
Amy Eckstein (12:19): I think I just always wanted to own my own business in some way, shape, or form. So I think it's leadership is a lot, decision-making is really what is needed as a business owner is those two things. And grit, which that's probably one of the best compliments I've ever received is, "I'm the grit of Deerhammer," just in terms of making that go for so long. But I think it is a left turn, but for me, I just always saw myself in that role as eventually owning a business.
Adam Williams (12:52): Okay.
Lenny Eckstein (12:52): To rewind a little bit, I think there were some funny generational components. When we decided, "We're all in. We're going to do this." Well, we weren't that all in. I remember pretty clearly looking at it and thinking, "I mean, I think it's going to work, but if it doesn't, there's something else. It's worth taking a shot at this point." And when we moved to the Valley, to Buena Vista specifically, if I recall right, the actual pulling, making it happen, aside from telling people we were doing it, didn't happen until you took a job at the hospital here as a nurse, and that was your career in parallel to me.
(13:37): We secured the space, and we were cutting holes in the floor for floor drains, and converting old tanks to our purpose tanks. And there was a lot of... We needed a little nudge, and that happened. And I think you taking that job led us to renting a house. Which was funny because that was... I think at one time I counted, but it was 142 steps from the house to the distillery. And I thought that was so awesome. I was like, "What a cool thing. I don't have to commute to work anymore."
Amy Eckstein (14:06): It was tough in the beginning because I was working nights as a nurse and then weekends in the tasting room. That was tough. That was tough. But I think once I... Once you... And it really is a lot to do with my dad, honestly. I'm pretty lucky. He really gave me the courage because when you first start, it's daunting. But I think having that to fall back on was really... He was just so encouraging at every step. Once we bought that building on East Main Street, that was like we were all in, whether we knew it or not. So we bought that in 2011, and then it was pink; took about a year to make it not pink. And then-
Lenny Eckstein (14:45): It used to be-
Amy Eckstein (14:46): Curves.
Lenny Eckstein (14:46): I think that still exists, but it was this gym, Curves, that was a women's only gym. We walked in there-
Amy Eckstein (14:53): Carpet
Lenny Eckstein (14:55): It was crazy. We walked in once, and we were meeting a fire inspector, and I didn't know what to do. I was like, "I guess I'll bring him some donuts." And I just walked in this gym with a box of donuts, and he was like, "Oh no, I'm all good." And all these people at the gym are like, "What is going on here? These people are trying to take over the building. They're bringing donuts in here."
Amy Eckstein (15:15): And then-
Lenny Eckstein (15:16): Funny stuff.
Adam Williams (15:17): I'm curious about some of that history that you've already brought up there, Amy. Also because I'm really fascinated by risk, and how some people really embrace it, and they leap into these things, and they want to test themselves or they want to see what can happen. And Lenny, you said, "Well, if it doesn't work out, it's not the end of things."
And then there are other people who have such aversion to it, couldn't imagine ever doing what you did and what you are still doing. So let's go back to that history though, of where it sounds like that comes from, at least for you Amy, is what was that family environment? What were these businesses that your dad was hustling around? And it just sounds like he was really entrepreneurial and willing to take risks.
Amy Eckstein (16:02): He is definitely the most risk-tolerant person I know probably in a lot of ways. So probably my oldest memory, I was maybe four or five. So my dad worked at the produce market in downtown Boston. He worked for a mushroom purveyor. So he sold mushrooms, and then he would have side hustle. He had two kids at the time, myself and my older brother. And so on St. Patrick's Day, Mother's Day, and Easter, he would buy flowers from the produce market, the flower market. They were all the same downtown deep in Boston. And then he would just rent a moving truck and just pull off on the side of a road, and just start selling flowers.
(16:47): He would, around Thanksgiving he would get all these carnations and dye them green. If you put them in a bucket of green dye... Our garage in the suburb of Massachusetts was just full of green carnations. And the smell of this garage with the carnations it just... If I smell carnations, it brings me back. But as a kid I was like, "Oh my gosh, there's so many awesome flowers in our garage." So we're in my mom's station wagon, my parents' station wagon with the rear facing seat, no seat belts, the wood paneling.
And I remember my mom is trying to somewhere deep in Boston, get to my dad on this weird corner with the moving truck. And she pulls over, and we turn. And I turn and I watch her walking up to my dad who has this Penske truck or something, and she's waddling over because she's pregnant with my brother. And my dad just empties his pockets with all the money he had made that day and just gives it to my mom to go grocery shopping.
