Tru Colors survived tragedies and setbacks to get its beer on the market, but its business model remains contentious
After several difficult years, shootings, a hurricane, and a pandemic, the Wilmington-based brewery Tru Colors has finally released its beer. The company’s social mission — hiring active gang members to try and rein in street violence — remains controversial, drawing criticism from families and law enforcement. Despite that, founder George Taylor remains committed to the approach he started working on five years ago.
There’s no shortage of controversy around Tru Colors’ social mission. But it’s also, according to founder George Taylor, first and foremost a for-profit company. So, many might ask a company founded in 2017 — what took so long to release its first batch of beer?
“So everyone says that, and it's true. But if you think about it, that sort of spark occurred in roughly early 2016 — I then spent, like two years just sort of being around gangs," Taylor said.
Taylor often tells the origin story of Tru Colors: the shooting death of 16-year-old Shane Simpson shook Taylor out of his affluent white Landfall lifestyle, and set him on the path to start dealing with the city’s gang violence problem.
His plan? Build a company (Taylor eventually settled on a brewery) and hire primarily gang members. That's not a simple task: Taylor was used to acquiring and building up companies, not creating them with a team of untrained employees.
“And then in 2018, we spent another year once we decided that we thought an economic opportunity would stop the violence," Taylor said. "What does that look like? You know, how do you begin to put together a business plan where 80% of your team is street, without any of the skills are coming without any of the skills that are needed to do the job that they're going to be put in?”
Taylor had a couple of foundational assumptions he thought would make the plan work. First, based on his time getting to know gangs in the years after the 2016 shooting, he believed that only a small percentage of members were actively involved in violent crime. Second, Taylor believed that gangs encouraged key values that, with work, could be translated into the startup world. Third, he believed if these employees stayed involved in gangs, they could be a positive influence on their peers — and pull a steady paycheck (and stock options) that would give them skin in the game of legit business.
So, for the next year and half, Taylor put his staff through a boot camp program. Many of them, Taylor said, had never held a job before beyond flipping burgers or bagging groceries. Several years later, gang members still make up almost 80% of staff — 65 of Tru Colors' 85 employees. The senior leadership is all 'civilian,' as Taylor calls them, but gang members hold multiple 'director-level' positions.
But, there were setbacks — and not the kind most start-ups face.
Violence, hurricane, pandemic
The company went through several brewers and other staff members. And there was the gang-related killing of 18-year-old Zalleux Johnson in Creekwood in February 2019. Johnson was a friend of several Tru Colors employees and so the company's inability to exert enough influence to save his life hit hard. His death triggered a corporate reorganization. Some lost faith in the mission, but Taylor was adamant that the business model wouldn’t change, and forged ahead.
“Towards the end of 2019, we thought we had kind of figured out well, then we had to buy a building, and we had to build it out. We had to get all this equipment and engineering, it took us a year and a half to do that," Taylor said. The company walked away from a plan to spin off a non-profit to be eligible to take over the city-owned transportation depot on Castle Street and settled on an abandoned building on Greenfield Street.
Then tragedy struck again. In July of this year, a gang-related shooting at the home of Taylor’s son, the company’s COO, wounded one and killed two, including longtime Tru Colors leader Kory Tyson. Tru Colors faced public criticism — more on that, in the second half of this article — but Taylor again said the business model wasn’t changing.
Then there was, of course, also a global pandemic and the resulting supply chain issues.
Tru Colors had been building up to be one of the largest breweries in the region, and Taylor wanted to order a million cans. He turned to Ball, one of — if not the — largest producer of aluminum cans in the world.
“You know, not really understanding the problem, I call Ball, I say I need a million cans, you know, by this date ... and they said, 'Well, we're really not taking any customers until 2023.' Like, well, that's kind of going to be an issue," Taylor said. But Taylor and his team were able to charm Ball with Tru Colors' mission and got their cans, with a little help from Miller Coors, the brewing giant that invested in the company earlier this year.
Now, with a million cans on the way and a state-of-the-art canning facility on Greenfield Street, Tru Colors needed one more thing: beer. Tru Colors initially planned to roll out their beer around the Fourth of July — but when they scaled up from smaller test batches to a full-sized run, the flavor was off. Way off.
“So anyway, the first batch of beer comes out and we're like, holy smokes, it doesn't taste right. And it was just a matter of dialing things in for with that system. And it took a minute," Taylor said.
A bad batch of beer on the eve of launch would probably fluster most brewery owners. But Taylor was initially unconcerned because he had a partner in New Orleans, basically a backup brewery. Then, Taylor’s plan B got hit by Hurricane Ida.
