Serving Inclusion: Suzie Ford Reflects on NoDa Brewing’s Philanthropic Evolution
Together We Stand NC
Suzie Ford is the cofounder and president behind Charlotte-based NoDa Brewing Company, one of the fastest-growing breweries in North Carolina. But for Ford and her husband/co-owner, Todd, opening a business was a second act. Ford had built a career as a banker and Todd as an airline pilot, but once they became empty nesters, the couple sought a new adventure. Enter NoDa Brewing in the Queen City’s trendy North Davidson (NoDa) neighborhood in 2011.
Despite this dramatic professional shift, a common thread has remained consistent throughout their lives, namely a spirit of service. Ford grew up in a suburb of Oakland, California, where community involvement was a part of everyday life. She and Todd instilled that value in their four children, and now they’re cementing it in the core of NoDa Brewing.
In November 2018, the Association of Fundraising Professionals Charlotte awarded NoDa with the Outstanding Small Business Award for its work, including the ongoing YDWD series. Standing for “You Drink, We Donate,” the YDWD program regularly spotlights different nonprofits across the Carolinas by inviting them to set up at the brewery and then donating $1 of every beer sold that day to the organization. From the beginning, NoDa has offered free taproom reservations for community gatherings and meetings, and as the brewery grew, it expanded its philanthropy to include larger donations to various groups.
Since 2020, NoDa has ramped up its efforts. Like many breweries around the country, it participated in the Black Is Beautiful initiative, wherein the breweries made a signature beer of that name and donated the proceeds to nonprofits fighting injustice and racial inequity. It also commissioned Carla Garrison-Mattos, NoDa’s former run club manager and bartender, to paint a new mural over the one she’d first done in the early days of the brewery. While the original work featured employees of different genders and orientations, it was lacking in people of color. The new mural not only displays a new mantra, “Where Diversity is Brewed, and Inclusion is Served,” but it also marks a fresh chapter in NoDa’s community effort and social stance.
Since becoming a Together We Stand (TWS) partner in 2021, NoDa Brewing has hosted two Maud 2.23 runs, as well as last year’s Unity 5K in Charlotte. This fall, it’s upping the ante with a special Block Party celebration October 8 that will also include neighboring breweries, Pilot Brewing, Divine Barrel, and Resident Culture Brewing, four food trucks, and a DJ. [More details to come!]
Here, Ford reflects on NoDa’s evolution over the past dozen years—from the early days when time and money were scant to the present when the brewery has the resources and platform to effect change in its community.
How did NoDa Brewing first become involved in its community? Why was this engagement so important?
I grew up in a middle-class family in California where we didn't have a lot of money, but it was very important to be involved and help people out. It was just the thing you did. Fast-forward to 2011 when all the kids were out of the house, and my husband, Todd, and I dove head-first into the brewery. Craft beer was huge out West and it was just starting to make its way up in a big wave over to the East Coast. Early on, we didn't have the money to donate and we didn't have any time, but our community just wrapped its arms around us. It was kind of a role reversal where they said, ‘you've been involved with us for years, and now it's our turn.’
As NoDa Brewing [became more established], we were able to give back with our time and thank those organizations and communities that made us successful. We started doing stuff with the taproom, providing reservations space to hold events, meetings, you-name-it—without a fee. We also promoted groups through our social media presence.
Then we started doing something that one of our employees created, which was a really fun catchphrase: You Drink, We Donate, and we call it YDWD. And so on different days—usually Tuesday and Wednesdays—we showcase a local nonprofit. We have them come out, set up a table, and we donate $1 from every beer sold. And now that we've become more successful, we not only share our time and our beer, but we also give a little bit of financial help.
What challenges did you face as a new business trying to do good without alienating potential customers?
Early on, some groups wanted us to make a stand one way or another, and as a brand-new business, that scared the heck out of us. If someone wanted us to be an absolute jerk and take a stand that did not fit us, of course we wouldn't do that. But [when other people said] ‘you need to put a yard sign up and tell people how to vote,’ it was no; we need our space to be a conversation space. If there’s a way of finding common ground, let's try that first.
The sad thing was people wanted the brewery to take a strong stand and even though it was what we wanted to do, it was at that point where all we could do was brew beer. So we said, give us all the signs, give us all the literature personally. We will put signs in our yard; my husband and I and our employees who are interested will take stands personally. [Back then], we supported [those causes] by doing events.
Fast-forward, and we've changed our stance. We want to make it known that we don't have tolerance for bad people. We don't have tolerance for racism. We don't have tolerance for hate. There's way too much bad in the world; we only have tolerance for good.
What prompted you to take a more active stance?
When George Floyd was murdered and everyone saw the recording, it was like a sucker punch. You couldn't help but go dark and angry and hateful for a little bit, wondering how there can be so many bad people in the world. I’m a middle-class, white, 56 year old, so I’ve been very fortunate [in my life], but I'm also aware enough to know not everyone is fortunate that way. So seeing it and just not understanding it, we had to do something. Because if I'm feeling that and I’m quite a few onion layers near the top, how do the people at the core feel?
We started participating in lots of things. There's a platform called Black Is Beautiful that a brewery in Texas started to raise funds, and we [joined the movement]. In 2022, we donated $10,000 to Emancipate North Carolina. We did lots of research and felt like they were at the forefront of what was happening. Now, each year, we pick different nonprofits to donate a good lump sum of money to in that arena.
How did NoDa Brewing come to partner with Together We Stand?
[Together We Stand founder] Tyrone Irby first met with our amazing GM, Jamar Valentine, in 2020. Jamaar is an avid runner and a longtime friend. He tells it like it is in the best way possible. So he was very involved in a lot of the TWS events happening in 2020, and he and Tyrone became good friends.
Since then, TWS has had several events with us. Tyrone was getting so many people from different walks of life involved and channeling the anger and energy into Together We Stand to unite communities, raise funds, bring awareness, and bring people together with the common thread of running. I’m not a runner at all, but NoDa started a run club way back when. There are so many like-minded people who want to make a stand, and we’re using running [to do so].
And then it started taking off to more than that. We had group sessions where Jamaar and Tyrone led tough, very candid conversations around race, and anyone could participate. We did it for two years after each run and just got everyone together to voice their opinion and listen. It was a big listening session for those of us who are still learning and want to learn more.
What advice would you offer new or small businesses who want to support their communities and important causes?
Find a way to get nonprofits and people who care involved. Use your community platform. So many places charge to reserve space for meetings, so get creative with that. And make sure you let those partners know that you’re doing what you can and as you are financially able, you will do more. Let them know that what you’re doing isn’t all you want to do, but rather all you're able to do right now. Do whatever you can, regardless of how small it is because lots of small things add up to big things.