October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, with an official theme of Increasing Access and Opportunity. Throughout the month, we will be posting stories about adults with SMA in the workforce and are pleased to share this story about AJ Brockman, 32, of Palm Beach Gardens, FL.
AJ Brockman says he wears many hats in life. No matter how you perceive that remark, his many hats seem to be both stylish and on-trend. He is the co-owner of The Brewhouse Gallery and the Kelsey City Brewing Company, a three-barrel nano brewery. As an award-winning artist and entrepreneur—two talents that have emboldened both businesses—he has cultivated an entire arts district within the city-block shopping center he owns. AJ is always adapting to the world around him and looking for opportunities to live his life to the fullest.
After not meeting normal motor skill milestones (e.g., crawling, walking) as a baby, AJ’s parents knew that something was not right. It was not until he was 2 years old that he was officially diagnosed with SMA. Going directly into a power wheelchair, AJ believes that the mobility and independence it provided him at such a young age set the groundwork for how he would live his life. He spent a lot of time in the hospital as a kid, mostly managing respiratory-related illnesses, until he underwent a spinal fusion surgery at the age of 12 years that allowed his lungs to properly expand. He credits his amazing medical and caregiving network for helping him stay as healthy as possible and slowing the progression of his SMA. All these trials and immense support has made AJ the success he is today.
“Obviously SMA has been a huge part of my life, but it does not define who I am. It has, however, allowed me to see the world differently,” remarks AJ. “Regardless of your abilities, life gives you a certain set of rules to play by. Growing up with SMA meant I had to rethink those rules and use them to my advantage. Other than my amazing parents, SMA has given me the drive and determination to not let anything hold me back.”
AJ was always looking to be on the forefront of what’s next. After graduating high school as part of a TV and film magnet program, he fell in love with digital art and graphic design. He graduated valedictorian with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from a small, private college in South Florida. One of his professors saw his skill and potential and hired him as a senior designer/project manager in the corporate design field right out of school.
“College definitely propelled my career. It not only gave me the tools to succeed but also the relationships within my industry,” said AJ. “It made me never underestimate where the next opportunity can come from. At the time, who knew my studying was actually a four-year job interview?”
With his love of all thing’s art, The Brewhouse Gallery was just the beginning. In partnership with his mom and brother—who have been at this side as business partners from day one—they set out to build a small gallery co-op, functioning as a coffee and pie shop with an event space.
“That quickly exploded when we realized that a lot more artwork was sold after people had a beer or two,” laughs AJ. “We went from having one event a week to an event almost nightly. We expanded our craft beer offerings from a simple bottle shop with a single kegerator to a full 40 tap draft system offering some of the most sought-after craft beer and locally produced brews. We filled a niche, supporting the arts, that nobody was doing at the time.”
Two years after opening and expanding into the unit next door, AJ’s landlord offered to sell him the entire shopping Plaza. With this deal, AJ and his partners took over and, with the help of the community, restored what would become The Kelsey Theater. This was once a nationally renowned music venue, under the name “The Kelsey Club,” brought back to honor its history. Also with this expansion, the vision of producing his own beer came to fruition. After reconnecting with an old friend and award-winning homebrewer, John Hampp, AJ had his brewmaster and launched The Kelsey City Brewing Company. Both the fermentation tanks and brewery are now inside The Brewhouse Gallery. The Kelsey City Brewing Company is focused on the history of the area and all the beer names are relate to the area’s roots. This led to AJ’s creation of a nonprofit, Kelsey Cares, with the mission to support the arts in his Florida community through many different initiatives.
“Hands-down, the community is the best part of owning my own business. It has been so incredible to revitalize an entire town through the arts and, in turn, support artists through that process,” says AJ. “The Plaza we are located in was virtually empty when we took over, and we are now 100% rented with many different art-related businesses, including a tattoo shop, 3D printer, vintage collectible store, gastropub, and other artists’ studios.”
AJ’s Tip for People with SMA in the Workforce:
Always pursue what you love. If you are passionate about whatever you go into, the long hours and hard work are a lot more pleasurable. Find something that you would do without getting paid for and make it your mission to figure out how to get paid for doing it.
COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on everyone, and the hospitality and entertainment industries are among some of the hardest hit. AJ’s businesses were not immune, and he had to sell The Kelsey Theater to keep his other business going. But despite opening The Kelsey City Brewing Company within weeks of the pandemic’s start, he saw that producing his own beer single-handedly kept things afloat, even when sales were down by as much as 90 percent. Above all, he has survived through the support of his amazing community that continues to come out no matter what. At this point, he says, his customers are like family and he would not have it any other way.
“One parting piece of advice I would want to share with the SMA community is to get out of your own head,” suggests AJ. “A lot of us can get stuck in our ways, so try and do something to break up your routine. I feel like that has helped me the most and it inspires me to keep going. Instead of thinking about what I cannot do, I focus on what I can do! Start small and stick to it. Everything that is worth doing is hard work but if you stay focused on your goals, you can make it happen.”