Festivals? No. Instagram? Sure.
The Progress Fund, a nonprofit community development financial institution, has been financing small businesses since 1997, but its mission has always been both simpler and deeper.
“Goal number one is to build industries and help people,” said Kahley. “We didn’t set ourselves up just to lend people money. We’re going to continue to innovate, change, adapt and augment to reach goal number one.”
When the pandemic threatened industries that had been painstakingly nurtured over decades, The Progress Fund did some things that are decidedly uncommon for lenders: It first deferred, then cancelled, several months of payments for most of its portfolio. The Progress Fund also refocused on connecting businesses to the aid flowing out of Washington and Harrisburg, even though there was little to nothing in those programs to cover its operating costs.
Kahley’s message to his borrowers: “We’re not going to take any money until we know you can prosper, we know you can survive.”
That pause in payments, along with the PPP program, kept Red Pump Spirits from tanking when its main distribution channel dried up. The Washington, PA distillery, which bought its equipment with a loan from The Progress Fund, built its brand around Washington County’s role as a battleground in the USA’s first major crisis, The Whiskey Rebellion.
Products like Rebellion Rye Whiskey and Washington Cherry Liqueur are big sellers at fundraisers, farmer’s markets and festivals, especially those with a hint of a frontier vibe. “We do a lot of outside events,” said Red Pump co-owner Ed Belfoure.
Cue the latest crisis, COVID-19. “Everything started being cancelled, and it was pretty obvious that it wasn’t coming back soon.”
Red Pump’s other major distribution channels — sales to restaurants and bars, and in-store cocktail sales — stopped cold with Pennsylvania’s closure of on-premises alcohol consumption. For around six weeks, Red Pump switched its vodka production line to hand sanitizer, though it ended up giving away the vast bulk of that suddenly precious concoction.
A chemist by trade, Belfoure turned to the soft sciences of customer service and social media.
As cabin fever struck the nation, Red Pump implemented free delivery for orders of two bottles or more. From a web shop that had “just kind of staggering along,” he shifted hard to web-based sales and even pushed the message via Instagram.
The year 2021, Belfoure said, “kicks off with online being a big part of the business.”
Economic reopening, meanwhile, appears likely to add kick to Red Pump’s off-the-top-shelf sales. Pennsylvania’s wine and spirits stores have approved its products for sale, and a new boutique in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood will feature Red Pump.
Is that luck? Not according to a chemist with two fingers on the public’s pulse.
“We have a pretty loyal customer base,” said Belfoure. “Despite all the pressures and the stuff we had to deal with, we’re pretty optimistic.”