Behind the Bar: Sketching Out Hospitality's “New Normal”

Greg Engert, beer director of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, shares his insights into how beer sales and service—in bars, restaurants, and taprooms—may continue to look in the months to come.

Greg Engert Jul 28, 2020 - 8 min read

Behind the Bar: Sketching Out Hospitality's “New Normal” Primary Image

On Thursday, March 12, I took the train home to Washington, D.C., from New York City. I had been there working at our newest beer bar, the Grand Delancey, and focusing primarily on how to maintain business levels as fears about coronavirus spread. On-premise business had already declined noticeably, but people were still clamoring to support bars, restaurants, breweries, and the like.

Everything changed that weekend, and by Monday, March 16, we—along with most members of our industry—had either temporarily closed or dramatically reduced operations.

As unexpected as the impact of the pandemic has been, I never once doubted the resilience of this community. It has been inspiring to see the innovations and pivots in the face of this unprecedented crisis. Some brewers distilled excess draft beer to ethanol, while others, along with bars and restaurants, desperately tried to package as much as possible for retail sale. With on-premise business annihilated, growlers, crowlers, bottles, and cans became even more important to the business, as did gaining access to retail sales through distribution (for brewers), but also through carryout, curbside pickup, and delivery. Key changes to alcohol laws didn't just keep countless businesses afloat; they made them multifaceted. They’ll have to remain so, since opportunities for on-premise sales will be at heavily reduced rates.

Now, weeks into reopening—and with the potential for reclosing on the horizon—I find myself fascinated by both the rapid revolution of our industry and the inevitable evolution required by the shifting "new normal."

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A Transformed Sales Landscape

The new normal finds breweries, bars, and restaurants actively maintaining, and courting, off-premise sales. While it’s no surprise that cans and small-format bottles are popular right now, the renewed interest in crowlers and growlers has been interesting to see. This crisis has not slaked the beer-lover’s thirst for draft beer, and—through the use of new, rather than reused, vessels, along with proper counter-pressure filling—freshly poured beer can continue to be safely and deliciously delivered to guests. Even convincing guests that the cost of a new growler has to be a nonrefundable package cost—like any can, crowler, or bottle—so far has proven less problematic than anticipated.

Curbside pickup is here to stay, particularly for urban breweries and retail shops whose lack of parking has long inhibited to-go sales. Business owners should work with local authorities right away to permanently reserve some street parking for just this use. Delivery will remain wherever (and for as long as) laws allow, and direct-to-consumer shipping—fledgling in the early days of the pandemic—will explode as brewers continue to test the legal waters countrywide. In fact, some brewers already believe that beer can be legally shipped to as many as 32 states plus the District of Columbia.

Businesses across the country have installed online-ordering platforms to support increased preorder, curbside, and delivery sales, and they have proven invaluable for contactless payment. We can expect these platforms to play a greater role as on-premise sales are renewed, and not just due to social distancing and the popularity of contactless payment. These platforms will also function as a safe alternative to the reusable menus of yore, as will simple tabletop QR codes that can retrieve an electronic menu once scanned.

What Will Service Look Like?

As on-premise consumption returns, health and safety precautions already in place will continue. Employees should remain masked and gloved, with handwashing and surface sanitizing kept up at a 30-minute clip, at the least. Door handles, pushbars, and counters, but also draft faucets and taps, should be consistently sanitized with proper, List-N disinfectants. Staff should maintain six feet distance from each other as much as possible, eschewing direct hand-offs and separating duties so that interactions are kept at a minimum; the person pouring draft beer or procuring cans will not be collecting payment, and vice versa. Crowd-control efforts are amplified, with taped demarcations spread out to manage the distancing of seated as well as standing guests. Hand-sanitizer stations should be distributed at intervals, with newfangled air filters installed.

Bottles, crowlers, cans, and growlers will remain hugely important, and not just because of the continued significance of off-premise sales. Selling cans and bottles for on-premise consumption will cut back on staff involvement with the beer’s preparation, and doing the same with crowlers and growlers, which deliver larger volumes, will decrease the amount of staff interactions needed per visit. We have been looking at Twistee Crowler cans—for both on- and off-premise sales—as well, since they are more sustainable and less expensive than growlers. They can be counter pressure-filled, as can growlers, so there is no need to invest in the equipment needed to fill the equally sustainable crowler.

But how to drink that bottle, can, growler, or crowler tableside? I don’t think we will be employing glassware for some time, since there are safety concerns associated with not just use and reuse, but also storage. Disposable cups, plates, and utensils will be the norm for the foreseeable future. This will also cut back on the need for bussing by staff, since—with trash receptacles situated near each table—guests will be able to dispose of waste without additional interactions.

Take It Outside

Taproom, bar, and restaurant spaces need to be reimagined to comply with new (and often changing) health and safety guidelines. Evidence firmly suggests that outdoor areas are safer than indoor, when it comes to the spread of the virus, so patios, beer gardens, and roof decks are key for on-premise activity. Businesses should work to convert parking lots and sidewalks to seating areas to maximize outdoor occupancy, especially since tables will need to be placed at least six feet from each other (and likely will not be able to hold more than six guests per table).

Line-oriented, stand-up counter service will be the predominant method of order fulfillment for the time being. Table service, due to increased staff and guest interaction, will be reserved for only the smallest locations that can’t effectively execute counter service. Moving as many operations outside as possible will be key, since this will allow for lines to spread beyond the confines of both the indoor and outdoor areas. Food trucks, outdoor grills, and draft-dispense trailers offer impactful opportunities to further maximize on-premise sales in this scenario.

I have no doubt that someday soon, on-premise operations will return to normal. A renewed awareness of sanitation and safety will remain while we welcome back larger groups, engage our guests unfettered—whether at the bar, counter, or tableside—and dispense our drafts into proper, well-appointed glassware. Meanwhile, our breweries, bars, and restaurants will be prepared for the additional service interactions that a post-epidemic world may continue to demand.

Greg Engert is beer director of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, whose bars and restaurants include ChurchKey, Rustico, and the Bluejacket brewery, among others.

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