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Local breweries try to cope amidst COVID-19 restrictions

March 23, 2020 | Chris Maza
chrism@thereminder.com

Jeremy Leary works Two Weeks Notice Brewing Company’s “drive thru.”
Reminder Publishing photo by Chris Maza

GREATER SPRINGFIELD – Craft brewing in Western Massachusetts has been a growing and thriving industry over the past decade, however, many are now contemplating how they will continue to operate after Gov. Charlie Baker’s restrictions on the service industry in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

On March 15, Baker announced the prohibition of on-site food and beverage consumption at restaurants and bars for three weeks. On March 23, Baker followed that up with an order for non-essential businesses to cease operations, however, breweries with retail operations were among those exempt.

As local taprooms have been forced to empty out, brewers with brick and mortar facilities have sought new and creative ways to get their products out to the masses. Even in the best of situations, however, these small businesses have been forced to make hard decisions such as staffing cuts.

Westfield River Brewing in Southwick normally enjoys a robust business with its beer, dine-in menu and live entertainment. Now, brewmaster and owner Sergio Bonavita said, the offerings has been reduced to take-out food and and packaged beer. Staffing has been slashed to a skeleton crew.

“If anyone is telling you there’s positivity in this situation, they’re lying,” he said. “It’s been hard. We are a business that is built on a cool atmosphere that is a meeting ground for people to hang out. We’re not a place that people think of for takeout.”

Bonavita added his worries and frustrations have been augmented by his lack of faith in state and federal government officials. Local officials in Southwick, have been good communicators, but have been provided minimal information, he added.

“What worries me is the lack of leadership and transparency we’re seeing,” he said. “We aren’t hearing anything. Right now, they’re saying three weeks but there are rumbling it might turn into eight. It’s hard to make decisions on what’s best for you and your employees when you have no confidence in leadership. As a business, we’re well-positioned see this through, but I’m worried about my employees.”

Bonavita also expressed his opinion that breweries, bars and restaurants have been unfairly targeted by the government’s actions.

“I feel like the industry has been persecuted a little bit. With the health regulations we already have to adhere to, a business like ours is probably the last place you would get sick,” he said. “Meanwhile, people can congregate at other places where they provide goods and services. I looked at the hardware store the other day and it was packed. It’s a challenge to understand how that continues to be allowed.”

Iron Duke Brewing Company owner and head brewer Nick Morin, meanwhile, said the situation is hard on local businesses everywhere.

“We’re not in a unique position,” he said. “Everyone is trying to find a way to be on the other side of this. We’re understanding of that and trying to support our employees in any way we can. We’re a super small business, but we do have a dozen employees that this trickles down to.”

While Iron Duke does not offer a food menu like Westfield River Brewing, Morin explained the vast majority his regular business dried up almost instantly between distribution to bars and restaurants and the operation of their own taproom.

“It’s a challenge. Draft beer has 100 percent stopped right now,” he said. “To put it in perspective, from Sunday to Monday, 85 percent of our business stopped overnight. Not only did our business stop, but the last two months of our sales to those businesses, restaurants, bars – we extend credit to all of those places and they owe us money and all of that capital is stuck also. Not only are we paused for cash flow from Sunday going forward, but everything that is owed us, we’re not going to collect that money. We can’t expect that of them.”

Iron Duke continues to distribute its beer to area package stores and, in addition, has instituted to-go can sales at the brewery. Customers can pre-order their beer online at https://ironduke.craftcellr.com for a discounted price as a gesture of goodwill.

“That has been surprisingly good. People are trying to find their local businesses and seeking us out. They’re going out of their way to help us out,” he said. “Right now, we’re just trying to get the beer out to people. What we’re charging basically clears the expenses to make it right now. If that’s something that can give somebody a little bit of a lift, we’re happy to provide it.”

Morin said he has been in regular contact with the Massachusetts Brewers Guild as well as the Small Business Administration and various government agencies in an attempt to determine the best course of action.

“The new normal for us is trying to find a little bit of cash flow to weather through it and getting in touch with local state and federal authorities to see what kind of help there is for the longterm,” Morin said. “We’re confident that we’re in a strong position business-wise but in a prolonged situation beyond April 6  – which I think everyone can appreciate that’s an overly optimistic date – we’re thinking about how we can sustain the minimum operations to keep the business afloat for up to three months out.”

Iron Duke was also in the midst of a move and expansion with a new location in Wilbraham, but anything related to that has stopped as well.”

