SUNBURY — After decades of brewing their own beer as a hobby, brothers Curtis and Thad Benner have convinced three judges to support their new craft beer enterprise.

Their outline for launching the Eclipse Craft Brewing Co. in downtown Sunbury was the winner Saturday in the second annual Business Pitch competition sponsored by Sunbury Revitalization Inc. and the Bucknell Small Business Development Center.

“We were doing it 15 years before it became popular,” said Thad Benner, who said his older brother suggested making their own brew in 1990. “It’s been a passion for us ever since.”

They were awarded the $12,000 prize in property rental credit and legal, accounting, marketing and branding services to help launch the brewery by judges Jeff Balestrini, chief lending officer at Service 1st Federal Credit Union; state Rep. Lynda Schlegel Culver, R-108, of Sunbury, and Bob Garrett, president and CEO of the Greater Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce.

The second prize of about $3,000 in support services went to Amber Deane, owner of the Crafted Cafe, which is set to open at 438 Market St. in Sunbury on Dec. 1. Her 20-seat eatery will include dishes primarily made with locally grown food.

“People like good food in a friendly place at a price they can afford,” she said.

The Benners said they want to take Curtis Benner’s expertise in the “science of brewing beer” learned in six months of training at a California brew school and combine it with Thad Benner’s more than 25 years of experience in the restaurant and hospitality field to create their business.

They outlined a three-phase plan to produce and sell beer and offer affordable food at a downtown location, with plans to expand it into a production brewery with a canning line and tours. 

Noting the craft beer market has risen about 7 percent in four years and Sunbury is located in the center of the River Rat Brew Trail, the Benners said it is the ideal business to bring people into the city. 

But, asked Balestrini, “What will differentiate you from the others?”

“Have you tried our beer?” asked Thad Benner. “We’re going to try and make really good beer.”  

SRI board member Robert Roush said the city would benefit by having both businesses.

“We wish we could give more help” to start-ups looking to open in Sunbury, he said.

Roush said the nonprofit revitalization group is setting challenges for marketing the entire city and attracting more entrepreneurship.

Echoing comments from Steven Stumbris, director of Bucknell’s Small Business Development Center, Roush said, “We’re here to help.” 

That’s what Christina Major needed when she and business partner Jessica Mena tried to launch a wellness center.

The winners of last year’s first Business Pitch competition, the pair opened Radiance Holistic Center at 353 Market St., Sunbury, in March and today employ 14 health practitioners.

“It was make-or-break for us,” she said of the competition.

Major came out Saturday to support both companies in making their pitches and hopes each will soon occupy a downtown storefront.

“Both of you is what Sunbury needs,” she said, later adding, “The more businesses that are downtown, the better we all do.”

Deane and the Benners will equally benefit from the experience, said Major, who saw her competitors succeed despite not winning the grand prize.

About 40 people came out to watch the pitches. Among the attendees was craft beer enthusiast and president of Selinsgrove Projects Inc. Carol Handlan, who said she would like to bring a similar competition to help fill empty storefronts in her Snyder County community.

“It’s a great idea,” she said.

Email comments to mmoore@dailyitem.com. Follow her on Twitter @marciamoore4.

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