“Things aren’t like they used to be,” is no longer a phrase uttered by nostalgic old men and your sweet aging grandma. When it comes to operating a brewery during this unprecedented public health crisis, it’s an expression articulated by just about everyone.
In Austin, Texas, restaurants and bars (including breweries) were ordered to shut down on March 17, just in time to thwart raucous St. Patrick’s Day shindigs. However, as “essential businesses,” beer production was allowed to continue, which meant getting creative to ensure that some sort of brewery experience could continue and that their companies could survive what would become a nearly 10 week-long shutdown.
What did that mean specifically? For starters, it was time to take a hint from the restaurant industry and offer takeout.
Many breweries pivoted to online ordering and contactless curbside or walk-up pickup. Austin Eastciders managed to do so in 24 hours, selling their canned ciders and seltzers from their Collaboratory, a taproom and community gathering space that is usually alive with the sound of live music, comedy, and special events. But a deserted bar left little room for the sort of warm, friendly customer interaction employees were used to.
“It’s been a lonely two months,” says Marc Smith, general manager at Austin Eastciders. He’s been the only employee in the Collaboratory since the shutdown, and instead of interacting with customers and staff or managing small-batch collaborations and events, he’s spent his days alone with his laptop organizing online orders, and staying abreast of the latest CDC recommendations. And cleaning. Lots of cleaning. Plus, “there’s always paperwork to do,” Smith says with a shrug and a grin.
As of Memorial Day weekend though, bars in Austin were allowed to open at 25 percent capacity, albeit with quite a few restrictions. Sitting at a bar is off-limits for guests and tables with groups of no more than six people must be at least six feet apart. In addition, serving ware and menus, including drinkware, must be disposable, which, Christine Celis, owner of Celis Brewery, admits takes some getting used to when you’re used to a nice cold pint in a glass. But, says director of operations and general manager Hailey Thompson (below left), “We really missed our customers and everybody was really excited to be opening back up.”
Celis Brewery, one of only a handful of breweries that jumped at the chance to open back up that first weekend, started sanitizing handles and knobs and frequent touchpoints every 15–30 minutes and taps and bartenders’ hands after every customer interaction. They’ve also been sanitizing 6-packs before they go out for curbside delivery, and all staff wear face masks. “The priority was staying safe,” says Celis (above right). “It’s important that people feel comfortable coming in here.”
And while the sounds of laughter bouncing off the walls and high ceilings of the largely empty breweries like Celis—groups of three or four scattered around the space, a gallon of hand sanitizer on the table at the entrance—are only at a fraction of what they once were, it’s enough for now. “Having familiar faces, the movement, the noise, that’s what we missed around here. The ambiance,” says Celis.
Because as breweries like Austin Eastciders and Celis learn how to adapt to a new normal, they celebrate every small step forward and are thrilled to be interacting with customers again—the energy and the lifeblood of their businesses. And those customers, eager to return to their favorite places, seem more than happy to adapt too, masks and all.
Alisha McDarris is a freelance writer and photographer who often writes about food and travel. She is also the creator of sustainable travel and adventure blog Terradrift and lives in a tiny house in Austin with her husband and several wilting houseplants.