“She Says” with Michelle Foik
If you were to ask ERIS Brewery and Cider House co-owner Michelle Foik what influenced her decision to open a cidery, the answer is found in her commitment to remaining in alignment. For Michelle, going into the hospitality industry was as natural for her as breathing. Growing up the child of hotel and restaurant owners, she fell in love with being around people, and when the time came to decide what career path to take, she continued down that road.
Soon after arriving in Chicago, her love for the hospitality industry led her to seek in-depth knowledge of running a restaurant. But it was her love for craft beer that blazed the trail for her to step into a management role with Goose Island, collaborate with her colleagues to open Revolution Brewing, and later find her true calling in cider and apples.
Michelle’s journey to where she is now is a true lesson of what it means to do what resonates with your spirit. And after achieving great success in her career, she now looks for ways to pay it forward by assisting the next generation of women-owned breweries and cideries―providing them with resources, education, and mentorship to better equip them with the tools needed to succeed.
In this month’s installment of “She Says,” Michelle Foik shares with us why she didn’t want being woman-owned to be seen as a gimmick, how she’s smashing her own status quo, and the importance of not gatekeeping resources from other women entrepreneurs.
Tell me about you.
I’ve been in the hospitality industry for a very long time. My background comes from my parents owning a hotel and restaurant in Wisconsin Dells, and I’m the only one out of my parents’ three children who decided to stay within that industry. I enjoyed being around people, so I went to school for hospitality and tourism. But the thing that changed for me was my love of craft beer. And in Wisconsin, we had a large variety of options to choose from.
I started working at TGI Fridays after moving to Chicago. That allowed me to gain insight into the back of the house, front of the house, and financials of a restaurant. So the two years that I worked at TGI Fridays were lucrative for me because I was able to absorb so much and learn from a great company.
But then I saw an ad for Goose Island. They were looking for someone in management, and I wanted to do something different. At the time, they were still a mom and pop so I actually interviewed with the owners of Goose Island, John and Greg Hall. I worked there for 10 years in a variety of positions. But for me, working with them helped me to realize that I either wanted to try something else or go back to what I knew.
Soon after, a group of us who worked at Goose Island got together and opened Revolution Brewing. I stayed there for three years before going back to Goose Island to work for Virtue Cider, where I fell back in love with apples and cider. And from there, I went on to open ERIS.
How has your experience been, as a woman-owned cidery within a male-dominated industry?
When I tell people about this, it’s a little surprising because everyone assumes there are roadblocks. Because after all, my partner, Katy Pizza and I, are two women in this industry. And I’m not saying there weren’t any roadblocks. But my first brewer once said, “Why does everyone have to ask me what my challenges are? Did anyone maybe think that there are no challenges? I do the same thing as every brewer every day.” And at that moment, I realized that I never thought about it like that.
She then went on to say, “People assume that I can’t lift something or that I can’t calculate something. But I’m just as smart as any other brewer. They just look at my body, and they think that I’m different.” She didn’t like that question and it makes sense. People assume that we can’t do the same things as everyone else, and that’s what resonated with me.
Are there challenges? Yes. But, did we or are we doing anything different from anyone else? No. In the beginning, someone once asked me if we were going to use the woman-owned aspect as a marketing gimmick. And that upset me because it’s not a gimmick. We are two women running not just a restaurant―we are running a brewery, a cider house, a patio, and a special events room.
So, in the beginning, we didn’t want to talk about being woman-owned because we wanted to focus on the quality of the beer and cider that we sell and the quality of service that we provide and showcase it in a beautiful building and understand that we are a safe space. I’m very proud that we are woman-owned. But I wasn’t going to allow someone to tell me that it was a gimmick.
Now, since COVID, we have begun using woman-owned proudly. There was an outpour of people coming to us because of that. But at the end of the day, I want people to know that being woman-owned isn’t something catchy to say. People believe in us, and you can see that from the feedback that we receive based on the quality that we put out. We want to be Chicago’s cider. We want to invite everyone because we are accepting of everyone.
Women Employed recently launched our Women’s Entrepreneurship Hub (WE Hub), which is an online tool used to provide resources for women entrepreneurs. With ERIS being woman-owned, what kind of guidance or mentorship would you or do you offer to other women entrepreneurs?
I once had someone who was starting a company, but they were just doing it all voluntarily. It was simply for the love of the industry, the love of cider. They just wanted to be part of the cider industry and bring more people to the table to drink cider and have a media company along with it. But again, for the first year or two, they did everything voluntarily. They put in so much work and eventually got to a point where it no longer made sense to them. They loved what they were doing but just didn’t have the money or the time.
And one day I talked with them about all the simple things they could do, like getting a license, a tax attorney, and things that could help them get paid and start to bring on sponsors. Now, they have a company and even an employee. And we’re seeing how they’re able to broadcast it all on social media.
When you’re starting out, things can be overwhelming. So, it’s easy to put something off to the side and just forget about it. But it’s easier to talk with someone and get things done. And because I know what that feels like first-hand, it’s easy for me to help someone out. If I know that someone is having the same issues that I once had, I stop and help them and remind them to keep going.
In what ways are you smashing your own status quo?
I think one way is working with more people that are providing services like Women Employed to other women in the industry. Secondly, I’m working with more foundations that we can help in a small way. Currently, we are working with Sleeping Village and CIVL. I’m also working with Hope for Us Network. So not just woman-owned companies, but organizations that support mental health.
Another thing I want to do is work with a company that is providing for women. What I learned is that sometimes women in our industry don’t know how to support one another, especially in the brewing, winery, and restaurant industries. So, I’m joining more clubs and spaces to talk about how we can do better. We have to start having conversations about what we are doing and how we are educating the next generation of women that are coming in the door and letting them know the proper way of doing things.
I could boast about my accomplishments and brag about the fact that I’m a woman. But if I’m not telling people what they don’t know, then how is that helping them? That’s how the brewing industry was in the beginning, and I never wanted to be that. I want to share how I got into this industry by sharing resources with them. I always wanted to be the person that would provide more opportunities rather than an attitude that could make you angry.
I don’t want to be angry in this world. And I don’t want women to be angry. I want us to be able to take our anger and put it into something else that’s going to provide stability and open the door to other women who love what they’re doing again. Too many doors get shut, and it makes people so mad at the world to the point where they just don’t want to do it anymore. I want to be happy. I want others to be happy. And I want to see it forward. To get mad, especially in the last two years is too easy to do. And I’m just tired of it. It’s easy to be disappointed. So, I’d rather find ways to where we can actually uplift one another.