(17:47): And so he always had a number of hustles like that. And then he started a business that turned into this USDA kitchen that provided home meal replacements for large grocery stores and gas stations in New England. He had many businesses along the way, many that didn't work out so well. I mean, he went big. He would start construction on these huge buildings on a handshake with the bank and stuff. And it was felt hard because it felt like growing up we were either in a good position or we might lose the house; just tons of risks.
(18:22): And so when I saw him do that, just take those huge risks, that had a huge impression on me. I don't think I am as risk tolerant even though that's what I grew up with. In fact, I think that's why I like our company the size that it is now. I'm not going to go huge. I'm not looking for investors. Maybe that will change at one point, but I like the size it is. It's just a manageable size, and that feels more comfortable to me. But I think a lot of times with you, I feel like you've become more... Lenny, you are more tolerant of risk I think, than I am now.
Lenny Eckstein (18:55): Yeah, I mean, I don't really think of it as risk.
Amy Eckstein (18:56): I can always plan for the worst anyway.
Lenny Eckstein (18:58): It's such a funny thing talking about-
Amy Eckstein (18:59): Pessimism versus optimism anyway.
Lenny Eckstein (19:01): Well, that's a good balance point I suppose. But when you speak about not wanting to grow anymore, it's a funny thing because so many companies have the ability to sell more, or make more, or scale; that's a thing. And we're so hands-on, and we're actually making something. But so we're manufacturing, technically. We manufacture one barrel of whiskey a day, and we could build a bigger facility, but it's fun now, and I like the scale that we're at.
But also that stuff, I mean, it sits around for four+ years, so we don't really have the ability to turn on a dime. So we're not really changing any time soon. And my risk tolerance, again, I don't see it as risk. I'm like, "Aim, I think we should make more whiskey." I'm like, "It tastes great. Let's just make more. People will buy it." Maybe I simplify everything, and the middle ground's probably where a beverage alcohol brand needs to be. So I don't know. Having-
Adam Williams (20:01): Lenny, is that because you guys have come to this place of... I mean, I don't know your books. I'm going to say it sure looks like you're thriving and you're successful to me, and compared to if you just look back at, "Well, where we started.
This is where we've grown to, and this is how we have continued to improve, and continue to size up just a little bit within our means," things like that. Are you more comfortable with those ideas now because you feel like you have some stability? Would you have been that way 10 years ago? That's what I'm getting at.
Lenny Eckstein (20:38): I think Amy and I could answer these questions differently. Mine's a weird answer. And so 10 years ago, and maybe it was a little more, but when we formed Deerhammer officially in 2010, and started making whiskey at the very end of 2011, there might not have been a lot of confidence, but I sampled one of our very first bottlings of whiskey the other day, and I'm not mad at it. I thought it was pretty tasty. I feel like we've been doing a pretty good job and getting better along the way, but also we are not some emerging technology trying to create a system to these new flying car drones that are trying to transport people from rural to Denver or something.
(21:25): People have been making whiskey for a really long time, and there's no secrets, but we entered into this at a cool time where creative expression and doing something new and different is very well received. And I'm also, I spent a lot of time with folks in the industry who are guns-blazing all in. So for where we're at, I feel like we are taking a pretty chill approach.
Now, 12 years in... I don't know. It's weird to try to measure success, but I mean, I feel like things are going pretty well in terms of the brand, and the company, and culture we've built. So I guess that's where my tolerance comes from and willingness.
Adam Williams (22:09): Did you have that in your background at all from your family like Amy had in hers? Did you see people taking risks or in whatever form that might have taken if it wasn't business? Were people willing to go out in the world and say, "Hey, I'm going to do this thing, and I'm willing to fall flat, and come home, and deal with the laughter or the whatever if they didn't think I succeeded"?
And which of course, back to the word you just said about success too is about your own intentions and your own definitions, of course. But did you have that in your background to be an entrepreneur or a risk-taker in life?
Lenny Eckstein (22:46): I didn't have it in the way Amy did. I mean, I think my parents were much more conservative or traditional in that sense and came from a very standard class, suburban middle class family; pretty much grew up in the same house. There wasn't a whole lot of moving around or changes, drastic life changes, nothing like that. I think something that... I don't think my parents didn't really have much to do with this. But I found that I, this is going to sound weird, I sucked pretty bad at a lot of things when I was younger, and maybe everyone does. But I took it personally. I was a pretty small kid, and it came to soccer... Playing sports as a little kid, I was terrible at them.
