It takes guts for someone to quit their steady day job to launch their own business. But that’s what Chris and Katherine Valleau did when they started Exit Strategy Brewing Co., 7700 Madison St. Forest Park’s only brewery opened its doors on April 15, 2015. The couple recently celebrated its seventh anniversary with their staff.
Before they launched their business, the Valleaus had lived in Forest Park for 12 years. Katherine is originally from Detroit and Chris grew up in Cincinnati. They met as students at Ohio University. Katherine later earned master’s degrees in education at Dominican University and Concordia University, while Chris obtained his law degree from De Paul University.
Katherine became a teacher for District 91 and currently serves on the school board. She spent seven years teaching fifth grade, before succeeding Anne Murray as the district’s Latin teacher. Chris joined a law firm that specialized in subrogation. He was making a good living but wasn’t happy in his work. Katherine felt he needed a hobby, a creative outlet apart from practicing law. In 2012, she suggested brewing beer and the couple bought four home brewing kits.
“Chris picked it up quickly,” Katherine recalled. “The first batch won a home-brewing contest in the fruit beer category.” His Persephone brew also won an award. He continued to enter contests across the country and received positive responses from the judges. During this time, the Valleaus were content serving their homemade beer to neighbors in The Grove. Then they visited Greenbush Brewery in Sawyer, Michigan and realized, “We can do this.”
They purchased a book titled, How to Start a Brewery, and spent two years drafting a business plan. They found a location within walking distance of their home. Classic Electric had gone out of business and the building sat vacant for 10 years. It had a mold problem and needed asbestos removal. “The skylights were hanging,” Katherine recalled. It took them six months to renovate the 10,000-square-foot building.
They named it Exit Strategy and a graphic artist created the memorable logo, depicting a briefcase in a waste basket. The brewery boasted a 4,000-square-foot tap room, a kitchen and a full basement. It also had a parking lot.
“The first two years were rough,” Katherine recalled, “but the third year it got better.” As the business grew, the menu expanded and staff increased. The brewery developed a dozen “mainstays” with names like “Posthumulus” “Scotsquatch” and “Valleaudated,” while Chris continued to concoct new brews. They also started a “Mug Club,” offering perks and discounts to members.
Five years is considered a benchmark for a brewery and they were only a month away from celebrating that anniversary when the pandemic hit. They had just hired Jessica Philips as general manager and she oversaw over 20 staff members. Then, on March 15, 2020, Gov. Pritzker announced a statewide lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19.
The couple was devastated when they had to lock the doors. “I was destroyed emotionally,” Katherine recalled, “But we never considered shutting down.” The brewery remained closed for two weeks. During this hiatus, they gave the place a thorough cleaning and assembled a supply of gloves and masks. They were sad when they had to lay off staff but gave them going-away gifts. “We had ‘grocery day’ and they took home boxes of food,” Katherine recalled, as they cleared the brewery of every food item.
When they were allowed to reopen for to-go sales, Exit Strategy opened one day a week, selling growlers. “We weren’t doing cans then,” said Chris, and they only sold new growlers, no refills. They later began selling canned beer and also sold merchandise, like “Survival Strategy” T-shirts. In July 2020, outdoor dining was permitted.
“The parking lot was full of potholes,” said Katherine and it had no seating. The village allowed them to borrow tables from the Altenheim picnic grove and they attached umbrellas to them. They kept this “patio” open until October.
At their low point, the staff was down to five, including the owners and general manager. But they made enough profit from outdoor dining and to-go orders to begin re-hiring staff. In April 2021, they repaved the parking lot and added new tables, along with lighting and a sound system.
Throughout the pandemic, “Transparency and safety were paramount,” Katherine said, “We put people over profit.” When indoor dining finally returned, they demanded proof of vaccination, before it was mandated by the state. “We received criticism from ‘keyboard warriors’” Chris recalled.
“There’s still some uncertainty about the virus,” Katherine admitted, “But we have a great staff, great food and great support from the community.” They’re back to full strength staff-wise and recently hosted the wedding of Philips and her fiancé, Erin. “We’re in a really great position,” Katherine declared, “Our beer program is growing. It’s the best it’s ever been.”
“We’re a brewery,” she emphasized, “We’re not a restaurant.”
Cheers to that!