CEI Stories

Serving & supporting small business owners just like you.


June 18, 2019

Eighteen Twenty Wines

CEI provides loans to start-up and existing small businesses, many of whom have been turned down by traditional lending institutions. 

CEI financings give owners a chance to pursue their dreams, setting in motion a ripple effect of growth and prosperity for that business, their employees, their community, and the State.

Take Amanda O’Brien, co-founder and now sole owner of Eighteen Twenty Wines.

Amanda O’Brien had no dreams about becoming an entrepreneur, let alone starting a business that makes wine…out of rhubarb.

It was her work doing digital marketing for a winery in Burgundy that first planted the seed. As part of her work, she became immersed in all things wine.

“As I got to know the people who grew the grapes, they reminded me of hardy Mainers who love their land, land that has been in their family for generations,” says O’Brien.

The idea of making wine out of rhubarb came across her computer one day, which got Amanda to wondering about whether this could be a way of helping Maine farmers.

Because Maine’s climate isn’t exactly grape-friendly, and rhubarb grows easily in Maine, what if she could create a unique wine that provided an easy-to-grow crop for Maine farmers?

“I thought…wouldn’t that be great? It would help the farmers. Farming is such a tough gig. It’s back breaking work. And farmers are kind and patient. We’re losing Maine farms every year, because there’s no glory there. Rhubarb is a weed. It’s super easy to grow. It’s a way to get them cash when they need it most.”

Because the first picking arrives in early spring—long before major vegetable crops do—it could provide a valuable cash infusion for farmers who have depleted their cash reserves from the fall and need to buy supplies for their summer crops.

O’Brien floated the idea by a number of farmers.

They loved it.

She made some wine and asked people she knew in the wine business whose taste she trusted to give her their frank opinion.

They loved it.

Now came the hard part: turning her vision into reality would take learning a whole new skill set.

“I’m a marketer, not an entrepreneur,” says O’Brien. “I’ve worked for someone else ever since I was fifteen, but this business idea checked all the boxes for what would be a meaningful and viable business for me.”

She went through the Top Gun program by the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development, which helps entrepreneurs learn the basics of creating a successful startup.

While O’Brien found the program extremely helpful, she needed, in her words, “hand holding.”

“I needed someone to say ‘This month you need to do this, Amanda’” acknowledges O’Brien with a chuckle.

This is where CEI comes into the story, at first with their business advice.

O’Brien and her co-founder, who she later bought out, started the business with the small amount of startup money they had between the two of them.

The response was way better than anticipated.

They sold out their whole inventory.

While on the surface that sounds like a smashing success, behind the scenes the story was much less festive.

All the money Eighteen Twenty Wine made went into overhead and payment to farmers.

Because of their being cash-strapped, they couldn’t even sell bottles of their wine at their tasting room. People would buy a glass, love it, and want to buy a bottle.

But they couldn’t.

“Unless I could sell it for $200 per bottle, I could only sell it by the glass.”

This was obviously frustrating and also made growth a long, slow grind. She couldn’t buy enough rhubarb to produce enough wine to sell by the bottle directly in the tasting room, let alone in bulk to wholesalers.

Enter CEI’s Wicked Fast Loan.

Bethany Richards, the loan officer with CEI who helped O’Brien get the loan, remembers clearly Amanda’s predicament:

“She needed financing ASAP because rhubarb is only in season a short time. She needed the money to buy up all the rhubarb.”

In other words, as Richards notes: No money meant no rhubarb, which meant no wine, and therefore no business.

The loan, living up to its name, turned around “wicked fast” and…in the nick of time.

Richards remembers the scene like it was yesterday: “It was like an old I Love Lucy scene. Amanda was in the midst of the mash when she got the news. She came to the office covered in rhubarb, signed the paperwork, and went back to process another load of rhubarb.”

With the cash infusion provided by CEI, Amanda was able to buy enough rhubarb to grow the business to where she can now sell wholesale and sell bottles of wine at her tasting room, rather than only by the glass.

But this story is not about her, O’Brien is quick to say.

“It’s about the farmers,” she says. It’s about the joy she experiences being able to make a difference in their lives.

“One of the farmers I buy from said I saved his business. There was a crazy drought that would have killed all of his strawberries. Because of his rhubarb crop and the cash it brought early in the spring, he was able to buy irrigation system for his strawberries. Without that, they would have died and he would have been out of business.”

Another farmer, who is getting on in years, had been growing and selling high maintenance vegetables for years. The demand of doing so was becoming too much for him and his wife.

“And then one day this crazy blonde shows up and tells him she wants to buy thousands of pounds of rhubarb and suddenly everything is easier,” smile O’Brien, understandably proud of the impact she is able to have.

The story of Eighteen Twenty Wines and Amada O’Brien is the story of CEI: helping people who in turn help make other people’s lives better, a true ripple effect making Maine a better place for all.

Story credit: David Lee, the founder of HumanNatureAtWork.com helps organizations attract, retain, and engage talent, including how to use customer, client, and employee stories to communicate a more believable and compelling Employer Brand.

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