I couldn't run around the field, a little kid with asthma hanging out in the corner, barely doing anything while everybody else is running around. Whatever it was, I felt like I had something to prove, and maybe that was a weird kid thing. But as I got older, it's not that I have something to prove. It's I want to prove something to myself.
And I think risk comes in a lot of... It can be defined a lot of ways and comes in a lot of places, but I've always enjoyed it in any form. Whether it's like we were talking about kayaking earlier and pushing that to a level of always being just outside of comfort or embracing sucking at something to the point where getting better feels so good.
There's so much reward there. I don't really think of it as risk as much as, "I'm in. I'm doing it, and I can't wait to get..." I don't know what the top is because there's this notion of the best. I mean, that's a weird thing to define, but just getting higher up, being in a place of accomplishment. That's always been such a reward.
Adam Williams (24:40): Progress, learning, the practice of it all and learning. I think I'm still learning to accept and see that life is a process. Whether it's sports that we engage in or it's creative things, whatever it is. And having to teach my kids, and you have a son of a similar age, trying to teach that just because you weren't good the first time you tried, you know what? No one is. I can really appreciate at this point I think as it unfolds for me, just jumping in there and realizing, "Okay, today I'm better than I was yesterday. Next year..." And allowing that vision to be okay and be the way forward.
Lenny Eckstein (25:25): Right. I find continually doing that, whether it's with new endeavors or rethinking what we're doing in terms of our whiskey-making at Deerhammer, that that's always the driver really just, pushing up.
Adam Williams (25:41): Let's go back to when you did start with the whole thing with buying the building, with the changes to Curves as a gym, and having to get rid of the pink, and turn it into this amazing space that it is now. What was the scene then on Main Street in this small town as you came in at a time that I imagine was part of change, but so much change has still come since and so much growth. What were you seeing for your vision, but what were you physically seeing? What was on the street? I wasn't here then.
Amy Eckstein (26:19): When we opened up, we were really apprehensive. You weren't sure if anyone was going to show up. We'd been in the space for eight months. People are curious what we were doing. And so we had our opening weekend. I remember we went to Costco and got a drum of those big Utz pretzels and some mustard. And then Lenny, you worked so hard for four months and had 12 bottles of whiskey.
Lenny Eckstein (26:44): It was a pretty inefficient process at first, that was for sure.
Amy Eckstein (26:48): We were making cocktails on our... We had a bar from our house, a TV stand, that was our bar. And so we opened, and we were packed, and everyone came in, and everyone came out to support us and to meet us, and we were just so welcome, and it was pretty awesome. It was a winter that we were open, so we got to really know the community. And then the summer was busy, and we've just grown organically from there. So I'd say very community-based in the winter for sure to start with.
Lenny Eckstein (27:26): I mean, what's observationally there-
Amy Eckstein (27:29): And we sold out the pretzels; immediately they were gone. Not enough.
Lenny Eckstein (27:34): I mean, what was in BV if one was to walk down the street wasn't necessarily all that impressive or compelling to someone who's starting a new business and just moved to town. I mean, I don't feel like we didn't pick BV blindly in a lot of ways. We knew... I had been spending as many weekends as possible when I was younger to come up to BV, to kayak and camp.
And I always loved the valley. And then when Amy moved to Colorado, and I was moving back to Colorado, we were spending so much time there. And we knew this valley was a place we wanted to be, but there was something at the time, as sparse as the downtown might have been, we were noticing this warmth from be it just people in town or other business. And we did have a little bit of a cheat code because people were like, "Oh, you guys are the ones opening a distillery." And all of a sudden there was this pathway to meet people, which was nice.
(28:34): But I think the warmth and welcoming nature of the town... A lot of times mountain towns have this locals only attitude, and we were used to that. We lived in Summit County for a while. And it didn't have that at all. So that was a big draw for us. And then there's this other side of, while our expectations were fairly low, we didn't have to crush in terms of what our distillery tasting room was. That was really only one facet of the business. And a lot of folks would come up to us and say, and this could be years later after we opened, "I never really thought that it would work. When we saw the sign you hung in the window that you're opening that distillery, we just thought it's not going to work in BV." And we always took that, we were like, "Yeah, haha. It did. Cool."
