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:
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.”
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.
“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.
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?”, “I’m wearing a mask, but where would you like me to stand and speak with you safely?”, “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.
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.