He looks like that friend. Tall and lanky with a mop of hair and the kind of expressive face that screams “class clown” or “I ride unicycles” or “I will most definitely be lead actor in my friend’s DIY crowdfunding video.” He’s wearing neon-green sunglasses, a straw hat hangs down his back, and his shirt and shorts are a cacophony of floral prints. He’s the perfect Indiegogo video star—silly but straightforward, and unquestionably authentic. Had The Can Van’s campaign not ended in 2011, I’d put five on it right now.
In The Can Van’s campaign video from eight years back, he cradles a prop six-pack of bottles labeled “Tasty Craft Beer” as he falls to his knees in the sand, performing cartoonish anguish on a San Francisco Bay beach. Calm water, a distant mountain, and gleaming white sailboats drift in the background. In the foreground, a sign reads “No Glass or Bottles.”
When it was first founded, The Can Van was a response to a deceptively simple problem. In 2011, there weren’t a lot of canned craft beer options for Bay Area drinkers. Lindsey Herrema and her business partner, Jenn Coyle, were fresh out of the Presidio Graduate School MBA program, and they envisioned The Can Van as a solution—just in time for an industry-wide shift toward cans. For more than two years, the pair operated a single mobile canning line that served breweries across the Bay Area. Today, The Can Van, headquartered in Sacramento, boasts a workforce of more than 20 employees who operate seven mobile canning lines across Northern California. Whether they are canning for start-ups, contract brewers, or established production breweries, Lindsey Herrema and her team work hard so that brewers can focus on making great beer. Now that’s a can-do attitude.
[This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.]
J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham: “Okay, this is going to be one of those please-finish-this-sentence deals.”
Lindsey Herrema: [laughs]
J. Nikol: “The sentence is, ‘The Can Van is unique because….’”
Lindsey: “It’s unique because we’re tailored to meet the needs of each individual customer. We basically install a packaging line at a different facility every single day. Because of that, we have to be really flexible and adept at reading new situations, new customers, or different beers, wines, or whatever product we’re doing.”
J. Nikol: “So you work with multiple products—beer, wine, whatever? From what I understand, you started firmly in the craft beer space.”
Lindsey: “We definitely started in beer, and that is still the majority of our clients—breweries. But we’re open to most any alcoholic product…and wine is definitely picking up. That’s where we anticipate a lot of our business growth will be in the next couple of years.”
J. Nikol: “Was your choice to work in craft beer simply a case of a really astute assessment of a business opportunity, or was there more?”
Lindsey: “In hindsight, it’s really easy to say that it was ‘a really astute assessment of a business opportunity.’ But, you know, not having anyone do this before us—we had no idea if it was going to take off, or even work out. It was something that initially came from a selfish perspective. We wanted to have better beer in cans to take with us on all of our adventures. Also, we were looking around to see how we could help out, become part of the small but growing Bay Area craft beer scene. A lot of the small and up-and-coming breweries in the Bay Area were contract brewers, so they didn’t have their own facilities, let alone their own canning lines.
We were also studying sustainable business at the time and were looking at broader U.S. recycling streams. We were seeing that glass bottles in a lot of places weren't being recycled, whereas aluminum cans were able to be recycled and reclaimed in a lot more locations. So The Can Van also came out of this desire to help breweries get into a slightly more sustainable mode of operating.”
J. Nikol: “You ran a crowdfunding campaign back in 2011. What was the biggest takeaway from that crowdfunding experience?”
Lindsey: “That it's pretty hard to run a crowdfunding campaign if your company is not a general, public-facing company. We were a business-to-business service so it wasn't like, ‘Hey, we're making this widget. If you guys fund us, you can all be the first to have this widget.’ We got most of our funds through friends-and-family investments—little bits of money from a lot of people with the promise of a small return.”
J. Nikol: “It seems that your investors must have gotten a solid return on their investment. Most of the stories I've read about The Can Van highlight its remarkable growth. What have been the most challenging and the most rewarding aspects of navigating that growth?”
Lindsey: “I think the most challenging thing was keeping up on the business side with employees and hiring and managing and training. Because when Jenn and I started, we didn't start the company being like, ‘Well, I really want to be an employer for 25 people.’ You know? We're like, ‘Oh, I really want to work with machinery and breweries and can beer.’ So, in the last couple of years, when we went through this growth explosion, there was this moment of, ‘Oh, now we need to really focus on running the business side of it and being good employers.’ How do we put all these processes in place for standard operating procedures and training, and making sure that all of our employees are rowing in the same direction? We hired Kate [Drane], our general manager, who has been a huge help in navigating that because we've never been business owners before.
Most rewarding? Just seeing this explosion in the growth in cans and all the breweries that are able to bring a to-go package to their customers or be represented in grocery stores. And, you know, walking down the beer aisle and being like, ‘Oh we did that one … and that one … and that one.’ That's pretty cool.”
J. Nikol: “Yeah, that sounds pretty cool. So, there are people out there who might see packaging as the ‘unsexy’ part of the business. What would you say to those people?”
Lindsey: “Um, yes, they are not wrong. I think that's part of the reason why our service is a benefit to breweries. It's not the side of the business that brewers want to be focusing on and it's a really hard part of the process that you want to make sure you get right. It's expensive and it's time-consuming to learn the packaging side really, really well. So because that's all we do, we can make sure that we can do that part really, really well. And then the brewer has the time and the resources to just make sure that they're making the best beer possible and leave that final step up to us.”
J. Nikol. “Yeah. That's actually a great segue to my next question. I’ve talked to a lot of brewers who are really honest about feeling anxiety about their product leaving their control. By taking on packaging, I think you're kind of the first person to take responsibility for somebody else's baby. How do you convince people that you are worthy of that responsibility?”
Lindsey: “I think that's where word of mouth in this pretty small and tight-knit community is really important. When Jenn and I started growing this company and started hiring, we had that same anxiety about adding more canning lines than she and I were able to operate. Now, we have to trust that we have trained people enough to go and be that last touchpoint for our customers.
I know there are some people around the country that fear mobile canners because there's a reputation that some of them don't do a great job. That's not good for anybody. This is something that we take very, very seriously and we hope that everybody else takes it seriously as well. And we hope that breweries around the country are holding mobile canners to a really high standard. You have to make sure that everybody is doing their job and doing it properly.”
J. Nikol: “One last question. You and your business partner have said you want to show that craft beer can be a viable career option for women. What are the lessons that other women or people from underrepresented groups in craft beer should learn from your example?”
Lindsey: “Jenn and I have had a great time so far in the craft beer industry. And, for the most part, I’ve found it to be a really welcoming and accepting community. I know that traditionally white-male-dominated fields can be intimidating for people who don't fit that structure.
We're here to provide a good service, and we've built up a really good reputation on the quality of our work. That seems to be what people judge us on, rather than whether or not we fit that typical brewer's mold. In the last couple of years, we've been able to hire a lot more women, which is really encouraging. It makes for a much more fun and diverse work environment.
A handful of years ago, most of our employees were men and people were like, ‘Well, you should hire more women.’ I’d be like, ‘I would love to, but we can only hire from the pool of applicants that we get.’ So it is encouraging now to be getting a lot more female applicants and people-of-color applicants. There are more and more people now looking to jobs in the beer industry that previously just weren't applying.”