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Vodka Maker Has a New Home in an Old Hadley Church

Paul Kozub

Paul Kozub, the proud new owner of the former St. John’s Church in Hadley, wants to be in this location for the next 50 years.

Paul Kozub says he can draw a number of parallels between his experiences with creating his own brand of vodka and his recent work to pull up the tens of thousands of nails from the oak floor of the former St. John’s Church in Hadley, his new “world headquarters.”

“It’s a lot of hard work, and there are no shortcuts,” he said in reference to both vodka making and the small, stubborn nails, left behind when carpeting and laminate flooring were removed. “I asked a contractor whether there was some kind of machine or if you could sand over them, and he said, ‘Paul, you just have to put your head down and pull them out one nail at a time.’ And that’s how I’ve grown the brand — convincing one person at a time.”

He then proceeded to dive into a toolbox to the side of what used to be the altar, pull out a large pair of pliers — the only one of many tools he’s tried to handle for this project that has proven effective — and demonstrate.

As he did so, one could see that, as with his vodka label, V-One, rehabbing St. John’s into the new home for his venture is a labor of love — on many levels.

Indeed, for this devout Catholic, setting up shop in a former place of worship is something special, a privilege he explained using both humor and candor.

“My 39 years of going to church every Sunday finally paid off,” he said with a laugh, adding that he had to clear a number of hurdles for this dream to become reality and at times thought there might be too many to overcome. “I really feel blessed to be in here.

“As a practicing Catholic, I wanted to see this building in the hands of someone who would appreciate it,” he went on. “I’ve been here for a month and a half, and every time I come in, I remember that it was a holy place where there were Masses and baptisms and funerals.”

St. John’s, opened in 1902 and known to many in the community as the “Irish church,” was closed by the Diocese of Springfield more than 20 years ago after the town’s other Catholic Church (the “Polish church”) was closed, razed, and replaced with a larger structure, known as Most Holy Redeemer. It had served the diocese as what’s known as patronage space, said Kozub, and for years was crammed with statues, stained-glass windows, and other items from across the diocese that needed to be stored somewhere.

He said the church had been on his radar screen for years as a potential home for his business, now almost a decade old and expanding well beyond its Western Mass. roots, and that there were talks with the diocese off and on for most of this decade, after it became clear that a small office in his home was no longer suitable.

“I guess they got tired of me pestering them,” said Kozub, adding that he was finally able to negotiate a sale for $75,000. He then cleared some of those aforementioned hurdles, including everything from zoning (which needed to be changed) to parking, which was required for that zoning. (A survey revealed that there were seven spaces at the back of the property.)

Since moving into the church in August, Kozub has made steady progress with what he called phase one of his plans for the property. This includes a broad cleanup of the structure, fixing the front steps, painting several areas, repairing damage to the ceiling, and converting a small room off the altar, where the priest would prepare for Mass, into his office.

the church

Paul Kozub says the church, which has been closed since the early ’90s, has long been on his radar screen.

That space also had a hardwood floor, which has been restored to its former luster in a manner similar to that planned for the nave, or the central portion of the church, after all those nails are pulled out.

Phase two involves converting the 2,000-square-foot, 20-foot-high nave into a space for private meetings and seminars. Kozub said this facility would be ideal for meetings with area retailers who sell V-One and the bartenders who serve it, and also for introducing new products, such as his growing roster of flavored vodkas, the ongoing wave within the industry.

Over the past 18 months, Kozub has introduced vanilla-flavored vodka, then lime, and, just a few months ago, triple berry. And there are two more nearly ready for the marketplace, although those flavors remain top secret.

Meanwhile, the property, located on Route 9 in the center of Hadley, provides some great visibility for the company, he went on. “That was one of the biggest pluses for me,” he said. “Now I have exposure to about 45,000 cars a day that drive by here.”

Kozub said the church would inevitably be the site of Valley Vodka’s 10-year anniversary celebration coming up sometime in 2015. That milestone will provide an opportunity to assess where this company is and where it wants and needs to go, he noted, adding that he is mulling opportunities to take his vodka products, now sold only in Massachusetts and Connecticut, into other markets.

“Right now, we’re focused on growing the brand locally, and by the 10-year mark, I really want to start thinking about how we can duplicate the success we’ve had here in this area.”

Phase three of this project may eventually involve creating some type of vodka-making museum in the old church, said Kozub, adding quickly that such plans are in their infancy, and there will be many more hurdles to clear if they are to advance.

In the meantime, he’s focused on the next stage in the progression of his company and making the old church into a comfortable home — even though he’s already very comfortable there.

He plans to keep many of the features of the church, from the confessionals (although he has no idea what he’ll do with them) to the sink in his office used by the priest preparing for Mass, to the sign at the front entrance posting the times for the services.

They are part of the church’s glorious past, and Kozub wants to make sure they’re also part of its future — and his.

“I really would like to be here for 50 years,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s room for me to grow Valley Vodka, and this space will enable me to do that.”

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