"And we started brewing down in New Orleans and everything was going wonderfully. The beer is perfect. We got it all dialed in. And the hurricane hit remember a while back a couple of months ago, well, our beer was wiped out," Taylor said. On the warehouse floor in Wilmington, there’s a pallet with thousands of cans that did make it out of the New Orleans brewery — but if Taylor can’t get the right permits, he’ll have to destroy that, as well. “Yeah, I called my pastor the next Monday, I say I'm just waiting for the locusts to appear on Monday. I'm pretty sure they're coming.”
Back to work
But Taylor was able to pivot back to the Wilmington brewery, located on Greenfield Street, and get back to work.
Now, Tru Light is on shelves and on tap around the area. It's Tru Colors only beer — a low-calorie lager. Unlike other local brewers, Taylor eschewed bombastic stouts and hyper-hopped IPAs for the kind of beer the vast majority of Americans drink. The goal, after all, is to build a national brand — to take his mission to as many people as possible — and, eventually, maybe let someone else pick up the mantle.
“We started Tru Colors, to build a national brand and to have impact at scale on these issues that we care about … we always knew there's going to come an inflection point probably in a couple of years, where we just don't have the horsepower to take it to that next level. And we're going to be looking for somebody to step in in a larger way," Taylor said.
A sale will help pay off investors — and will put monetary value to stock options held by Tru Colors' employees — but it's not clear what it will mean for the social mission of Tru Colors. Following a string of recent shooting, that mission — and Taylor's business model — have come under increasing criticism. But Taylor argues it's highlighted the importance of what his team can do.
Double homicide leads to criticism
On the morning of July 24, 2021, there was a shootingat the home of Taylor's son, George Taylor, III (known to staff as "GT3") — a top executive at Tru Colors. Two people were killed, another badly wounded.
One victim was Koredreese "Kory" Tyson, described by the Taylors as a longtime friend and Tru Colors leader, and like the majority of Tru Colors employees, an active gang member. Tyson was arrested in 2019 for a shooting at a Red Cross Street property owned by Taylor's son. Taylor confirmed that Tyson was a member of the team at the time, but said he was not the shooter but nearly a victim of the shooting.
[Correction: This article initially stated Taylor said Tyson was not an employee at the time, but he was referring to the victim of the shooting.]
A decade earlier, the Wilmington Police Department claimed Tyson was a member of the Folk Nation Gangster Disciples (a.k.a. 'Growth and Development,' one of the gangs from which Tru Colors hires). Three men later arrested for his murder were validated gang members, reportedly affiliated with a rival gang, a sect of the United Blood Gang.
[Editor's note: 'Gang validation' is the process by which law enforcement agencies identify likely gang members, based on a variety of criteria; it is not a criminal conviction. Some have criticized gang validation as violating due process since there is not a simple judicial appeal procedure for people who are not in gangs or who have since left gangs; others have called the criteria too broad or too vague — and note that being in a gang is not, under most circumstances, in and of itself illegal.]
The other victim, Bri-yanna Williams wasn’t affiliated with the company or gangs — and her familylaid blame for her death on Taylor’s policy of hiring active gang members. It’s worth noting that Taylor says he doesn’t require active gang membership — although he admits he made a joke about it years ago that has, essentially, gone viral. But at the same time, none of his employees have left gang life after being hired.
In the wake of the shooting, Sheriff Ed McMahon and District Attorney Ben David would also criticize Tru Colors.
McMahon told WECT in August, “I’ve never met with anyone from TRU Colors on it. They never asked me my opinion on it, so I didn’t give it. But I can say 100% right now that my opinion is that it’s not going to work unless we get you out of the gang."
Appearing on WHQR's The Newsroom alongside Judge Jay Corpening, David addressed Tru Colors. He agreed with Taylor that gang violence could be dealt with as an economic issue, and acknowledged that gangs did have some positive aspects, but said ultimately gang affiliation was too hazardous to condone.
“Until you actually renounce the gang, not just violence, but renounced the gang, here's the problem with any business model that would allow you to say, we're going to find the good and praise it within this gang: you are forty times more likely to be the victim of a homicide in America, if you're the member of a gang," David said.
For years, Taylor has both called David a friend and cited his instrumental role in the company’s origin story. But they’re split over Taylor’s belief that, if his employees stay actively affiliated with gang, they can prevent street violence.
"If you believe the problem is economic, then you have two choices, you can hire every gang member in America, not practical. I mean, yeah, there's, you know, too many gang members here in Wilmington for me to hire every one of them. Or you can hire those that you think have the most influence over stopping the violence on the street, and then teach them and grow them and raise them up. So they can have further influence on the gang members in the street. And that's what we choose to do," Taylor said.
