Racine Gruberman and Anthony Bernas
Co-Founders, Cooler Keg - an ultra portable stainless steel cooler and CO₂ driven draft system that lets you bring the bar with you. www.thecoolerkeg.com
A lake, friends, beer and summertime… For many, it would be the foundation of a good party. For Racine Gruberman and Anthony Bernas, it was also the start of an entrepreneurial journey that has changed their lives.
Cooler Keg is hailed as an “ultra-portable” stainless steel cooler and CO2 driven draft system “that lets you bring the bar with you” wherever you go. According to the couple/business partners, the idea was born out of a friend’s desire to enjoy a draft beer in the middle of the water while partying together at Lake Allegan in Michigan. That prompted Bernas to take up the challenge and produce a prototype that was ready for the group’s annual gathering the next summer.
The couple received a $30,000 leap grant from Main Street Ventures (MSV), using it for the first step of production to tool and mold the product. The finished Cooler Keg allows you to fill the included kegs with anything (beer, cocktails, mocktails, seltzers, and more) and custom ice packs keep everything cold without ice or electricity.
For Gruberman and Bernas, the journey from a boozy weekend-inspired ‘what if’ to a finalized product has been quite the ride – literally. December 2023 saw the couple embark on a cross-country adventure to deliver Cooler Kegs to their first 10 backers on the crowd-funding site Indiegogo.
In the years preceding that trip, the couple decided to move from Chicago to the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky region during the pandemic for a fresh start (Bernas’ parents live in the area). In addition to uprooting their lives from the Windy City, the duo had to deal with a double whammy of inconvenience in the form of the pandemic and, despite receiving more than $200,000 in crowdfunded support, developing nearly everything out of pocket prior to receiving the MSV grant.
“In hindsight, we didn't even realize how badly we needed that grant,” Bernas says.
“For people who don't know and don't understand crowdfunding, from the outside looking in, people look and say, ‘Oh, you guys are doing so well, you're flush with cash. We saw your Indiegogo, you raised $215,000 – you've got plenty of money,’” he explains. “Until you have a purchase order for the product that you're going to deliver to the people who support your campaign, you don't get the money. You’re on your own to get through all of manufacturing, all of tooling, all of sampling and then they say, ‘Okay, you're actually going to bring the product to market – now you can have the (crowdfunded) money.’”
The crowdfunding campaign proved that Gruberman, a UX Designer by trade, and Bernas, who was working as a traveling nurse at the time, had a market for their product. Prior to launching The Cooler Keg, the couple – who come from entrepreneurial families – each had their own startup ventures. Whereas Gruberman also did freelance UX work, Bernas was the co-founder of a videography company that focused on nonprofits.
Gruberman says all the help they’ve had in bringing their product to life has proven Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky’s entrepreneurial community has plenty of people ready to help them thrive.
“To be honest, we were completely shocked at how awesome the entrepreneurial community is here (with) all the resources and organizations like Main Street Ventures, Blue North and multiple others,” she says. “I can't imagine that we would be where we are as a business if we had done this in Chicago as we would not have had anywhere near the amount of support and resources there.”
Asked what advice they would share with other entrepreneurs, the duo’s response was three-fold: Don’t do it alone, manage your cash flow – and always see how an organization like Main Street Ventures can help.
“We've made friends with a lot of other entrepreneurs that are in similar spaces (to us). We've tried to give back and to talk to other entrepreneurs who aren't as far along as we are,” Gruberman says. “Reach out to people – people are willing to talk – just reach out to them on LinkedIn and say, ‘Hey, I want to pick your brain.’ That has been invaluable because you will learn about all the resources available (and) people to network with that can help you along.”
Bernas, who says people shouldn’t be afraid to discuss their ideas with one another, agrees.
“We've run into a couple entrepreneurs who were exactly like us … They'll talk about their idea in generalities, but they're not going to tell you anything, because you're going to steal it – trust me, everyone's so busy (that) no one wants your idea,” he says. “They're going to let us spend our money and time proving that it's valuable before they even consider wanting it. Talk to SCORE, talk to MSV, talk to Blue North. They’re full of people who have been there, done that and can point you in the right direction to get you to the finish line faster.”