Exit Strategy Brewing is closing its doors after eight years in business – although the owners, husband and wife Chris and Katherine Valleau, said they might return somewhere down the line.
In the interview with the Review on Monday, Katherine Valleau said that she and her husband were simply burned out after navigating through the pandemic. They are also facing something that she said all breweries are struggling with – the market is over-saturated, and the customers are less interested in going out amid the inflation. The last day in business will be Oct. 29, and all of the events scheduled for up to that point will still go on as planned.
Valleau said that two major monthly Exit Strategy events that she’s personally passionate about – the Tellers’ Night storytelling event and Soup and Bread fundraisers for regional food pantries – will continue on at Robert’s Westside, a new music venue that the brewery’s former booking agent, Donnie Biggins, is opening up further east on Madison Street at the Circle Avenue intersection. Valleau said it was important to her to make sure those events continue, and Biggins was happy to pick up the baton.
Exit Strategy has been leasing the building at 7700 Madison St. David King, a commercial leasing agent, got the couple into the space eight years ago. He told the Review he would be looking for another tenant this time around. He said he was confident finding one wouldn’t be a problem.
“We are starting on it shortly,” King said. “We will explore all options. Which one is going to be the right one – I don’t know yet.”
The Valleaus announced the closing last week on the brewery’s Facebook page. The statement alluded to burnout, something that Katherine Valleau confirmed. The brewery survived the COVID-19 lockdown, only to face supply chain issues and inflation, which increased their expenses. There is also the broader shift in the market. When they launched Exit Strategy in 2015, opening a brewery was still a relatively novel idea in the area. Now, Valleau said, the market is “over-saturated.” It doesn’t help that the younger generations are “drinking less,” and people in general don’t go out as much because they spend more on food and gas.
“There are so many factors beyond our control that makes it harder to go out,” she said. “We’re all just being a little bit more conscious of our spending because of the world around us.”
While the couple agonized over a decision – Valleau said that she literally put her blood and sweat into the building after all the work she’d done and after all the time she cut herself on corners – they felt like they were hitting a breaking point.
“Just having to constantly adapt, and that’s exhausting, too,” she said. “We were getting so burnt out, and then you couple that with having a small business that’s trying to exist, the burnout is becoming really, really overwhelming.”
Valleau took pains to emphasize that they had no regrets, saying that even the bad experiences were valuable, because they learned something from them.
“It’s like losing a limb – but, again, couldn’t be more proud of the business we cultivated, the way that we ran it, and the giving back that we’ve done, which is great,” she said. “And of course, the beer, which is exceptional.”
While Exit Strategy Brewing opened in 2015, its origins go back three years earlier, when Katherine Valleau taught at Forest Park School District 91 and Chris Valleau practiced law. As the two had told the Review, Chris Valleau was unhappy at his job, and Katherine Valleau thought that she needed a hobby he could enjoy. She suggested brewing, and Chris Valleau quickly embraced the idea.
While they were originally content to see their brews at events, a visit to Greenbush Brewery in Sawyer, Michigan, inspired them to take it a step further. 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 – the former Classic Electric building, which had been vacant for 10 years. It took the couple six months to address the mold, remove asbestos and generally renovate it for their purposes.
Katherine Valleau previously told the Review that the first two years were “rough,” but things “got better” in 2017.
The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to lay off staff and close for several weeks, but they were able to rebound as COVID-19 mitigation restrictions relaxed.
Over the years, Exit Strategy has been a venue for events and fundraisers. Most recently, they have been hosting the Soup and Bread dinner fundraisers, which raise funds for food pantries on Chicago’s West Side and western suburbs, including Forest Park’s community fridge at the Mohr Community Center.
“When we first started thinking about taking a break, one of the first things I did was contact Donnie Biggins, and went down and had a very …” She paused to collect her thoughts. “[I was] sobbing my eyes out, and all I said to him was that these super-important events have to have a home. I’m so proud that they’ll be with Donnie’s and they will be at Robert’s Westside.”
In their statement, the Valleaus didn’t rule out restarting the business sometime in the future – but for now, at least, they plan to focus on their mental health.
“I’m going to miss it,” Valleau said. “We came, we saw, we brewed. We did good. We get to exit with dignity, we get to exit with grace. It’s important. “