What I Do: Fran Caradonna at Schlafly in St. Louis
Fran Caradonna is one of the founding mothers of the local beer scene. Back when Anheuser-Busch dominated St. Louis, she and her then-husband Tony Caradonna started the area’s first craft beer distributor, then launched O’Fallon Brewery in the early 2000s. Earlier this year, Caradonna left O’Fallon to take a leadership role at Schlafly, which was one of her first clients in the distribution game. Now, she’s the 27-year-old brewery’s CEO. Here’s how Caradonna’s career has come full circle.
“[Tony] saw this craft beer thing happening on the East Coast and the West Coast in the late ’80s, and so we started a little beer distributorship called Signature Beer, which was focused on – we called it on microbrewery beer back then. There were no microbrewery beers available in St. Louis unless you count Anchor Steam from San Francisco.”
“St. Louis was one of the last markets for a lot of beers to come in because we were so dominated by Anheuser-Busch. … You’d go into the best beer bar in town, and it would have six draft handles, and there would be four Anheuser-Busch, a Miller and one import. And that’s what it was like. That’s why sometimes I have to do a double take when I go into some of these places that have 40 tap handles. That was beyond our wildest dreams.”
“We really wanted to make our own beer. We wanted to be on the manufacturing side. It’s just more fun. [Distribution] is a great business to be in, and there’s people in this town who are masters at it, but it’s just more fun to make your own beer. That’s where the passion is.”
“When we opened O’Fallon, Tony and I did everything ourselves for the first two years. We made all the beer; we packaged all the beer; we delivered all the beer. It was just the two of us for two full years. Every job there is in this place, I’ve done.”
“We got a lot of help from our competition. … The people that we bought the equipment from, they trained us, and we took copious notes. When the trainers went away, we’d get into a situation, and we’d say, ‘Uh, now what do we do?’ And we’d call up Stephen Hale [at Schlafly] or John Witte [at Trailhead] or Marc Gottfried [at Morgan Street] and we’d say, ‘What do we do now?’ And they’d walk us through it. That’s how we got through the first two years.”
“Managing your business is way harder than making beer. That’s what is going to separate the girls from the women is how well we run our businesses, how diligent we are in the way we make business decisions. … I think the companies that are good businesses and are mindful of the consumer, those are the ones that are going to be here.”
“How lucky am I for this opportunity to come along at this stage of the game? I did not see this coming. It was not even in my wildest dreams. … I’m uniquely qualified to do this job at this time. I couldn’t have tried to make this happen if I wanted to. It just happened that what they need right now … happens to be someone who’s been in the craft beer business for decades, and there’s just not that many of us.”
“I think if you’re not making mistakes, you’re probably not trying hard enough. You’re not stepping out enough. There’s a balance of risk and reward, and we have to take a little bit of risk to get that reward. So I’ll be making a few mistakes here and there, but I don’t expect any of them will be earth-shattering.”
Catherine Klene is managing editor, digital at Sauce Magazine.
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