By Eric Heinz
Since the Colorado Department of Health and Environment officially terminated its COVID protective orders in February, we at The Denver North Star have discussed with some local breweries the pandemic’s effects on their businesses and what they look forward to now that normal operations have resumed.
Although breweries for the most part have been able to operate at full capacity in Denver for some time now, with the mask mandates being dropped in early 2022, several in the area have either closed, relocated or had a change in ownership.
Flyte Co. Brewing Manager Lee Ann Hahne said the pandemic orders from the city hit not long after they had opened their Berkeley neighborhood location. “We had to shut down one week after our one-year anniversary,” Hahne said. “We were closed to the public for about three months. During that time, we opened up our garage and sold to-go beer … or we would deliver it to them if they were in a 5-mile radius. After that time, we pretty much did everything that Denver told us to do.”
Hanhe said it was “funny” to see people drinking beer in snow coats when they weren’t allowed to be inside, but the lack of money coming in was no laughing matter, so they had to get innovative.
“We weren’t opening until like three o’clock in the afternoon,” Hahne said. “In the front part of our bar, we made it a coffee shop. And then about six months after that, we took another area of the brewery and put in a bagel sandwich shop.”
Chris Bell, founder of Call to Arms Brewing, said additional costs of personal protective equipment (PPE), staff turnover and the lack of business were some of the initial challenges, but there were other issues that hampered operations.
“There were some not-so-obvious ones, like the polarization of the whole thing, and just the general rule enforcement was a huge challenge,” Bell said. “It kind of felt like people yelling at you for denying them beer if they are 18. Even if it was our choice to do everything we did to keep people safe, the negative reviews and berating of employees was one of the worst parts for sure.”
Most businesses during the pandemic, particularly those that relied on in-person foot traffic and other services, had to apply for some kind of emergency loans in order to maintain overhead costs, and Bell said Call to Arms was no different.
“Retention (of employees) has always been something we have prided ourselves on,” Bell said. “While COVID facilitated some of our long-term employees to re-evaluate what they wanted to do and leave, it also facilitated a fantastic new group of employees.”
Since the return of in-person gatherings, Bell said Call to Arms is looking forward to hosting more events at their 45th Avenue and Tennyson Street location. Sarah Ingraham of Stem Ciders in RiNo said furloughing employees was one of her biggest challenges, in addition to supply chain issues that in some cases doubled ingredient prices.
“Another challenge was how we approached our service to guests, as our menu wasn’t built for to-go,” Ingraham said. “We could sell Stem Ciders all day, but people wanted creative dishes to feed their family. We purchased products to support local purveyors and started a spinoff concept called Acreage Provisions to solve the increased demand for to-go menus.”
Ingraham said the outdoor space for Stem Ciders provided some respite, particularly when social distancing measures allowed some return to in-person meetings.
“We are thrilled to be able to offer events again and feel like this is the first ‘real’ year for us after COVID,” Ingraham said. “We’ve shed most of the service changes required during the pandemic. For us, full service and a full restaurant is where we thrive. We need the volume to support our team and steady business to support our growth.”
Some of those service changes included not requiring people to use a QR code menu. Restaurants had adopted contactless service changes during the pandemic so as not to spread the virus. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has since updated its findings that the risk of spreading the virus through surface contact is “low.”
Bell said Call to Arms changed its business model during the pandemic by canning with a new company, and then they decided to get into distribution. “Which has been a fun new challenge,” Bell said. “While we are familiar with it from other breweries we have worked in, it’s always different when it’s your own. We’re excited to see what’s next.”