“Anything longterm – let’s say six months out – is on hold,” Morin said. “We’re refocusing 100 percent of our energy on what we’re doing today, tomorrow and the next two weeks to generate enough revenue to keep the essentials flowing.”

Two Weeks Notice Brewing Company in West Springfield was also forced to close its busy taproom through which the company also distributes its canned products.

“It’s hard, man, there’s no two ways about it,” co-owner Mark Avery said. “We have had to cut back our employees and I think that’s been the hardest part. I’m worried most for them.”

With the taproom closed, Two Weeks Notice created a drive thru can sales service utilizing the alley that abuts the brewery’s outdoor patio. Connecting Bosworth Street to Baldwin Street, the alley allows customers to pull up and place an order for cans that is brought directly to their car.

“Everybody’s trying to find their own way of doing things that works for them. We’re doing what we can right now,” Avery said. “The support and response we’ve gotten from people has been really great.”

In the longterm, Avery admitted he is wary of the uncertainty that surrounds the industry.

“Nobody really knows what’s going to happen. We’re doing what we can for the time being and kind of taking it as it comes,” he said. “I want to get people back to work as soon as I can, but we have to follow what we’ve been told and we have to do what’s best to keep people safe,” he said.

Even nanobreweries that do not have a workforce have had to pivot and alter their business models. Rustic Brewing Company in Indian Orchard, for example, normally exclusively sells their beers at their brewery with an online order and pickup model. But now, the company has shifted its focus to self-distributing to local package stores.

Co-owner Todd Kopiec explained he and his partners Jared Methe and Eric Paul are the company’s sole workforce at the small operation located in the Indian Orchard Mills and have been somewhat insulated from some of the impacts of the current restrictions. With that in mind, distributing to local companies allows them to support other local businesses.

“We are in a unique position compared to a lot of others because, for us, this doesn’t put anyone out of work,” he said. “So what we’re going is trying to put our stuff in places where they are hurting and looking to give people more shifts. We’re trying to support people from that perspective while also being safe.”

Kopiec said they are monitoring the situation to determine how they will proceed in the long run, adding they have been given permission to conduct sales outside of the building on the loading dock if they choose to do so.

“We might consider that in the longer term, but right now, we’re happy to support other businesses,” he said.

Rustic Brewing Company beers are currently available at Spirited Wines in Lenox, BJ’s Liquors in Holyoke, Lighthouse Liquors and The Beer Shop in East Longmeadow, and Luke’s Convenience in Palmer.

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The following is an alphabetical list of Massachusetts brewers with facilities in the Reminder Publishing circulation area and where to find more information on how to support them:
• Fieldcrest Brewing Company – 2343 Boston Road, Wilbraham; http://fieldcrestbrewing.com; www.facebook.com/fieldcrestbrewing.
• Holyoke Craft Beer – 208 Race St., Holyoke; www.facebook.com/HolyokeCraftBeer; www.holyokecraftbeer.com.
• Iron Duke Brewing Company – 100 State St., Building 122, Ludlow; www.facebook.com/irondukebeer; www.irondukebrewing.com.
• Kismet Brewing Company – 66 S. Broad St., Westfield, www.facebook.com/kismetbrewing; www.kismetbrewing.com.
• Leadfoot Brewing – 95 N. Chicopee St., Chicopee; www.facebook.com/leadfootbrewing; www.leadfootbrewing.com.
• Rustic Brewing Company – 34 Front St., Suite G21, Indian Orchard, www.facebook.com/rusticbrewco; http://rusticbrewco.com.
• Skyline Beer Company – 98 Southwick Road, Westfield; www.facebook.com/skylinebeerco; http://skylinebeerco.com.
• Tin Bridge Brewing – 487 E. Main St., Westfield; www.facebook.com/Tinbridgebrewing; www.tinbridgebrewing.com.
• Two Weeks Notice Brewing Company – 110 Bosworth St., West Springfield; www.twoweeksnoticebrewing.com; www.facebook.com/twoweeksnoticebrewco.
• Vanished Valley Brewing Company – 782 Center St., Ludlow, www.facebook.com/VanishedValleyBrewing; www.vanishedvalley.com.
• Westfield River Brewing Company – 707 College Hwy., Southwick; www.facebook.com/WRBCo; http://westfieldriverbrewing.com.
Please note that not all locations may be open; checking with brewries directly for hours and availability is recommended.




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