As weeks under the pandemic stretched into months, and spring stretched into summer, a challenging new reality confronted the hospitality industry: Increasingly, businesses had decide on their own when and how to reopen. The onus was on them to figure out how to do it as safely as possible.
Uncertainty abounded. Pressure to revive the economy was building, despite the risk of localized outbreaks as people began to recirculate in public settings. A vaccine remained perhaps a year or more away (and its arrival remains uncertain). Public-health officials warned that we would still be battling the coronavirus at least into the autumn and winter, with surges possible as the weather cools later in the year.
The option to reopen was crucial to bars, restaurants, and brewery taprooms across the country, which had lost virtually all their draft sales and higher-margin taproom business. However, reopening demanded—and continues to demand—carefully considered measures of social distancing and sanitation.
There was another side to the equation: Were customers even ready to return—or at least, enough of them to make reopening worthwhile?
Asking Beer Drinkers: Are You Ready?
Back in May, we at Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®, polled our readers on their beer-buying and drinking habits during the pandemic. We received more than 4,200 responses from across the country, plus a few from overseas. One of our questions: “Realistically, how soon do you expect to visit an open taproom or bar to drink beer?” The most frequent responses were June (27 percent), July (26 percent), and September or later (24 percent), followed by August (11 percent) and May (10 percent).
Taken together, it means that 61 percent of our readers did not expect to return to a bar or taproom until July or later. (Incidentally, we also asked our readers when they expect to return to a beer festival, and 52 percent said next year or later.)
This suggested that even the most enthusiastic patrons would be cautious about returning to bars, restaurants, and taprooms. If the crowds were light—and where there are capacity limits and tables spaced apart, they would have to be—did it even make financial sense to reopen?
Another survey with a large response was conducted by the North Carolina Brewers Guild. The Guild asked more than 4,000 adults about returning to bars, restaurants, and taprooms. (As with our own survey, there was some selection bias: The respondents were likely to be primarily enthusiasts, not necessarily typical customers.) That survey found significant minorities of people who either were ready to return as soon as bars reopened (35.6 percent) or, on the other end of the spectrum, would not be visiting until “maybe later this summer” (30.5 percent) or not “for the foreseeable future” (4.6 percent). The remainder were in the middle, saying that they may go sometime in May or June (29.3 percent).
Meanwhile, a solid majority of respondents (53.8 percent) said that it was “extremely” important that they know about the brewpub’s or taproom’s safety protocols in advance, before they visited.
Bart Watson, economist for the Brewers Association, analyzed the data from the North Carolina survey for BA members. A key takeaway is that many people said they were not yet ready to return—and they clearly communicated that safety protocols are a priority.
“At each later stage, safety protocols become more important,” Watson said. “I bring this up to highlight that what you hear from your first customers as important won’t be what gets the next wave to come in.”
Asking Your Own Customers
In late April, Georgia was one of the first states to allow hospitality businesses to reopen to the public, leaving it up to the owners to decide whether they were ready.
One such business was Monday Night Brewing in Atlanta. Theirs is a familiar story these days: When draft beer went into pandemic hibernation, the brewery lost 60 percent of its sales. Like many others, the brewery pivoted to curbside to-go sales. It saw some increases at local supermarkets, but not enough to offset the loss of higher-margin draft beer in its two taprooms. Early on, the founders made the hard call to furlough or lay off 16 people—about a third of their workforce. They were able to hire back five when to-go sales were stronger than expected.
By mid-April, the founders knew they were not ready to reopen their taprooms as soon as it was allowed—but they did want to establish a plan and a possible timeline. The main thing they wanted to know: Would their customers be ready to return? If so, when?
So, they asked them.
On April 23, the brewery conducted an email survey of 743 customers who had visited in the previous three months. About 75 percent of respondents said that they did not expect to visit a taproom until June or later.
Monday Night also asked its customers if they planned to visit a brewery taproom in the first two weeks after they are allowed to reopen. Only 36 percent said “yes,” while 41 percent said “maybe,” and 23 percent said “no.”
The brewery also asked about which safety measures were important to its customers. The three measures most often ranked as “most important” were regular sanitization of surfaces, reduced overall capacity, and contactless payment methods. Those were followed by masks and gloves worn by staff and adequately spaced outdoor seating.
