Sam and Gina Masotto came to Bethlehem as former touring actors in the off-broadway play “Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding.” They left behind their acting careers to fulfill their dreams of opening a brewery and settled on a small city in Pennsylvania as the place to do it.
Through Adam Flatt, owner of Social Still, and Lehigh’s Small Business Development Center, they eventually found their way to the Rising Tide Loan Fund, which brought their vision to fruition.
Now, as residents of South Bethlehem, the Masottos run Bonn Place Brewing Company on Taylor Street.
The brewery is one of many South Side small businesses that has grown out of community support.
Rising Tide Loan Fund
The Rising Tide Loan Fund, which provides loans to small businesses, is one of the programs Community Action Lehigh Valley offers.
It has loaned over $11.5 million to small businesses with nearly 200 loans going to low-to-moderate income individuals and/or individuals in a low-to-moderate income census tract.
Chris Hudock, the associate executive director for the organization and lifetime South Bethlehem resident, joined the Rising Tide Community Loan Fund as the program director in 2005, four years after the program began.
As a former banker who assisted small businesses, Hudock wanted to spread the word about the fund.
“Instead of just saying no to the applicant, we had to convince them to change the conversation to ‘No, I am sorry, I can’t help you, but here is who may be able to,’” Hudock said.
His efforts proved successful, as he said information about Rising Tide was shared with current and potential business owners across the Lehigh Valley.
Then came the 2008 recession.
Many small business owners were forced to find alternative funds as banks stopped lending. Fortunately, Rising Tide was able to step in, and the benefit was two-fold.
Small businesses had access to loans through Rising Tide, and the organization was able to gain recognition and clients.
Over a decade later, small businesses are leaning on Community Action Lehigh Valley for more than just funds. Hudock said two big challenges small businesses face are a lack of employees and the inability to manage time.
He said small business owners often bring their work home, causing them to become overwhelmed about the time they can devote to seeking help.
The organization helps small businesses find potential hires and consolidate helpful resources.
“We are upfront. We are honest. We are here,” Hudock said.
Hudock said they gained the trust of the South Side community through their consistent assistance.
A Success Story: Bonn Place Brewing Company
After being accepted for the Rising Tide Loan and securing $130,000 in funding, Bonn Place Brewing Company opened July 3, 2016.
Sam Masotto said he credits Hudock and the Rising Tide Loan for giving him and his wife a shot when they had no money to put toward the endeavor.
“Chris (Hudock) put it all out there,” Sam Masotto said.
Without Community Action and South Bethlehem’s small business community, Sam Masotto said Bonn Place Brewing wouldn’t be what it is today.
Over the years, the Masottos have connected with many South Bethlehem small businesses, including Randy’s Pizza, Lehigh Pizza, The Flying V, Taste Smokers, Roasted, Tulum, Lit Coffee Roastery & Bakeshop and Social Still.
Beyond connections with other small businesses, Sam Masotto is a community member himself, living and raising his family in South Bethlehem.
“A big part of what makes us us is our community involvement,” Masotto said.
The brewery fundraises for the Pink Boots Society, which supports women in the brewing industry. During the height of the Black Lives Matter Protest in 2020, Bonn served a beer called “Black is Beautiful,” donating all sales to Black-owned breweries.
Hudock said he views Bonn Place Brewing Company as the Rising Tide Loan Fund’s biggest success, in part, due to their community first approach. The brewery raised money for Rising Tide during the pandemic when they were struggling.
“They are not all about their businesses and profits,” Hudock said. “They are really looking to help the South Side.”
Businesses Anticipate the Future of South Side Bethlehem
Hudock said he is curious to see how changes, including the shift to higher prices, luxury housing development and a larger South Bethlehem population, will affect the city in the next 10 years.
Ian Panyko, director of The Lodge, a local mental health recovery center and cafe, sees these changes as more of a gentrification process leading South Bethlehem into a potentially difficult time period.
Panyko said the South Side will grow increasingly less affordable for those who have resided in Bethlehem for years.
“Low income populations who need lower cost housing and more access to transportation will continue to get pushed out of the area,” Panyko said. “I want to be hesitantly optimistic, but ultimately the cash flow coming in can move faster than services and regulations to protect at-risk populations.”
As new development continues to go up, the South Side changes almost daily.
Sam Masotto said he sees smart development in the area, but some of the recent changes feel perfunctory.
Panyko said he is worried we might have already missed our opportunity to slow down some of the development.
Anna Smith, a life-long Southside resident and director of the Community Action Development Corporation of Bethlehem, said South Bethlehem is in a transitional period.
She said businesses with more money behind them are renting out historically cheaper spaces, which leaves the newly developed, larger and more expensive spaces for small businesses.
“Without the addition of cheaper store fronts, there are fewer and fewer viable locations for businesses that serve the South Side community,” Smith said.
She said Community Action Lehigh Valley works to slow these tendencies by questioning how to make spaces to ensure opportunity is not lost for the small businesses born out of South Bethlehem.
Like Panyko and Sam Masotto, Smith said she is worried there won’t be enough space for community generated businesses. This is why business owners, residents and Community Action continue to advocate for the South Side and its small business community.
“You’re accountable to your neighborhood,” Smith said. “You can’t escape from it, which makes you hold yourself to a higher standard.”
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