by Victoria Bourne
He’s out of his mind: that’s what Felicia Mariani told her husband of more than 40 years when he said he wanted to open a brewery.
Driven by an ill-defined force at an age when most people consider slowing down, Rick Mariani, 65, a Norfolk-based custom furniture manufacturer and an avid cigar smoker, decided to embark on a new venture.
Maker’s Craft Brewery opened in early March off Church Street at the edge of the Norfolk & Western Railroad Historic District. It’s the only brewery and cigar bar in the area. The Marianis teamed up with Emerson’s Cigars, a longtime, local tobacco purveyor, to sell from a walk-in humidor inside the brewery’s self-contained cigar bar located next to the taproom and brewhouse.
As a baby boomer, Rick Mariani isn’t alone in his entrepreneurial pursuits. Entrepreneurs over age 50 make up more than half of America’s small business owners, and 42 percent of those people say they opened a business in pursuit of their passion, according to a Forbes report on a recent survey from Guidant Financial.
Rick says he’s sunk more than $2.5 million into his endeavor, which includes restoring the early 20th century building and buying an adjacent property he plans to turn into a large bier garden.
Felicia, 70, blames herself for her husband’s newest enterprise; she’s the one who bought him his first beer brewing kit. But it’s not the first time Rick has gone full-tilt into a new endeavor. He’s an adrenaline junkie, she says, with his foot firmly on the gas.
“I’ve got my foot on the brake all the time,” says Felicia, a co-owner in both businesses.
Rick and Felicia met at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront in the heady days of the Peppermint Beach Club and Rogue’s Gallery more than four decades ago. He’s a Beach native. She’s from Portsmouth. They got married after a six-month courtship. She worked in the world of retail as a regional director of visual merchandising for Leggett Stores. He was a landscaper-turned-cabinet maker. That’s where he developed a taste for beer. “I used to be strictly a Canadian whisky guy,” he says. “But you eat sawdust all day, there’s nothing tastes better than a cold beer.”
The Marianis moved to Lynchburg early in their marriage so Felicia could pursue a dream job in Leggett’s corporate ranks. When Rick couldn’t find work that paid enough, he took out a loan and opened his own furniture and cabinet making shop. Hotel clients came calling. The business grew. There was even a brief Chinese partnership in Blackstone, Va. It all laid the foundation for Sorrentino Mariani & Co., the custom hospitality and contract furniture manufacturing business the couple has owned and operated in Norfolk for more than 20 years.
Felicia says her husband is driven by an entrepreneurial spirit and a desire to make their sons, David and Mike, proud of him; both work in the family business and had a hand in the brewery. Rick says he just always wanted to be the best at whatever job he was doing, a trait instilled in him as the eldest son of a drill sergeant.
He grew up dreaming of racing cars and that’s what he did for years competitively. Until recently, he raced late model BMWs in a National Auto Sport Association class known as Spec E30. His face lights up when he talks about road racing at places like Virginia International Raceway and Summit Point Motorsports Park in Ohio, running midpack from the starting line within inches of 30 other cars or taking an S-turn at 130 mph, as fast as the car will go, pressing, looking, trying to get more.
“Yeah, you scare yourself to death,” he says. “If you’re not scaring yourself to death, you’re not going fast enough, probably.”
Rick says he’s just not the kind of guy to while away the hours in a rocking chair on the front porch. “I am perfectly happy there for a cigar (and) a couple of beers. But after that … . As long as I’ve got projects, I’m good.”
One of the more appealing aspects of opening a brewery is that the product is consumable. In the furniture world years can pass before you get repeat business. “You have a good beer, you want another good beer, you know, right now,” Rick says. “It’s not 25 years before we get that customer again.”
The brewery is in an old warehouse with large, iron-framed windows on East 23rd Street. Half of the 18,000-square-foot brick structure is Maker’s tasting room and cigar bar. The rest is storage and office space and may eventually become a factory outlet store for the Marianis’ furniture business.
They’ve tried to create a family-friendly space, they say, one that appeals to a more mature clientele. Felicia selected a taupe, orange and lime green color scheme to play off the building’s century-old brick walls, and created a corner coffee nook. Rick designed the brewhouse around an original skylight and built the heavy wooden barn door entrance through which brewery tours are given, as well as the bar tops.
Dogs are welcome, except in the cigar lounge; there are pool tables and board games. Food trucks park curbside. Opening night featured a local cover band and millennial-aged patrons piecing together puzzles. “They thought I was nuts bringing puzzles in,” Felicia says. “That’s the hottest game we’ve got.”
And although Rick’s homebrews are popular with his racing buddies and others, for now he’s leaving the beer making to a professional: Michele Lowney, a Staten Island native with 20 years of experience, is the head brewer and a co-owner. Beers include a rye pale ale, a sweet stout, and a red IPA that Rick calls an IPA for people who don’t normally drink IPAs.
Self-satisfaction is the Marianis’ primary motivator, they say; it’s about attaining goals, not money, although they make a comfortable living. “We have a reasonable salary, but I don’t need anything, I don’t need any money. It becomes a gauge of whether you’re winning or losing,” Rick says – he gets more satisfaction out of doing, creating and making. When it comes to the brewery, he built what he wanted. And he’s not quite done yet: He’d like to see Maker’s beer on shelves from Pennsylvania to Florida.
That, Felicia says, will be her husband’s next act.