(29:21): But the reality was it didn't have to. And we knew that at the time just prior we were living on the front range, and we could have opened a facility that makes whiskey that where we made whiskey anywhere. So we just thought, "Let's be where we want to be, not where we're going to have people coming in to buy our bottles over the bar or enjoy a cocktail." So in a way it didn't matter, but it worked out really well, and it's been awesome.
Adam Williams (29:53): It factors into the risk thing, maybe in a way that you come out to a rural place where there still wasn't the growth and the presence of the restaurants, for example, that are here now and all the tourism that comes here now.
That's continued to scale up. It wasn't a given that you would succeed in terms of having a business survive, let alone thrive. And if you were in someplace like Denver, then I suppose there's competition, and where it's easier to set it up might also be more competitive and difficult.
(30:23): So I look at, when I drive down Main Street in BV, I see Deerhammer as this keystone place. It's one of the anchors in town that I appreciate seeing there. Does it feel that way to you? In what you have experienced in the change over the last decade plus, do you feel like the change in the evolution of the town, the community, and your business.. Well, how are you feeling about that? What are you seeing? And then also maybe the next 10 years, what's the vision and idea that you might hold for where you want this to go, whether that's your business and also your business as part of the community?
Amy Eckstein (31:06): That's a lot of great questions right there.
Adam Williams (31:08): Oh yeah, I stack them up.
Amy Eckstein (31:14): So evolution of our business in the town, I don't know if this gets to exactly the heart of the question. We just grew very organically. For us it was we didn't come in and open just some huge thing. We started on old used dairy equipment and made that work, and then slowly grew. So that's how we've grown, I'd say is very organically. And then from the town, so much has changed. I mean, it's unbelievable to think about how much change has happened since we've been there. But I think from Main Street standpoint is...
(31:54): Sometimes I think not a lot has changed honestly. If you look at the actual structures that are there, that has looked very similar. South Main has developed, but East Main I feel like hasn't been a whirlwind of change or not... Looking forward, I think that is the real change on East Main Street's going to be in the next 10 years. That's going to be, I think, what's going to make the last eight years look pretty mild. There's a lot of development going on East Main Street in Buena Vista now.
(32:24): So I think I love where we're at. We have our 18 employees; keep growing. I think in that aspect, just making our company better. But I feel like we're going to probably look the same in five or 10 years from a drive-by tasting room standpoint.
Lenny Eckstein (32:46): Maybe except we keep changing it every year. We keep bolting on new things to the-
Amy Eckstein (32:51): I know. Good thing we got the lot originally. That was the big... There's been a couple big moves I think that we made.
Lenny Eckstein (32:57): Well, that's an interesting point too because speaking more to the past but ultimately, to the future. I think we are really lucky in a lot of ways. And for sure making things not sink and succeed takes luck in some ways, and to stumble into town when we did and real estate being the price it was, was very fortunate for us. And I think, I guess in a sense speaking to the future, I know Amy, myself, and even some of our employees, it was this span of years.
(33:29): The first five years we were all popping our heads up meerkats and looking back and forth and we were like, "What is going on here? Why don't more people realize how amazing this place is? It's only two hours from the bigger cities in the state, and it's such an easy drive, and there's two highways to get here, and the river's amazing, and the trails are amazing, and there's hot springs and all these things.”
And then all of a sudden we started seeing people realize it. And I think to me that's the change. But it's also, I think one of the coolest things about our town is that it still maintains the same vibe and the same tone. And I've never quite had an experience of living in such a small town, exactly that living in a small town.
(34:13): But also living in the small town in the early days in terms of change, it was changed to me to see just someone who might work at the local coffee shop who I'd see every morning. And they're like, "Oh, I'm going to move over here. We're getting married." Or "I'm going to school." And a person leaving the community felt like such tear out of the fabric.
(34:37): But on the flip side, fast forward, and now new pieces are interweaving into the fabric. And I think some of the things that I find challenging: I don't bartend anymore so I don't know as many people in the community I feel like, and that bums me out. But I'm also not very good at bartending so I think that's okay. And coupled with that so many people are in town and work from home or work remotely. And it's interesting that I'll meet someone and they'll say, "Well, I've lived here for years." And I'm like, "Wow, I've never seen you. That's crazy."
