COVID-19 began as an abstract. It was something happening across
the world, but not here in Michigan, or even the United States. It
was murmurs and rumors and hand washing.

And then March 16 came and everything changed with a quick,
decisive snap when Governor Gretchen Whitmer closed all dine-in
service for bars and restaurants across the entire state of
Michigan. I went from being a full-time Sales Representative for
Beards Brewery to a question mark—and I was not the only one.
Here’s a peek into our COVID-19 story:

covid-19

Emily Hengstebeck

Beards Brewery sits at the very entrance of Downtown Petoskey
overlooking Little Traverse Bay. The pub and restaurant’s
capacity is over 300 with our outdoor patio included, and we offer
a full menu of food, beer, cider, and soda. We host local musicians
and organize a monthly concert series as well. Needless to say, we
are well-practiced and used to managing large crowds and thirsty
customers.

When all of that became a moot point our management team took
quick, decisive action. For our small business to survive, we
immediately changed our dine-in model to a takeout and delivery
model staffed by a skeleton crew, while a majority of employees
were temporarily laid off. 

“We were forced to become more flexible,†says Peter
Manthei, co-owner and co-founder of Beards. 

“Restaurants and any business in hospitality are financial
acrobats,†says Ben Slocum, the other co-owner and co-founder of
Beards. “Most are living at tight levels of cash flow
margin—enough for a few weeks and that’s it.â€

With COVID-19 making the cash flow margins even tighter, Beards
executed To Go & Delivery within just a few days after the
dine-in shutdown. And I can say a lot of things about how this
went, but the most important aspect was the outpouring of community
support. 

“The ones that care, really care. It might sound cheesy, but
it made our shining star shine brighter,†says Slocum. 

Especially in Northern Michigan, our shining star is community;
and our local community keeps Beards (and other small businesses)
afloat in non-tourist months. Even amidst a pandemic, many of our
pub regulars who could no longer belly up to our bar showed up for
their Beards food and beer. And with everyone restricted from
gathering together, it was nice to see familiar faces, even if it
was through a car window. 

Meanwhile, behind the scenes our owners strived to keep up with
the constant updates to unemployment, the Payment Protection
Program (PPP), and any and all health and safety bulletins.
Planning for the month turned into adjusting plans daily to adapt
to new regulations. Is there a right way? A wrong way? Support,
grants, and regulations have been primarily reactive, with too many
agencies being caught off guard to paint a clear picture. For
instance, the PPP fast-tracked money to small businesses to aid
operations and payroll, but only after the funds had been dispersed
were tutorials and guidelines provided to business owners. 

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“It [PPP] got cash in people’s hands quickly, but not
knowing how to utilize it has been tough.†says Manthei. 

Because of Beards’ seasonality—meaning a majority of our
business comes from the summer months—we are ultimately hoping
the PPP can slow down any backslide we have to endure over the next
six months of not being open to our full capacity. And in true
Beards’ spirit, we are making it work. 

To us at Beards, making it work means we thought very seriously
about whether or not to open our dine-in service Memorial Day
weekend following Governor Whitmer’s announcement. With only four
days between the announcement and the weekend, we decided it was
not enough time to finish our construction projects or ensure
quality of service and safety to both our customers and staff. 

“How do we provide a level of service while distancing? How do
we provide a fun experience while wearing masks?†asks
Manthei.

We were not the only ones to remain closed, but there were other
businesses who did open their doors. 

Like many other businesses, we asked around about what was
working, how customers were reacting, and how to keep everyone
comfortable while still maintaining the safety requirements.
Admittedly, the world seemed to be all over the spectrum. While
some reopened establishments operated with clear COVID-19 signage
and traffic flow to steer customers into staying cautious, others
were completely denying the restrictions by seemingly not caring at
all that large groups, many of whom who were unmasked, were
gathering in their spaces. 

covid-19

It was a careful experiment on our end. At first our management
team used signage, red floor arrows, and trained staff to direct
and inform our customers on how to move about our space. We quickly
realized that absolutely no one looked at the floor no matter how
obvious the arrows were, so we got rid of those by the end of the
week, using our staff instead to guide customers around our space
to abide by safe social distancing rules. 

When it came to mask wearing, we very clearly demanded that upon
entering and moving about the pub, customers were to wear masks at
all times. When seated, customers are allowed to de-mask and enjoy
their meal and full experience. And most customers have been
abiding by this practice with grace and understanding; however,
there have been a few colorful stand-outs in opposition. They did
not stay at Beards Brewery for long as their attitudes and
disregard for the safety of our staff and other customers was not
welcome. Staff, I must note, are wearing masks during their entire
shifts whether they work as front of the house or back of the house
workers, only taking them off to hydrate or eat their meals on
their breaks from the safety of our break room. 

