The beginning of the Wild Leap story is well known. Two enterprising and ambitious Atlanta friends and a gifted brewer left thriving careers to follow their dream of creating approachable and inventive styles of craft beer in the former Westbrook Tire building in downtown LaGrange.
Now, less than five years after founders Anthony Rodriguez and Rob Goldstein and brewmaster Chris Elliott took their personal wild leap, their vision has not only taken shape. It’s taken off.
In January, Wild Leap was named 2021 Brewery of the Year by Beer Connoisseur magazine. “For the first time in our history, a brewery submitted a staggering three beers that received World Class rating, making them our runaway Brewery of the Year for 2021,” the Beer Connoisseur editorial department wrote. This marks the first time in the twelve-year history of the Official Review that a brewery received three World Class ratings in a calendar year. Wild Leap also submitted an additional nine beers that received scores in the Exceptional range and a whopping 16 beers within the Top 150 Beers of the Year category.
It was the second significant honor in just the past six months. Last August, Wild Leap was named to the Inc. 5000, the business magazine‘s annual list of America’s 5,000 fastest-growing private companies. Not just beverage companies,
all companies — health, tech, service, entertainment and more. Wild Leap, in fact, ranked 356, placing it near the top of the best of the best.
“Brains, bravery and optimism propelled these businesses to our annual fastgrowing list,” said the magazine, which has a monthly audience reach of 25 million.
The recognitions, LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton said, show Wild Leap is “a great entrepreneurial success story,” that has been good for LaGrange.
“We are incredibly honored,” said cofounder and Chief Marketing Officer Rob Goldstein. “We are grateful for the accolades, but plan to keep our heads down and keep the pace.”
The pace is blistering. And impressive.
Wild Leap now produces 15,000 barrels annually in the Main Street brew house, which has been expanded five times. In addition to about five core beers, they continually introduce new brews in a seasonal rotation.
Wild Leap recently added a second LaGrange production facility, and Wild Leap products are widely distributed across Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina. The company ships beer to customers in 12 states with more on the way, and Wild Leap beer is available in 15 foreign countries throughout the world. On the local scene, the tasting room has become a popular hangout and special outdoor events, like a summer Luau, fall Taco Fiesta and Grilled Cheese and Soup Showdown, regularly attract major crowds.
Planning and staging events “is in our DNA,” Goldstein said. He and Rodriguez began working together producing large scale beer, music and food festivals long before their Wild Leap days.
“It’s always been important that the brewery be family friendly. You’ll see children, young parents, grandparents and everyone in between. The community embraces the events and participates,” Goldstein said.
After being named “Best New Brewery of 2019” by USA Today, the company launched a second product line, Wild Leap vodka, and added handcrafted cocktails to the taproom fare. A pandemic-inspired line of canned, ready-to-drink premium cocktails soon followed, and contributed significantly to Wild Leap’s revenue growth.
The numerous awards, innovative product lines and a talented sales force have created new opportunities for increased visibility across the southeast. From iconic venues like the Fox Theatre and Mercedes Benz Stadium to strategic partnerships with The Dogwood Festival and Six Flags Over Georgia, Wild Leap continues to find ways to reach new fans.
“Our intention from the outset, was to scale Wild Leap into a large regional and, ultimately, national brewery,” Goldstein said.
Andy Fritchley of Atomic Brand Energy has worked with Wild Leap since before it opened and said he realized early on they were going to be big.
“They are so smart, so savvy, so strategic, I knew this would be their trajectory.”
Goldstein credits their rapid growth to a “dynamite team” of hard workers with varied skill sets and a consistent, determined focus on a clear mission.
“From the very beginning, we set out to create an excellent, high quality product
and to develop branding and marketing that stood out in a very crowded field.“
With its distinctive bison logo and heavy social media presence, Wild Leap has managed to do just that.
In addition to Goldstein, key members of the team include co-founder and CEO Anthony Rodriguez, CBO Chris Elliott and Brittany Knecht, general manager, and, as Goldstein puts it, “the glue that holds all of this together.”
The company now has more than 50 employees and prides itself on a work environment that “feels like family.” They have a significant percentage of female management, prefer to promote from within and find local talent, including LaGrange College and Auburn students and alums.