So that touches on my own household because we work from home and so there is that remote thing. Plus we moved in during the pandemic, and so there were those sorts of dynamics where we didn't get to engage in the community in the way that we might've otherwise. And it is interesting that part of that growth, how many people are working remotely, and they're siloed off a little bit. There's not the same sort of interaction, but it's also that remote work is also what makes it possible for people to come here, live here, afford to live here. That's a challenge.
(35:43): Which actually brings me to, you mentioned, Amy, the 18 employees, and Lenny, you had previously mentioned the culture of what you've created as a company. And I think that you've managed to retain that staff and to keep or cultivate a culture there. And that is a challenge for some other small businesses in town where even filling a spot that you've been advertising maybe for months, and you can't get somebody to do it, and it's because we have this conundrum of housing affordability, which is described as a crisis in this part, and wages, and it's this conflict of economics. How have you managed to retain the staff that you have and create culture around it?
Amy Eckstein (36:32): So our culture, what we... People who do well at our business, are hardworking, positivity, passionate. Those three things, that's what we value. And so I think Lenny works. I think us being very involved, Lenny probably more so than I in the craft and the day-to-day makes people feel like they're supported. Our staff, we have great managers.
That makes a big difference. We try and pay as much as we can; we are really at the upper level. As much as we can, we try and pay our employees, of course; that's a given in this economy. But you also got to give people purpose. And I think people feel connected. I hope our employees feel connected in what we're doing, and the experience we're trying to provide for people, and pride of what we're doing. So
Adam Williams (37:21): What do you feel like the purpose is that you foster there?
Amy Eckstein (37:24): I think in the tasting room is really high-quality experience. This is a place where the community can come together, share a drink. This is where relationships happen. In the summer, people come and have a great experience rafting, and then they come in and enjoy that time with their family or their friends and just creating meaningful, high-quality experience; anticipate what they want. And I think the whiskey is really just full-flavored, bold. I think our cocktails really say a lot about who we are. So I think that's the culture of what or the value we bring to the table. And then on a bigger scale, the brand-
Lenny Eckstein (38:03): But I think they tie together in terms of... I said earlier we are... I think of ourselves as manufacturing even though I like to slam a lot more creativity on top of that than just making widgets. I think that the experience and all of it comes back to there's a lot of jobs to be had and a lot of them, especially in a valley that's so heavy on tourism, have a lot to do with offering up a great experience. But when it comes back to it's not just a one-and-done. Somebody came in, "I had fun. I'm out of here." It's more getting behind a brand and helping to build the brand. And we have been really lucky with attracting some great folks, but we think of it as...
(38:48): I mean, anything can be a career, but we think of it very much as a career because we can't do it on our own. So when we've had folks who approach us, and express interest, and see what we're doing, and want to be a part of it, we've always seen nothing more valuable. And to be able to give them a facet of the company to work on and help us develop it together, that's always been, I think, helpful for them, but massively helpful for us.
(39:15): And then sometimes in some places nudging them towards, "Hey, now's probably the right time to buy a house. Don't wait. That window's shutting." And we've seen that happen. Or even some employees... We've had a number of employees that have spun off and started their own businesses that we've helped, say helped but done everything we can to nurture them towards doing their own thing. But I think another big thing mean, you could probably speak to this as well, is what are we if we just pop in and take advantage of busy summers, but then scale down and pair off in the winter? I mean, that that's a very viable model, and I could see why a lot of businesses would do that, but we couldn't maintain a great crew if we only were there for them for 4-6 months a year.
(40:10): So while the winters haven't been historically the most viable time to do business, it was always very important for us to still maintain that in the winter. And it's chicken and egg because we keep doing it. We're hoping that it'll become more of a thing, but we want to, and we feel like we have to. We owe it to the community and to our employees. So I think that's another part.
Amy Eckstein (40:34): Winters are tough, and I think what... I'm glad you brought that up, Lenny, about creating meaningful year-round jobs. Easier said than done when you make almost all your money in the summer, but how can we create things so we can retain those people so we have them back year, after year, after year. I think also too, I care a lot about our employees.
Sure, things may hear differently in the community if you're trying to be the... Sometimes you do have to be the boss, but for the most part, I genuinely care a lot about our employees and making sure they're taken care of. It is a responsibility of the employer to take care of your employees. And I know we usually say that through payroll, but I really care about my employees and maybe that leads to it as well.