Northern Michigan has always been a haven for Michiganders and
other visitors—a place to get away, to breathe fresh air, relax,
and come together. For many, Northern Michigan has been an escape
from COVID-19. Our population size and the amount of open space we
have has made our region safer than most. But this does not mean we
are invulnerable, so while we have our usual summer influx of
tourism and vacationers, we will still be here, but it will be on
our terms. 

Looking to other regions of the state, and other bars and
restaurants tackling the same issues we are, it all seems like an
experiment. Truthfully, it’s frightening for many reasons. No one
wants another surge in positive COVID-19 cases to happen,
obviously, but outside health and safety, a lot of establishments
are asking themselves—can we make enough money at 50% capacity to
justify opening? Some of my staff will not return to work—is it
because of fear or because unemployment is more lucrative? My space
is small and narrow—how do I direct traffic inside my space
safely? What will my business plan look like next year? Will my
business still be here next year? 

These are all fears. Some are short term problems and some we
will only begin to see in the next six months. The survival of
hospitality will not rely on the customers’ need to go out to
dinner; rather, it will survive because ownership and management
will have made the right decisions. 

At Beards, we have had to cut back our menu offerings as well as
our hours in order to keep our present staff healthy and safe while
trying to avoid over-work. And although we have hiring challenges
every summer due to the huge need, it is more difficult this year
with many people still staying at home and not working. Our staff
have also become multi-taskers—every staffer has been trained to
work almost every position at our pub in order to fulfill ease of
scheduling and protocol. We have waiters working in the back of the
house slinging pizzas. We have hosts manning the dishwasher. We
have our sales representative chopping, pressing, fetching,
catching, and helping a little bit everywhere. And everyone
busses tables. It is truly a team effort. 

Outside our home pub in Petoskey, our sales market has been a
similar story on a larger scale. 

After bars and restaurants closed dine-in service in March, the
majority of the traditional sales rep. job description disappeared.
Spring and summer festivals were cancelled one after the other.
Draft sales dropped to nothing. Besides pivoting to kitchen work
and other odd jobs to support the brewery, sales reps like myself
had to get creative. We rely heavily on face-to-face communication
in the craft beer industry—it’s all about establishing and
maintaining the relationship with buyers and accounts. 

But when do we go back into the market now that the state is
opening again? When is it safe to visit other businesses and
actually interact—to reconnect those important relationships? How
do you measure personal safety on one hand and the success of a
business on the other? Because, while beer is not an essential
product to actually survive as a human being, it is the lifeblood
of over 400 small businesses in the state of Michigan. 

I can say that the Michigan brewery sales representatives know
each other pretty well; in fact, we prefer to help each other out
and many of us have close friendships outside of work. Because of
this, all of us reps have been debating the above questions for the
last three months. We normally operate with calendars that have
been scheduled with travel, lodging, events, and sales strategy
one, two, three months ahead at a time. We are go-go-go,
always-on-the-move people. Now, we are planning week-by-week,
twiddling our thumbs and getting used to being the most sedentary
we have ever been. Communication and connecting has been
challenging as well, and we are taking our cues from distributors
and accounts directly to see what they are comfortable with.
Personally, I have tried a bit of everything—emails, texts, phone
calls, Zoom meetings, and even custom ‘Hello, hope you’re
swell’ Beards postcards. Recently, I have dipped my toe back into
the market in Beards’ hometown by visiting neighboring businesses
and dropping off samples. It has all been fine, but it has changed
so much. A conversational pleasantry is not just ‘Hello’
anymore, it’s “Are you okay with me coming in?â€, “I’m
wearing a mask, but where would you like me to stand and speak with
you safely?â€, “Can I hand you this product sheet?†It is
clear that there is no universal policy for selling beer safely. It
is on every individual rep’s shoulders to balance the
responsibility of safety and doing their job. 

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But we are used to being flexible in the beer industry. The
market changes and we adapt. This is just a bigger challenge than
we ever expected, and who knew there was something bigger to battle
than seltzer? Looking at this as an opportunity, the craft brewery
industry in Michigan can and will survive this. 

Getting creative, becoming more flexible, and pushing business
models forward will help sustain us here in the market as well as
in the taproom. Beards is forging ahead and launching a monthly
beer subscription ‘Milk Route,’ with subscribers receiving
different Beards products throughout the month on a weekly basis.
We also have products coming down the line that are newer avenues
we are excited to pursue.  

COVID-19 has definitely been a challenge so far, but we can use
it to expand upon our core principles of community, hospitality,
and innovation—all while diversifying revenue. And since Michigan
has always prided itself on buying and supporting local, we are
confident we will have the support needed to make it through this
pandemic. It will be another learning experience for all of us, but
I think we can meet the challenge. After all, our consumers are not
merely customers, they are enthusiasts. As much as we care about
the product and the experience, so do they. 

 

The post
Pushing Forward: How a Michigan Craft Brewery Gets Proactive During
COVID-19
appeared first on MittenBrew.

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