“Our company culture is super important. We work hard and long hours, but we are respectful and encourage each other to grow and progress,” Goldstein said. The company loves it, he added, “when someone advances from keg washer to production leader.“
For a company developed on strategy, it was almost by accident that the founders discovered LaGrange. Rodriguez, who worked in the beer industry, and Goldstein, who was in event planning and promotion, had partnered on the side to stage a variety of major festivals. Rodriguez visited LaGrange to explore the possibility of holding a beer festival in 2015. It worked out, was a major success, drawing thousands, and the organizers found themselves falling in love with LaGrange.
They liked that the city was business friendly. “We were used to it being a lot more difficult” in Atlanta, Goldstein recalls. When Rodriguez spotted the vacant and deteriorating Westbrook building and thought it had potential as a brewery, the lightbulb came on.
“We started thinking, ‘Maybe there’s another way,’” Goldstein said.
The Downtown Development Authority, Callaway Foundation, Chamber and city leaders were supportive. The festival had shown the community’s interest. The Wild Leap story was under way.
“We are very grateful for the way it developed,” Goldstein said. “We take it seriously that Wild Leap is an example of what can happen inside a company and in the place it’s located. We are strong advocates for LaGrange and why other people should consider starting something here.”
Despite all the growth, company leaders are quick to say the Wild Leap story is far from written.
“We absolutely believe this is the beginning of our story. We have exciting plans for new ventures, new products, new product categories,” Goldstein said.
The next “wild leap,” in fact, will be a soaring one. Wild Leap will open a second location in Atlanta’s Centennial Yards South, the first phase of a multibillion-dollar mega development now taking shape in a former railroad “gulch” within walking distance of Mercedes Benz Stadium, State Farm Arena and the World Congress Center. The potential is obvious, and as an anchor tenant, Wild Leap’s high visibility and award-winning reputation is almost sure to create more opportunities.
Relocating, Goldstein emphasized, will not be one of them.
“Without a doubt” he said, Wild Leap is committed to LaGrange.
“LAGRANGE IS OUR HEADQUARTERS, LAGRANGE IS OUR HOME AND ALWAYS WILL BE.”
That’s welcome news to Mayor Thornton.
“Wild Leap has been a wonderful addition to LaGrange. They helped start a revitalization of the south side of downtown and brought a new tourism destination to our city. Their incredible success and expansion in just a few short years has enhanced LaGrange’s brand around the state.
“As I travel around Georgia, I am constantly asked about Wild Leap, and I hear rave reviews. I’m looking forward to many great new success stories as Wild Leap continues to grow and expand,” Thornton said.
PROSPERING DURING THE PANDEMIC
On the day the NBA season was canceled in March, 2020, a shipment of shiny new beer tanks arrived at Wild Leap in LaGrange. They waited for months on the delivery.
Suddenly, as pandemic-related shutdowns closed bars, restaurants and businesses nationwide, Wild Leap leaders faced a frightening question: “How are we going to fill these tanks now?”
It got worse. Trucks loaded with Wild Leap craft beer headed for the Final Four festivities in Atlanta literally had to turn around when the NCAA canceled March Madness.
“We very quickly knew we had to act,” said Rob Goldstein, co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer of Wild Leap. “It wasn’t just our livelihood on the line, but our staff and our community.”
Company leaders “locked themselves in a conference room” and didn’t come out until they had a plan.
For the next 15 months, with the taproom closed, they operated out of a 10-foot tent in front of the brewery, heavily promoting curbside sales. Their loyal customers and many new fans responded.
“Amazingly, we didn’t miss a beat in terms of taproom revenue,” Goldstein said.
The popular craft cocktails made with Wild Leap vodka, however, had never been packed for to-go sales before. The team then devised a way to batch cocktails in 45-gallon drums and can them using their existing canning lines. The ready-to-drink cocktails “caught fire.”
“It was a huge help, not only in keeping revenue up, but keeping our workers,” Goldstein said.
Retailers started calling for the cocktails, so Wild Leap took their best-selling cocktail recipes, worked with a beverage lab to make them shelf-stable and watched sales climb steadily.
“It gave us a whole new revenue stream, and it’s still doing very well,” Goldstein said.
Best of all, he said, the company made it through the lockdown phase of the pandemic without having to make staffing cuts at the brewery.