Wednesday, September 28, 2022

TRU Colors to close operations by end of week

(Port City Daily/Alexandria Sands Williams)

WILMINGTON — Not even a year after TRU Colors released its first beer, its founder announced Wednesday he will officially close the doors to the Greenfield Street brewery by the end of the week.

CEO George Taylor revealed in a 2,000-word opinion piece posted to the Greater Wilmington Business Journal’s website that his brewery “faced stiff headwinds that have slowed progress,” inevitably resulting in the closure.

Namely, he cites the pandemic, poor media coverage, dried-up funding, and lack of community support as factors contributing to his startup’s demise.

The entrepreneur — which launched Next Glass and acquired UnTpped — had the idea to start TRU Colors (which stands for Truth, Responsibility and Unity) in 2015 after learning about a 16-year-old shot on Castle Street. Taylor said he had an intrinsic desire to do something to curb gang violence in the community and in response founded TRU Colors in 2017.

His approach was out of the box: employing active gang members with the hope that providing adequate income and work and life training, as well as strengthening ties socially, would bring down violent crime rates community wide.

The for-profit brewery was founded on “reform, education, and livable wage jobs to lift communities and make them safer,” Taylor wrote. However, his company never revealed internal metrics to show the model worked.

Taylor pointed to police department stats reported in 2021 as evidence TRU Colors had an impact. 

“A year most cities saw increased violence, the Wilmington communities in which we focused saw a 43% reduction in violent crime. Certainly not perfect, but better,” Taylor wrote in the op-ed.

The company started with 11 rival gang members as employees in 2017 and by fall 2021, roughly 65 gang members worked at TRU Colors, according to its then-media representative Laura Seaton with Soldier Unlimited.

Seaton confirmed to Port City Daily last year the minimum salary for members that make it through a two-month bootcamp and then a three-month training process was $37,500 plus full healthcare and stock options. She also said there were professional growth options, and after six months, the retention rate was over 85%.

The brewery opened its facility at 715 Greenfield St. in an art-deco building that was home to a former textile mill. Taylor bought the property for almost a million dollars in 2019 and renovated it with offices, a recording studio, a wellness center, gym and classrooms where rival gang members often were paired up during training.

Taylor told PCD in 2018 the brewery’s primary goal was to sell beer. Yet, supply chain issues due to the pandemic affected progress on its only release. It also stalled its social mission, Seaton wrote to Port City Daily in November 2021:

“In late March [2020], the TRU Colors team began working remotely. This of course made everything much more difficult, but in particular, it was nearly impossible for us to be effective on the streets. Imagine trying to de-escalate a gang dispute over Zoom! We did, and it doesn’t work.”

The brewery planned to debut its beer — TRU Light — by early summer 2021. It was delayed when the batch didn’t turn out the way Taylor had hoped, according to WHQR.

The first beer was unveiled by the end of September 2021 and has been distributed to grocery stores and thousands of bars statewide. Two months ago, TRU Colors opened its onsite taproom and had plans to launch nationwide by the end of 2023.

It received backing primarily in equity investing over the last few years. Molson Coors Beverage Co. received a minority stake in the business in April 2021; the beer giant also agreed to a distribution deal to help disburse the product.

Earlier this spring, PNC invested $9.25 million, though Taylor noted the deal was a refinancing agreement of the 56,000-square-foot building and its equipment. “After fees and repayments, TRU Colors was left with about $8,000,” he stated in his op-ed, noting the company does not have “millions” as some may perceive.

The founder explained funding has been stifled due to media attention. While the entity has been favorably covered on national news outlets, including Good Morning America and in Forbes, other negative reports, Taylor said, outweighed it. Specifically, in the aftermath, he claimed to have lost a $5.6-million investment over the past year.

“When TRU Colors is searched, news articles on some of our most personal and difficult moments appear with salacious headlines that would frighten most,” he wrote in his op-ed.

Taylor has reached out to Port City Daily on many accounts citing “unfair and biased” reporting. Most recently, he wrote to the media outlet how he was appalled to be mentioned in a piece where a local man’s body was found on the brewery’s property, calling it sensationalized.

During the summer of 2021, headlines prominently featured reports on Taylor’s son, George Taylor III, TRU Colors’ former COO. His Providence Road home was broken into in the early morning of July 24 and two people were killed — 21-year-old Bri-yanna Williams and a 29-year-old validated gang member, Koredreese “Korry” Tyson. Tyson had been living with Taylor III in the home.

The Williams’ family told WECT they blamed Taylor for their daughter’s death. 

Upon capturing the three validated gang members allegedly tied to the crimes, District Attorney Ben David was clear in his condemnation of the brewery’s business model, also capturing attention in the news. The DA noted it impossible to renounce violence without disavowing gang affiliation: “It’s like trying to separate the water from the wet,” he said.

Taylor admitted in his op-ed the TRU Colors concept isn’t one easily understood. During a live Facebook chat with the local business journal last year, he described his son and gang members often would be called in the middle of the night to areas like Creekwood and Houston Moore.

TRU Colors media representative Seaton told PCD that fall, the brewery employees, because of gang ranking and status, have access to some of the most marginalized individuals in the city.

“They engage with those who are high-risk where they are and when it is needed,” she wrote. “As you might expect, this often leads to our team working late into the night, but because of their selfless efforts they have prevented many bullets from flying.”

She also said the TRU Colors team would share their personal learning experiences and a “positive vision for the future” that the brewery was trying to implement with others in the community. Bonuses were given to street teams that lessened or prevented violence, according to a recent article released by The New Yorker.

“TRU Colors is hard. Really hard,” Taylor wrote in his op-ed. “Not only do we have the typical startup challenges, but the methods and processes of our social mission are admittedly non-standard and often controversial.”

The New Yorker piece, Taylor claimed, reignited negative attention. Written by Charles Bethea, it was released digitally last week and printed Monday, and highlights the mission and challenges the brewery endured, along with the violence associated with it.  

It also alluded to the fact TRU Colors may not last — employees were laid off recently and Taylor III left sometime in the last year — or, at the very least, would be sold.

Taylor wrote in his op-ed The New Yorker exposé “brought to light the media risk associated with TRU Colors and the understandable concern of being brought into a social media storm on race and violence.” In turn, he blamed the publicity for the brewery’s loss of additional “critical” funding.

Taylor said he has picked up the company’s financial shortfalls personally but “reached the limit” on what can be done to continue moving the concept forward. 

He maintains TRU Colors, though misunderstood, was founded on altruistic hope, if not naïveté. More so, he wrote in the op-ed that generational poverty, hunger, racism, and lack of opportunity will continue to be root causes of violence in the streets and he is proud of the TRU Colors teamwork to attempt mitigating some of those issues.

“To understand what’s happening, you need to meet those who are living it,” he wrote. “For most Wilmingtonians, this can be difficult, but it’s the only way I know to begin to understand. And I also found that once you exchange headlines and statistics for names and circumstances, you find the truth very quickly.”

Taylor explained he doesn’t stand to gain a profit on folding TRU Colors but only to recoup his investment, though how much isn’t revealed.

Catch up on previous PCD reporting on the brewery here.


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Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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