Adam Williams (41:20): Amy, you used the word leadership earlier when we were talking about you in nursing and that being one of the strengths that you can take from your nursing experience and what you brought into the business. And leadership has always been, at least in my adult life, my career-oriented life, something that's really important, and have thought about, well, what does leadership really mean?
Because a lot of times we place that at whoever has the biggest, heaviest title, but I would say that a lot of those people, that's about power, not truly leadership. So I'm curious about how you consider leadership because it fits in with the things you're already describing. What do you specifically, or both of you, Lenny, if you have thoughts on this, what does it mean to be leaders in a business and in a community like this?
Amy Eckstein (42:15): I think leadership, there's a couple different ways. I think there's the craft, the whiskey where leadership is great in that because that's what directs the flavors, the concept, and a lot of the experience. But leadership in turn is a lot of decision making. They go hand in hand. But when you say, "I own this. This is what I am going to put my all into, and I will take responsibility for every single thing that goes on in this entity."
And taking responsibility, I think, is a lot of leadership as well, making the decisions, helping people understand why those are the decisions. Sometimes they're difficult, but knowing when to stick to it as well with follow through. I think those are all the things with leadership, but I think it's almost like decision making is my style of leadership or how I inspire by my leadership is just making decisions and helping forge a path forward is what I bring to the table.
Adam Williams (43:10): I feel like the human elements that you were describing before as well, to me that fits in that definition where you care about the people versus they are there to serve you guys. Lenny, you were talking about, "We've nurtured people to start their own businesses. We actually care about their wellbeing, their stability throughout the whole year, and whatever opportunities they're looking to cultivate in their lives.' And so I hear that kind of leadership with you guys as well, which I really appreciate.
Lenny Eckstein (43:43): I mean, it's interesting. Definitely, Amy's rundown of it is how I would described her role in it as well. Mine's a weird one. I think I'm a reluctant leader in the standard definition. I don't like being at the front. I don't mind making decisions, but I don't know. And while I'll have them gladly sit on my shoulders, I don't know. There's something about being in the forefront that never feels comfortable, but I think my expression of leadership in our company is more of, and I'm sure this annoys people so much, but it's never good enough. Always be better.
Amy Eckstein (44:25): It's very annoying but very effective.
Lenny Eckstein (44:25): Stay up later, keep working harder. I don't know. Becoming undeniable I guess is almost a guiding principle, and whether you attain that or not, always looking to that for, "Should I keep working? Could this be better?" That's always been my angle on that for our company and just what I enjoy doing.
Amy Eckstein (44:50): It's never good enough is really the driving thing; will it make the whiskey better? That's been from day one.
Lenny Eckstein (44:57): I mean, that applies to everything or I apply to everything as much as I can. But I've always liked to compare that. I do a lot of comparisons. While I don't engage in visual art anymore for the most part, unless it's commercially-oriented, I always think it's an interesting thing metaphorically, if one is a painter, when's their last brushstroke, and when does something go on the wall? And even when it does, I mean, if I was in those shoes, I would imagine so many things that are hung on the wall, the person hanging it wants to be like, "Oh, it's not quite ready yet though." And they're their harshest critic.
(45:34): It's certainly the same way with what we do when in theory it always gets better with age or manipulation in terms of whiskey in a barrel and the bringing together different streams from barrel to barrel to make a final product. It's so hard to let it go. But that's a fun part of it too.
Adam Williams (45:55): I think it was da Vinci who said that, "Art is never finished, only abandoned." And then we also could use the cliche that perfection is the enemy of good. There's got to be some sort of action, I think a bias toward action to say, “Yes, we want the quality to be amazing, and at some point we have to call the end to this." And then continue the work maybe in another barrel, in this case.
Lenny Eckstein (46:22): I think it's pretty healthy, or I found it pretty healthy I should say, to exist in both places where you're always striving for, "It can be better. I want to make it better." But then also there's this thing I find especially, I mean, not exclusive to Colorado, but people want the best powder to ski on, or the best rapids to kayak down, or the best mountain bike trails. And I mentioned this earlier, but the best, that's such a... I find it starts to take this angle of, "Well, wasn't it good enough? Why do we have to keep going for the best?" So to find the balance between always wanting better, but being like, well, let's call it that that's-
Amy Eckstein (46:58): And enjoy it. Enjoy that success of it.
Lenny Eckstein (46:58): Celebrate it, and... yeah.