“We’re thinking about it through a few different lenses,” said Jeff Heck, cofounder of Monday Night. “One, do we feel good that we can safely reopen for the sake of our employees and our guests? Two, do our guests actually feel safe? There’s sometimes a difference between what we actually think is safe and what people perceive is safe.”
Heck said that the survey was useful for helping them to plan for the eventual reopening, as well as to better understand the comfort level of their customers.
Reopening, Heck said, “is a significant undertaking in an environment where people are there to hang out with each other and to socialize and to meet new people. Our whole purpose of the company is to deepen relationships over some of the best beer in the country. So, the question for us is, how do we do that while making sure that we’re providing a safe environment for people in this season? And that takes some preparation.”
Ultimately, Monday Night reopened its West Midtown patio in late May.
When and whether to reopening hasn't been an easy call for any hospitality business. How do you balance the chance to give people a place to resume public life with the risk to them and your team—and the risk of becoming the vector of a local outbreak?
“You hit on the tension point, and why you don’t envy us,” Heck said. “But it is a balance. And I think it’s a balance for people around the country right now.”
Taking It Outside
There is a growing consensus among scientists that the risk of viral infection is lower outdoors, especially with space between people, than it is indoors. So, whether because of best practices, state guidelines, or consumer preference, the summer of 2020 became a summer of drinking al fresco.
The North Carolina Brewers Guild survey also addressed this issue. When asked about which safety measures were a priority for them, a majority (50.2 percent) chose outdoor seating, followed distantly by “employees wearing masks/gloves” (21.9 percent) and “contactless taproom (payment, menus, etc.)” (18.8 percent).
In some states where reopening is happening only gradually, limiting patrons to outdoor areas isn’t just an option—it’s the law, at least for a while.
In Virginia, for example, Gov. Ralph Northam announced that Phase One of reopening would begin May 15. Under Phase One, bars and restaurants could reopen only if they had outdoor spaces—and those could only be seated at 50 percent capacity. Indoor spaces had to remain closed until Phase Two began in June, a change that hinged on certain benchmarks in testing and confirmed cases.
One of the Virginia breweries that opted to open under Phase One was Starr Hill, the state’s oldest production craft brewery, founded in 1999. The brewery has three taprooms—its original in Crozet, plus Roanoke and Richmond.
Initially, the brewery on May 15 reopened only its original Crozet location, outside Charlottesville, because it had enough outdoor space. The pilot brewery in Roanoke doesn’t have the same kind of space, while the Richmond taproom waited because the outbreak there was more severe, and they wanted to be cautious, according to Duke Fox, the brewery’s vice president of sales. “The COVID situation there is not as good as in Charlottesville or Roanoke, so we may wait a week and see,” Fox said at the time.
The Richmond taproom eventually opened in July, reservations recommended, as did Starr Hill's other locations—including a new taproom in Lynchburg. Opening that taproom this summer was always the plan. “Obviously, if things get back to normal," Fox said back in May, "there’s going to be a lot of pent-up demand."
Despite everything, Starr Hill still plans to open one more this year, in downtown Charlottesville. Those plans are moving forward, if not quite as swiftly as they might have without a pandemic. Notably, Charlottesville is home to the University of Virginia. “I do think there are a lot of young people who are going to go out,” Fox said.
Fox said that Starr Hill’s approach has been to follow state guidelines. Among other things, that means all employees must wear masks, and sales transactions should be contactless—cards only, no cash—and staff must wipe down tables and other surfaces at least once per hour. Groups are limited to 10 people. “All of that is mandated already,” Fox said. The brewery's locations also require that customers masks at all times when not eating or drinking.
The initial restrictions—with outdoor seating only—meant that Starr Hill’s Crozet taproom was operating at just 30 percent of capacity. “It’s not going to be making much money, if any at all,” Fox said. But it’s worth the trouble, “if we can do it in a safe way. Keeping the staff safe is obviously super important—and keeping the staff comfortable because obviously a lot of people are not comfortable.”
The same day that Fox and I had our interview, on May 13, Virginia reported 1,067 new cases—at the time, that was the highest one-day increase since the start of the pandemic. Relatively larger numbers would come later in the summer, but not to the extent seen in some other states. It may be that the state's restrictions helped to damped the late-summer spike.
Making a Plan: Time for Meticulous SOPs
Cleaning and sanitizing—that’s where brewers are Vikings. While I researched this piece, multiple brewers told me essentially the same thing: Cleaning is what we do. We got this.
