Taproom distancing, house delivery or shutting down? Three ways craft breweries are weathering the COVID-19 Crisis

Great Lakes Brewing has moved to an online-only delivery model. Supplied photo

Government movements on beer laws in Ontario are traditionally slower than molasses, but the pandemic has meant furious action and new flexibilities unseen in Ontario beer history. On Monday, March 16th taprooms stopped serving beer after the Ontario government ordered all bars and restaurants to close due to aid social distancing. But the government threw breweries a lifeline, opening up flexible rules to enable all craft breweries to direct deliver beer to Ontarians.

At the same time, Ontario’s COVID-19 cases are continuing to climb, and are currently third highest in the country. That leaves breweries balancing the safety of their employees and customers, with the need to stay afloat and serve thirsty shut-ins. They’re all making different decisions about how (or whether) to operate — here are three stories to illustrate how business owners are coping:

 

Bottle shop distancing, takeout & home delivery

The majority of Ontario craft breweries are choosing to keep their bottle shop open for pickups and also offer home delivery of beer.

At the beginning of March, Jason Fisher, owner of Toronto’s Indie Alehouse was just beginning to see the light after a slow recovery from the nearly $800,000  loss he suffered when DME went bankrupt. He’d been talking to banks who were warming to lending him funds so he could climb out of the hole faster, and in mid-March, the new production brewery had just filled 12,000 cans of beer destined for the LCBO, they were just waiting on final approval for the SKUs.

Then COVID-19 hit. Indie closed its busy Junction brewpub, where the majority of its revenue is made but is keeping the bottle shop open for walk-in sales, take-out food and for delivery in Toronto.

“But these sales won’t pay rent, never mind employees,” says Fisher, who like most Ontario breweries has laid off 90% of his workforce.

“Unless there is a more rigorous plan for government aid, I don’t see how all breweries survive this crisis,” says Fisher. Most breweries should be able to make April rent, but he predicts only about half to one-third will be able to make May rent without some kind of government assistance.

For Indie’s part, they’re working with the LCBO to get their new cans — look for Lemonade Stand and Instigator IPA in 473 ml cans soon — through final paperwork and onto the shelves, but things are slower than usual as the LCBO’s administration staff is also working from home.

“It’s the unknown part of it — not knowing how long this will last, that is the hardest,” says Fisher.

 

Home delivery only

In the course of one week, Great Lakes went from operating a busy taproom, to closing all draft sales and just doing instore pickups, limited to two people in the store at once, and opened an online bottle shop to direct deliver.

Then, this Tuesday March 24th, Great Lakes Brewery decided to close their bottle shop sales and store pickups, and shift to home delivery only, out of concerns for the safety of their employees and customers.

“We have a system in place, where we call the customer when we’re ten minutes from their house, put the beer on their front porch, and ID them through the window or door, so there’s no contact,” explains Troy Burtch, Marketing, Communications and Experiences Manager.

The skeleton team of senior sales staff making deliveries can barely keep up with the volume. “To say we were surprised by the volume is an understatement. On Sunday we hit 200 orders, it’s been insane.”

Burtch attributes the demand to three groups: “Some are in self-isolation and are binge buying, others want to want to avoid the long lines at the LCBO and get it dropped right to their house, and we have a core group of Etobicoke fans who just want to support us.”

Despite the busy delivery schedule, this is very much a temporary side hustle for GLB, who are excited to rebuild their taproom culture once the pandemic eases.

“There’s going to be a shift in the beer landscape once this is all over,” says Burtch, “I just hope it doesn’t last as long as we all think it will.”

 

The shut down

Hamilton’s Grain & Grit owners, husband and wife Joe and Lindsey Mrav, were in Iceland when the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

While they were still there, the couple saw the taproom traffic on the weekend before bars were ordered to close, and decided the best bet was to shut the taproom down.

“We flew home three days later, and went straight into self-isolation, the kids are with my parents and we’re now on Day 7,” she told me, speaking from her home in Hamilton.

They then quickly launched an online pre-ordering system and pick up, “sorta like a drive-through beer store,” and offered customers the option to pick up pre-orders in the taproom and began accepting credit only.

But still, Lindsay was up at night, asking herself if it was all enough to keep employees and customers safe and do their part to contain the spread of COVID-19.

“I was constantly checking in with the two employees we kept on, to see if they felt safe,” says Lindsay. “They said yes, but I could tell, I could just tell that over the last few days they were feeling uncomfortable.”

“And I was thinking: Even if we sent beer for delivery or parking lot drops only — what about the person who packed the order? Maybe their partner is a doctor or a nurse, you just don’t know what their exposure is.”

So on Tuesday March 24th, they made the decision to shut down completely for two weeks. In fact, the couple had assumed that their brewery would be shut anyway as part of the government closing all non-essential businesses.

“Even though we’d all like to think that our beer is essential, we know that it’s not,” the couple wrote in an Instagram post announcing the temporary shutdown.

“We can go a month without any revenue and we’ll see what happens after that,” she told me.

But the Mravs aren’t ruling out reopening: “If we were to reopen in two weeks, we’d have to make sure that there was only one person at the brewery — and it would be me or my husband — then we’d have peace of mind knowing that we were the only ones handling the beer, and we don’t have any contact with anybody else.”

For now, though, “I feel more comfortable taking the financial hit than risking the health and safety of our employees.”

 

View this post on Instagram

 

Oh friends, it’s been a roller coaster over here. We’re going to be real with you, as always. When It was announced yesterday that all non-essential business were being shut down in Ontario, we assumed that included us.⠀ ⠀ We sent our Local Members an email, shut down the online shop and called it a day. Later, when it was announced that we are deemed an essential business and we can remain open, our hearts sank. Even though we would all like to think that our beer is essential, we know that it isn’t. The list of essential businesses is extensive, and almost nothing is changing. ⠀ ⠀ While we’re happy for our industry, we wrestle with the idea of staying open, knowing that our team and our customers are at risk just by being out in public. We can’t tell you to practice social distancing for the sake of our healthcare workers and our community, and then try to sell you beer. It doesn’t feel good (for us), and it makes us uncomfortable.⠀ ⠀ That’s why we’re closing our doors until further notice, effective today at 8pm. That means no retail sales or deliveries. We’re going to think of this in terms of two week chunks of time, because that seems doable for us right now. We’ll reassess in two weeks and let you know where we’re at.⠀ ⠀ We also might be quieter than normal on our social media channels. We need a break to process this, and to care for ourselves, our team and our family.⠀ ⠀ Please have compassion for businesses that remain open, and the ones that choose to close. These decisions are gut wrenching and they impact so many people, and the livelihood of our businesses.⠀ ⠀ For everyone who placed online orders, we will be open for pick-ups today from 12-8pm. Please pull up (you can pull into the Car Star parking lot as well), honk, have your order number handy, and we’ll bring the beer out to you. We will not be accepting walk-ins today, online order pickups only, please!⠀ ⠀ Stay well, friends! We miss you all and we have such comfort in knowing that you’ll all be here when we return 🖤⠀ ⠀ 📷 by @pureandlovelyphotography ✨

A post shared by Grain&Grit Beer Co. (@grainandgritbeer) on

 

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