Amy Eckstein (47:02): It's hard to even look at how far we've come, right? You were saying it's like, "Would you ever thought?" And it's sometimes hard, I think, to just be like, "Oh my God. Look what we made. It worked. It worked." And so just be able to celebrate that is very... I want to be able to do that more because it really is what drives me to go forward.
Adam Williams (47:21): It's funny how you mentioned, Lenny, we want the powder. We want all these things. And I think, "Oh, well, today's not a powder day. I guess I'll go skiing or snowboarding," as if living that life in the mountains, you sometimes have to step back a second and say, "Wait a second. Look at what we really have here, and where we've come to, and another day is going to be a powder day."
Lenny Eckstein (47:42): I know. I feel like I'm getting a little too old to say it, but the notion of when something's so-so and I get out there, I am enjoying it. And when somebody's like, "Ah, I bet it's okay today. I'm like, "But I'm so stoked." Maybe I'm getting a little too old for so stoked, but I hope to always be that no matter what the circumstance.
Adam Williams (47:58): Oh, that's amazing. Absolutely. I think we all should hope for that. So community is a big part of this, and obviously, that word and that idea has been sprinkled throughout this conversation. I think it is important to you all, not only for those who are your employees and for the longevity of the business, but community has played a role for you guys since the beginning. Amy, you also then had a role very officially in city politics on the board of trustees, I guess is what-
Amy Eckstein (47:58): Correct.
Adam Williams (48:30): ... what BV, how it refers to its city council. And I'm curious to know if you don't mind sharing some of that role. What lured you into that in terms of how to serve in community? And then as a voter and resident there, I also was aware of when you walked away from it before term was up, and I appreciated your voice being involved. And so I selfishly am going to ask I guess to understand a little bit about what led to walking away.
Amy Eckstein (49:02): Thank you for asking about that. So in 2018/2019, I started to become real involved with listening to hearing what's going on with the community at the town-level board of trustees. I was involved in a couple committees here and there, and I just loved the work. It's really... Running the town is very similar to a business in a lot of ways, just the structure of it, and it was so important.
We had a look at this beautiful community, and we moved in 2012/2013. It was 20 houses a year. It's pretty; some tourism. And then you fast forward eight years, and it's just massive change, 70 houses a year, 2 million tourists a year. And it just created a lot of pressure, and a lot of things were happening that were like, "Whoa, are we going in the right direction here? Do we need a little course correction?"
(49:57): And so I listened in for a couple years and really studied as best I could. And then, of course, 2019 rolled around. I was like, "Wow, everything's going chill with the business." I got my managers in it. It was working, and I felt like I wasn't as needed in my role. So I threw my hat in the ring in about February of 2020 to say, "I'd like to step up and run for trustee."
A lot of the reasons I ran were affordable housing, short-term rental reform, economic vitality, all those sorts of things, and just making great decisions, listening to people. So I was elected. It was uncontested, win by forfeit. The other folks dropped out, and I was seated in April of 2020.
Adam Williams (50:45): Oh, that's a rough time.
Amy Eckstein (50:48): And it was like everything was so dialed in February with my business, and by the time I was seated, I was homeschooling my son. Our business was shut down, which was supposed to be two weeks, but this was now going on weeks. And we had just a pandemic, and I was seated as the first-time elected official, and I served for 15 months, and it was incredibly difficult. And then I walked away, and then I resigned.
I think the difficult thing to talk about is well, why did I leave? Which I feel like I do owe to the voters. I was treated very unfairly, and that isn't even my words. That's someone who saw all of it said, "You weren't treated fairly." But I think really, it was just so frustrating in addition to everything else going on was... This is going to sound real harsh, but there was a lot of people that just didn't give a shit. Excuse my language.
(51:48): But that was the hardest because I was there to do same ownership I would have for a company where I'm like, "I will take responsibility for what needs to be done in the difficult decisions." It was difficult to hear some of my colleagues just be like, "No, it's just not... I don't get paid<" or "It doesn't matter," or this or that. That was hard.
But it was really, I think, not to go too dark, but I think when my son was like, "Why does being a trustee make you sad?" That was the change. And so I made that decision, and since then, I've really been reconciling it because I quit. I'm not a quitter, but I quit. And I think for the town, I know they hear this, anyone listening from BV, something right after that, a lot changed.
(52:40): And I feel like it just somehow, maybe it wasn't just from my experience, but maybe it was just the time was here, but there's so much change, and I have so much hope for the new people. There's so many people that everything just moved around. A lot more people, different people took on different roles.