By the time most breweries were ready to reopen this summer, most of them had already spent weeks thinking about how to minimize risk and physical contact—for example, by having drive-through staff wear masks, selling beer without physical contact, and taking sales transactions online. However, applying that same level of clinical thoroughness to the hospitality area did not always come naturally.
The safety advice that applied then still applies now, as we enter an uncertain fall and winter.
“Take some time and look at your space and evaluate it,” said Kailey Partin, hospitality director at Rising Tide Brewing in Portland, Maine. “Look at your space through the eyes of a virus.”
Partin, who led a seminar in April on contactless hospitality for the Craft Brewers Conference—available online, since the main event was canceled—has given more thought than most to minimizing risk during the pandemic. She recommended that breweries write new standard operating procedures—new checklists for staff on the processes for opening, closing, sanitation regimes, and more.
Consider, Partin said, all the things that get touched a lot by staff. (Here’s one that may not be obvious: Don’t forget to sanitize those sanitizer bottles.) Be sure to stock up on what you’ll need for those cleaning regimes: disinfectants such as isopropyl alcohol, hand sanitizers for staff as well as guests, hand soaps, paper towels, clean rags, and face masks.
Clear communication with guests is key, Partin says. That means signage that explains the rules—where you can stand, how you can pay, and how you can respect others’ distance. Stanchions can help control the flow of guests and keep them apart from staff. “There are folks out there who are not taking this seriously,” she said. “Don’t put yourself in danger.”
By May 18, bars and restaurants in most rural parts of Maine were allowed to reopen, but more populous areas such as Portland had to wait longer. Rising Tide reopened its patio on June 5, with alterations to service meant to preserve social distance and safety.
“We are moving to a more restaurant-style setup,” Partin said in May. “A host will keep track of head count and take lead guests to their tables. We will no longer be open to seat yourself, as there really isn’t a good way to maintain limited crowd numbers with that format.”
Rising Tide’s plan was the product of weeks of thinking, planning, and no small amount of fretting. “We are making lots of changes, basically switching business models again,” Partin said.
“There is no way we could go back to how things operated prior to the shutdown and maintain a safe environment for our guests and staff.”
Enhancing Safety Protocols
As bars, taprooms, and brewpubs enter an uncertain fall and winter, it bears stating the obvious: There is still a pandemic on. Business is back, to a degree, but it will not be business as usual for a while.
For a variety of reasons—safety, staff comfort level, state and local guidelines, and because many customers won’t return until they know safety measures are in place—breweries should be making specific changes to the hospitality side of the business.
Briefly, based on guidance from health officials, industry groups such as the Brewers Association, and brewery professionals who have given the matter a lot of thought, here are measures to consider.
Keep it clean.
Establish rigorous sanitization regimes and update standard operating procedures and checklists to reflect them. Train staff on how to follow them. Stock plenty of gloves, masks, disinfectants (such as isopropyl alcohol), and hand sanitizers, which should also be accessible to guests.
Keep it contactless.
If possible, forget about taking cash for a while. It’s a potential virus vector that can put your front-line staff at risk. Online transactions are ideal, followed by credit-card readers accessible to customers (and which can be disinfected).
Keep your (social) distance.
Failing to keep groups at least six feet apart not only increases the risk of infection, but it’s a bad look—hesitant customers will see it as reckless and stay away. Tables should be spaced apart, and that means capacity goes down. Smaller, more cramped bars and taprooms will be at a disadvantage, and some areas may need to be closed off entirely.
Keep the crowd manageable.
In many cases, the local or state governments may be setting limits on capacities or gatherings and thus on how many people can be in your establishment at once or in how many can be in a party. Consider moving to restaurant-style seating, with a staff member as host who can seat guests. Reservation systems are another option to avoid getting too busy. Have a plan for what to do if someone doesn’t follow the rules. Don’t put your staff in added danger.
If it’s an option, expand and space apart outdoor seating. It may also be possible to set up a contactless point of sale outside to reduce or prevent people waiting in line at a counter inside.
Customers need to know the rules. Make signs and share your safety plans with customers via social media. Don’t forget handwashing signs in the restrooms.
Keep selling beer to-go.
Many breweries have made selling beer to-go into a viable, low-risk sales channel, and many customers will not yet be comfortable inside taprooms, especially with limited seating capacity.