Is Tru Colors actually stopping gang violence?
It's always been hard to measure the success of Tru Colors' mission.
For one thing, there are a host of programs and organizations that claim they’re moving the needle on gang violence: court diversion programs, non-profit groups, and community policing efforts.
For another, it’s difficult to prove a negative — Tru Colors is taking credit for the shootings that don’t happen. So, how do you measure a couterfactual here?
Taylor argues one way to gauge Tru Colors’ success is to look at gang-related shootings, when retaliation would be expected.
“We've had three gang-related shootings earlier this year — one in February, a good friend of mine got killed over on Nixon Street ... then one in March got wounded. And then Kory in July...There was no retaliation on the first one at all. So, no one was killed. There was no retaliation. No retaliation on the second one," Taylor said.
But after Kory Tyson was killed, Taylor admits, Tru Colors was pushed to the limit, and wasn’t able to stop the violence completely when a drive-by shooting killed one woman and injured her cousin.
“The third one with Kory was really, really hard. And like, the lengths that Tru Colors went to make sure that there was no retaliation were significant. There were two ladies who were shot after that. I would consider that retaliation. It happened, like two days after it, I think. And we were trying our damnedest to shut that stuff down. And we missed on that we just didn't do it," Taylor said.
While acknowledging this, Taylor did say that — given Tyson's stature in the gang world — there should have been "World War III" after Tyson's murder. He also said that the apparent arson committed at Tyson's gravesite days after his death was "not gang," nor was the nearby shooting that injured two men. He apologetically declined to elaborate on how he knew this, saying "I can't get into it — that's just not the way it went down."
Taylor's reticence brings up another issue: it’s also hard to evaluate Tru Colors’ work because Taylor is hesitant to go in-depth on what his team does for fear of compromising the relationships he’s built.
“I can't get into it. Because like that part of the issue is like, we're able to do what we're able to do, because the trust that we have with the people that are involved on the street, and we don't talk about the good stuff, we do not talk about any of that stuff, because it potentially could break trust, and we would not be able to do that," he said.
For a long time, Taylor publicly talked about gang violence when law enforcement often shied away from it. In the wake of this summer’s shooting at New Hanover High School, that’s started to change — but Taylor’s skeptical about the county’s plan to stand a version of Durham’s Bull City United, based on the Cure Violence program.
“There's a conversation right now going on in city government or county government about bringing in Cure Violence... It doesn't work. It's been in tons of cities and been shut down or, you know, had difficulty in every city. In its founding city, Chicago, they shut it down. The problem is that they hire people who don't have the influence or the access to deal with the problem that they say they're dealing with. And they report into the government, often the police, and like, that's just not going to work," Taylor said.
Taylor argued the county's robust reaction to the New Hanover shooting has more to do with where it happened than with the level of violence in Wilmington — while overlooking the success he says Tru Colors has had.
"In fact, you can talk to politicians, and they'll tell you, this is one of the most violent years ever. That is false," Taylor said, noting that Wilmington Police Chief recently reported to city council that violent crime was, in fact, down.
"It's total bullshit. What has happened, like last year was way worse than the year before. That was worse again, and like it's getting better, what we're doing is working. The only thing that changed is that we had incidents in communities that didn't normally get them. We had an incident in a white middle-class community, upper-middle-class community, and we had an incident in New Hanover High School that has a lot of white students. That is the only thing that changed. I talked to people in the hood, and they're like, "Are you kidding me? This shit has been going on for decades,'" Taylor said.
Taylor's realpolitik approach might rub some the wrong way, but it's not new. Back in 2018, Taylor spoke at the 1 Million Cups event in Raleigh, and described a plan to help improve the business model of local drug dealers. Taylor claimed then, and still believes, that the rise in overdoses in recent years is a "product quality issue." And while he's no longer focused on drug issues, his philosophy remains the same.
"I started talking to drug dealers about, you know, LTV, long term value of a customer, like, dude, are you kidding, this guy's worth a lot of money. What are you doing? It is cold, and I mean, someone's probably gonna flame me for saying that, but the truth is, I'm just trying to get someone not to die. You know, I can't get him to quit using heroin. I'm just trying to get someone not to die. And that's the way we look at things — like, we are very practical. There are certain things like, Ben [David] and others are like, let's just get him to quit the gang. Wonderful. Tell me how — you can't," he said.
So, despite the criticism, Taylor has no plans to change his mission. And, with the recent successful launch of the Tru Light beer line, he may even eye expansion.