I feel a lot of hope, and I feel like a lot of the decisions, a lot of the problems that I was calling out, raising the alarm about, 'Hey guys, this is an issue." "Be quiet." Those are now being addressed, and I feel hope. A year and a half later, that's how I've reconciled it. So that's the story.
Adam Williams (53:21): I feel like there's a lot more we could talk about there, but for better or worse, or maybe you're happy to be saved by the bell here, we're going to be running out of time. I do appreciate your involvement there and the participation of both of you in the community. And again, I describe Deerhammer as an anchor, and a keystone, and this important piece that is on Main Street.
And so you're very involved in community still, obviously. And I think sometimes being that voice that brings change and rattles things a bit does get to be very uncomfortable. And we're the ones who end up being pushed aside, and then we see the change come after us. So your involvement there still clearly was important and meaningful. So thank you.
(54:04): I'm going to wrap with this one question. We've talked about kayaking. Of course, for anybody who is from this area or has been here, knows that that is a really big piece of this. We have the Arkansas River running right by us. What is your connection to kayaking now? You've got all this big stuff going on, busy life. You've now added a son to the family in the year since you've been here. Do you still get out on the water?
Lenny Eckstein (54:36): I mean, definitely not as much as the early days of everything. That and I used to think mountain biking was boring. I never knew why everybody spent their summer on the bike when they could be in the river. I mixed some of that in. I like to ride motorcycles a lot now, but I've held true personally. We bought our first raft last year. I think that was an interesting step for us. But one of my favorite super-obscure facets of kayaking is it's called squirt boating. And I won't bore everyone with exactly what it is. You can look it up on the internet, but be careful as you're searching for squirt boating.
(55:17): It's the predecessor to freestyle kayaking, and there's some really great spots, particularly just downstream of Salida. There's a spot we call Rincon that involves very low-volume kayaks that you purposefully and delicately edge into a converging current. And it allows you to sink into the water anywhere from just below the surface of the water to 10 feet deep and spin around. And I don't know. I've really enjoyed that a lot more as I've gotten older. It's more low-key than running class four or five rapids.
Adam Williams (55:57): There still is that love. There still is some connection, even though, of course, life has changed. Amy, with the final grains of our hourglass here, do you have any last thoughts on that? Any comments you wanted to add about where you and the water stand? You and kayaking? Or anything else?
Amy Eckstein (56:15): I think the river just is a huge source of revitalization for me, and it really just... I love getting out in the summer; not as hardcore as I used to be, but it's still important.
Adam Williams (56:29): Is it something you guys are passing on to your son?
Amy Eckstein (56:32): Yeah.
Lenny Eckstein (56:32): Yeah, we're trying. The river's an interesting thing, and I think the more about it, the more respect you have for it. So while we've had him down the river plenty of times, we're waiting for him to come into his own and not push too hard.
Amy Eckstein (56:46): We worked on whitewater swimming last summer. That's pretty fun, getting him into that. So yeah, of course.
Adam Williams (56:52): Thank you both for coming in here, and talking about all of this, and sharing some pieces of your story. It's great to get a chance to know you a little bit.
Lenny Eckstein (57:02): Yeah, fun conversation. Thank you.
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Adam Williams (57:16): All right, that was my conversation with Lenny and Amy Eckstein. If what they shared here today sparked curiosity and ideas for you, you can learn more in this episode's show notes at WeAreChaffee.org. You also can email comments to Lisa Martin, one of our producers at LMartin@ChaffeeCounty.org.
(57:32): I'm your host, Adam Williams. John Pray is engineer and producer. Thank you to KHEN Radio, where we recorded today's conversation in Salida, Colorado, to Heather Gorby for graphic and web design, to Lisa Martin, producer and community advocacy coordinator for the "We Are Chaffee" Storytelling Initiative to Andrea Carlstrom, director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment, and to Becky Gray, director of the Chaffee Housing Authority.
(57:54): The "We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream" podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Department of Public Health and the Chaffee Housing Authority, supported by the Colorado Public Health and Environment Office of Health Disparities.
You can learn more about the Looking Upstream podcast and related storytelling initiatives wearechaffee.org and on Instagram and Facebook at WeAreChaffee".
Thank you for listening and until next time, as we say here at "We Are Chaffee," be Human; share stories.
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