Thinking about stepping out on your own? Pittsburghers are telling NEXT how they took the leap, braved the chasm, and just said yes to a new life. Some realized that successful jobs are all about building relationships. Others found opportunity in failure. Still others realized that a decade was long enough to think about the move and it was now or never. To kick things off: Eric Meyer and Meredith and Alex Grelli of Wigle Whiskey tell their story and give you some tips that might make your launch easier.
Eric Meyer had a tough choice: become a city manager—something he’d trained for all his young life—or help found Wigle Whiskey distillery in the Strip.
So when Wigle was just a sip of an idea back in 2010, he traveled by himself to an island in Washington’s Puget Sound for four days to think it over.
It was one of those superhero-in-the-making moments: What is my true calling? Should I really use my powers, and how? Do I do something with my life that’s fresh and exciting but risky?
Meyer had grown up in the North Hills, then volunteered to do economic development with the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan. He graduated from CMU’s Heinz School in public policy and management, then secured a fellowship in the city manager’s office in Tacoma, Washington. Life was set. Or so it seemed.
Back in Pittsburgh his sister, Meredith Grelli, and her husband Alex had long been kicking around new business ideas. Alex was a corporate lawyer at Reed Smith downtown, but he had studied brewery law and helped small businesses navigate regulations at a law clinic.
Meredith was an urban history major at the University of Chicago (where the couple met), attended cooking school in Paris and CMU’s Tepper School of Business, then became a brand manager for Heinz—”the best training for doing what we’re doing now,” she says. She had kept her hand in community development, helping to redevelop brownfields and starting Burgh Bees, a nonprofit aimed at revitalizing local vacant lots through community beekeeping.
The Grellis realized their business idea was viable during a 2010 trip to the ice vineyards in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada. “We liked what they had created,” Meredith says. “They had this incredible sense of community and all these incredible products.”
When they realized they could make white whiskey, bitters, honey and other products to stay afloat while their whiskey aged, and use smaller barrels for faster finishing, “at that point it seemed doable,” Alex says. “It does take a village to start a small business and this is one the villagers were excited about.”
On his island retreat, Eric Meyer was ready to make a decision: “I thought it would be fun … and I didn’t know where it would end. That’s what brought me back. I think that life is an adventure.”
For the next two years, the trio kept their jobs but started planning. They were working all hours at night on the distillery, Meredith recalls, “which was so exciting.”
And also a bit terrifying: “Before we made the jump, before we quit our jobs, there was so much anxiety.” How would the Grellis pay their mortgage or afford child care? In the end it came down to this: “We felt like the distillery needed us.”
On the day Wigle Whiskey opened, Meredith left Heinz at noon and threw open the doors to their new venture at 5 p.m. Alex quit his job two months later.
And now? They have a cool space in the Strip and have been actively promoting their company through events they’re hosting and through appearances at other events. (At NEXTpittsbugh’s Living the Artist Life event this past May, Wigle poured a signature drink that was tweeted about with numerous requests for the recipe which they gave out.)
“So far, we’re still trying to keep up with demand” and devising new products, Alex says. “Innovation is what small distillers have the flexibility to do, and through that flexibility we can explore new flavors.”
In June, Wigle opened the Whiskey Garden and Barrel House on the North Side with a barbecue, bar (of course) and tour of the storage facility.
Meredith still calls leaving secure careers “a bit crazy. I don’t want to think about the difference in the money yet. But we’re able to live and we’re loving what we’re doing.
“It’s really impacted how I experience things in my daily life,” she adds. “I just appreciate what people give when they run a small business. It changes your perspective on what the world is supposed to give you … and how entrepreneurs make an impact in our city.”
All three say community development is the real point of Wigle. “Our most valuable product, which keeps people coming back to us, is that the people of Pittsburgh are invested in this,” says Meyer. The lines that greeted Wigle’s opening were “an amazing and humbling thing to see,” he says. “And we knew we couldn’t be successful without overwhelming support from Pittsburgh.”
The company has labeling parties for the public to be a part of the business, and connects with local nonprofits to support their causes. “What we’re really selling here is community,” he says, “and that’s why it is really an extension of what I was doing before. It’s just infused with alcohol.”
“Don’t think too hard about the jump,” says Meredith. “The uncertainties we agonized over before we made the leap generally worked themselves out. The elements that take grit we discovered only once we were knee deep in our new life.
To make a change of this magnitude requires an element of unreasonable faith—better to embrace this fact than to pretend this path can be entirely predicted or planned.”