Brewing Through the Pandemic
According to a CBS news report, there are roughly 30 million small businesses in the United States. About 9 million of those will no longer exist when the pandemic finally subsides. Those that have been able to survive are now faced with with a labor shortage while attempting to restaff and open to full capacity.
I spoke with two local businesses that made it through the pandemic by being able to adapt to the situation and navigate their way through the past year, albeit with much stress and anxiety. I chose to focus on 2 local breweries, R. Shea Brewery and Akronym Brewery. After visiting them recently and seeing them continue their success as the state begins to open back up, I was lead to wonder how they did it.
I sat down and had a conversation with Ron Shea, the owner and master brewer of R. Shea Brewing. He currently has two locations. The original brewery located in the Merriman Valley and a new location at Canal Place in downtown Akron, which had been open just six months before the shutdown. Both are facilities in which beer is brewed and canned and have a full service restaurant, however the Canal Place location is much larger than the original and has a more extensive menu.
Ron talked about the night Governor DeWine made the announcement that ALL restaurants and bars will be shut down. He said it “freaked us out,” referring to himself and his wife, who is also very involved in the business. Early on, Ron was able to secure an SBA (Small Business Administration) loan, but he had to put up his house as collateral, which meant he could lose everything in an instant. They were “left wondering what (they) were going to do.” The next day they decided to shut down the restaurant and bar at Canal Place, but keep Merriman Valley open seven days a week in order to sell to go beer and food, compared to the five days a week it had been operating. This decision allowed them to pay the bills for the next several months before the government was able to step in and begin to offer financial assistance.
Once businesses were able to open back up with restrictions and guidelines, R. Shea Brewing made the necessary adjustments and re-opened with limited capacity and social distancing. However, Ron said they kind of re-invented themselves as more of a distribution brewery during this time, so they continued to focus on that aspect. They came out with special edition Covid themed flavors, which kept not only the business going, but their patrons as well. The Canal Place location is large enough to handle the bulk of the brewing and canning, but also accommodate larger crowds coming back to the brewery and restaurant, while still maintaining social distancing guidelines.
However, as business increased there was a need for more employees. During the pandemic, R. Shea Brewing went from about 50 plus employees down to nearly a half dozen. Trying to re-staff became quite the challenge due to the labor shortage. Ron has been able to build his staff back up to about 40 people, but states that he still needs more help, especially in the kitchen. The primary issue with the labor shortage is that all of these places are looking for the same type of worker, which makes it even harder to find the right person for your business. The hope is that once the unemployment benefits run out at the end of June, people will become more motivated to go out and look for employment.
In order to adapt to the larger crowds beginning to come back to the business, Ron has built new patios in both locations that will allow people the enjoyment of drinking a cold beer outside on a hot day. He also has numerous upcoming events such as “Can Release” events and trivia nights in order to continue to give people reasons to stop in for a night out.
Akronym Brewery is another small business in downtown Akron that has had to deal with the pandemic, but has been able to weather the storm and continue serving their patrons. I had a chance to talk with Joey, the general manager at Akronym, about how they handled the past year and the keys to staying afloat.
Not only has Akronym Brewing had to deal with the pandemic, but there has also been constant construction that has been a nuisance for people visiting downtown. After being open nearly two years, the pandemic forced Akronym to shut their doors. They were a beer only brewery with a limited kitchen servicing the downtown business workers with one of the best happy hours in the city. Once there were no workers to visit and no events happening at the Akron Art Museum, John S. Knight Center, or numerous small venue concert halls, Akronym had to adapt.
Joey has opened numerous restaurants in the Akron and Hudson area during his 20 plus years in the food and beverage industry. He thought he had seen and dealt with everything, until March of 2020. They had to instantly pivot from seeing their clientele face to face and serving their beer in mugs, to starting to can their beer and start selling it online. They offered curbside pickup with their online orders, as well as being able to drive up and place a to go order on the spot. This adjustment was able to keep them going until they were able to reopen with new guidelines.
Once they reopened with social distancing guidelines, Akronym Brewing adapted again by changing their liquor license in order to be able to offer spirits such as local vodka and wine. This change in drink selection also changed their clientele. Although the regulars continued to frequent the brewery, Joey saw a rise in the attendance of a younger crowd and not always a beer drinking crowd. These decisions really paid off upon reopening.
Now that they have fully reopened, Akronym has partnered with a local restaurant, the Chameleon Cafe, in order to offer their food that can be delivered to the brewery. Joey talked about how there were not many options for lunch in the area for the business employees that began returning to their offices. There especially was not an option if someone wanted a cocktail with their lunch, so they entered into a partnership with Chameleon Cafe that seems to be a winning combination. In addition to being open for lunch, Akronym Brewing was able to secure a plot of land owned by the city of Akron within a stone’s throw of their brewery, adjacent to the Chameleon Cafe, and turn it into a beer garden. They offer a limited selection of their beers in the location, but patrons are able to walk with their beverages from the brewery to the garden. This space also allows them to offer live music each weekend in an outdoor space.
Joey, just like Ron, is dealing with the labor shortage at Akronym Brewing. Numerous people have applied and been called in for interviews, but either find an excuse to miss the interview or simply do not show up. Joey has even had a new employee walk out in the middle of a shift because his “other job” called and needed him. He was never heard from again. Joey has begun recruiting his own people from previous work experiences instead of leaving his employee options to chance. He feels that if he can bring people in that he considers “family,” it will produce a more positive environment and it will encourage others to want to join their family.
After talking with both gentlemen, it was obvious why their breweries survived the pandemic and did not become another statistic. Their ability to adjust their business model and find ways to give their patrons what they desired in different and creative ways, allowed them to weather the storm. I also believe that keeping many of these new practices in place while they reopened helped give continuity to customers who stuck with the breweries during the pandemic, but also allowed old customers to possibly experience something “new” upon their return after a lengthy absence.