Message in a bottle: Support N.J. startup firms | Editorial

A trend in food and drink often turns out to have a sell-by date. From bagel shops, to frozen yogurt places to Quizno’s sandwich franchises that once grew like weeds in South Jersey, they became vacant once the parade passed them by.

Maybe it was the war on high-glycemic, extra-gluten carbs. Maybe it was too many places selling the same thing, too close together. Still, entrepreneurs press on, believing that the Next Big Thing has staying power.

It’s in this context that one must view the impending closure of Cooper River Distilleries, one of the first “micro-distilleries” in New Jersey since Prohibition. Doubling the disappointment is that the 3,000-square-foot spirits factory is in downtown Camden, and looked like a great example of the kind of small business the city needs to become great again. It was started by an optimistic James Yoakum, a University of Pennsylvania grad who hails from, appropriately, Kentucky.

Even as he’s about to close Cooper River’s doors after four years of turning out boutique bourbon, rye whiskey and rum Yoakum, now 33, says he’s glad to have had the experience.

Nationally, the appetite for liquor produced by places other than international conglomerates remains strong. New Jersey got a late start, since it wasn’t until 2013 that Gov. Chris Christie made small distilleries viable by signing a law that set the annual license fee at $1,000, down from a craft-crushing minimum of $12,500. It was a smart move, since several New Jersey distilleries established in the past five years report they are doing fine, thank you.

So, what went wrong for Yoakum? He says Cooper River was such a pioneer that the facility opened before another legal change allowed newer New Jersey distilleries to plan layouts designed to accommodate more retail sales, not just on-site tastings. And, blaming his own marketing efforts to a degree, he says he was unable to “scale up” the business enough to make it profitable.

“Scale up” is the kind term you hear thrown around on the TV show “Shark Tank,” when budding entrepreneurs seek $50,000 from moneybags investors so they can place their invention in Bed, Bath & Beyond, rather than continuing to peddle it from a single website.

We can’t pretend to know Cooper River Distilleries’ financial particulars, or if its products ever would have caught on with a bigger audience. But we do know this: To sustain the business, it would have taken far less than the $245 million in tax credits that the state Economic Development Authority issued for a politically connected Camden office complex or the smaller multi-million-dollar deals the EDA struck with corporate giants like Subaru of America and American Water Works to relocate to Camden from other South Jersey locations.

Gov. Phil Murphy vows to refocus the EDA’s grant-and-loan mission so that aid will more often flow to startups and small businesses. Cooper River might not have qualified, but it’s an example of the kind of enterprise that should get a bigger share of EDA support in cities like Camden.

Meanwhile, Yoakum continues to impress with his enthusiasm in the face of, well, failure.

“You can chase your dream and not really have it work out the way you want it, but still come away glad you did it. We had a good 4-year run, and starting from where we started I’m still pretty proud of what we did,” he said.

He should bottle that attitude, and sell it to other entrepreneurs.

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