In the Dark Side Brew Crew, we like to think of ourselves as champions for the industry. We’re not gotcha journalism, never have been. We’re here to tell the stories of all the state’s breweries, your stories. We can only ever hope that they’re all stories brewed up with good vibes and happy endings, but unfortunately that isn’t always the case. It’s a difficult thing to write about a brewery’s end, especially when, for years, we’ve considered much of the staff to be our friends. But, it wouldn’t be right not to write on the negative stories as well.
It’s very easy to let the story slip by, say nothing, and navigate away from what might be treacherous waters, but our coverage of the New Mexico brewing industry would be incomplete if we didn’t do a story on Duel Brewing’s untimely closure.
We first reached out to Duel’s owner, Trent Edwards, days after the closing of Duel’s Santa Fe location. After receiving no response, we let it go for a time, until I sort of bumped into and met Mark Dawson. I was having a beer at Rowley Farmhouse Ales one night after the gym, and I couldn’t help but overhear the bartender saying that he had just left his job as former general manager of Duel Brewing.
My journalistic curiosity, paired with his need to tell his tale, led to a series of conversations and emails, all resulting in a collaboration on the story of the end of Santa Fe’s Belgian-style brewery.
“I was asked to become the captain of a sinking ship, and I wasn’t even given a bucket to bail the crew out.”
To tell Dawson’s story properly, we have to rewind a bit back to November 2016. Originally from the Detroit area, Dawson moved to Albuquerque, hoping to make a fresh start. Already big into craft beer, he made it a point to check out all of the local breweries. It was in late May 2017 when he discovered Duel Brewing in Santa Fe.
“The taproom was something out of a David Lynch series,” Dawson recalled. “Textured wall-paper, wrought iron chandeliers hanging from chains, dark wood, funky drapes, an antique stained-glass piece over the window, walls adorned with large paintings, not a single TV in sight, and it was plunked down in the middle of a primarily industrial section of Santa Fe. Duel immediately felt cozy to me as an introvert and someone who often shuns the mainstream, a hidden gem.”
Having met a fellow “Michigander” behind the bar, the two immediately hit it off by discussing all the breweries back home. Dawson ordered a full pour of the Cezanne Origine ’17, followed by some tasters of their other Belgian-style brews. By the end of this brief first visit he had signed up to be a ”Duel Citizen.”
“Of all the breweries I’ve ever been to, this was the only one I’ve ever signed up for a membership at. It spoke that strongly to me,” he said.
“Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.”
Fast forward a couple of months to August 2017. By this point, Dawson had relocated to Santa Fe. One day, his girlfriend pointed out a listing that Duel Brewing was hiring. Immediately, Dawson dropped off a resume, interviewed the next day, and started working his first service industry job that very afternoon. Within a few weeks, Dawson became an evening supervisor. To him, everything was great.
“It was a dream job where I got to nerd-out on beer for a living,” Dawson said. “I was making good tips and the clientele was all pretty cool, some of which have become good friends.”
During this time, Duel had the main brewery/taproom, and another taproom inside Meow Wolf, with 17 employees covering the two locations in Santa Fe. It also had the largest taproom (by square footage) in the state of New Mexico with the downtown Albuquerque location housing a whopping 80 taps and another 20 or so employees.
“Red sky in morning, sailor’s warning.”
It was December 2017 when Meow Wolf obtained its own liquor license, not long after Duel was cited for serving an underage customer. It was only a matter of time before Duel lost the taproom inside the venue. Dawson said several changes in staff and management occurred throughout the following weeks and months, including the departure of the original head brewer, Todd Yocham, and general manager.
“Adjustments were made and everything continued to function,” Dawson said.
The boat, as it was, seemed to remain afloat, despite a rather large hole in the hull, and more than a few sinking feelings.
In January 2018, Dawson began hosting a monthly open-mic event at Duel, and in March he was asked to assume more responsibilities including booking all of the entertainment at the Santa Fe location. Shortly after, in August, just one year after his hire date, he was asked to take over as general manager.
“A few weeks later, on a Friday afternoon in late September, the owner spoke to me in confidence about the possibility of needing help with physically closing the Albuquerque taproom, but it wasn’t certain and he would keep me posted,” Dawson recalled. “I received a text just two days later requesting (that) I be there in the morning to head down with a rental truck and help load up the contents of the ABQ location. It was a long, arduous day for the four of us — the owner, his wife, the head brewer, and myself — as we labored with hauling kegs, refrigerators, artwork, and supplies into the truck. I felt terrible for the 20 employees at the ABQ taproom who had just lost their jobs without notice, but was reassured that Duel Brewing Santa Fe was in no danger of closing.”
As the four of them toiled through what became a 15-hour workday, more and more details about the cause of Duel Albuquerque’s unfortunate closure came to light.
“I was told that half or more of Duel’s beer sales were through the Meow Wolf taproom which we no longer had,“ Dawson said. “The massive location at Central and Sixth Avenue in downtown Albuquerque was $14,000 a month in rent alone, another $2,200 estimated in electricity, 20 employees on staff, etc. … the overhead cost of operating this taproom was staggering, especially for a small, Belgian-style brewery.”
There was also a prior incident with the landlords of the Albuquerque location placing a Craigslist ad stating that Duel Brewing was for sale.
“Which was completely false,” Dawson said. “The ’brewery’ was in Santa Fe, and their property was the building which simply contained a Duel taproom.”
Dawson said that Edwards had promptly contacted the Albuquerque landlords and demanded they adjust or completely remove the ad, but it was too late. The damage had been done. The rumors had already begun to spread about Duel closing. Dawson said this was followed by a “gossip column“ being published, which furthered the rumors and allegedly resulted in a 20-percent loss in sales for the ABQ taproom. The weight of it all appeared to be enough to sink the juggernaut of a space.
“Without drawing people in by having guest beers fill the insane 80 taps onsite or the sales from Meow Wolf to support it, the ABQ location could not sustain itself,” Dawson said.
The closing of the ABQ taproom was extremely difficult to recover from, and according to Dawson, Duel was never able to fully recover.
“Payroll was on a weekly basis,” Dawson explained. “But, two weeks behind the initial hire date, so that meant 20 employees needed to be paid for their last two weeks of work without any source of revenue from the ABQ taproom to supplement the hours owed. It had to come from the sales at the small Santa Fe brewery/taproom, and we had our own rent, payroll, and overhead costs. It was at this time that I temporarily refrained from submitting my entertainment booking fees for reimbursement, because I still hadn’t been paid for the August bookings. Employee paychecks were bouncing, and I could see the owner was having a tough time keeping his head above water. By the end of September, four more employees of the Santa Fe location had abandoned ship, moved out of state for personal reasons, or taken other jobs.”
In less than a year, Duel went from a brewery with an armada of three taprooms and almost 40 employees to a single space and a lean crew of just eight.
“I was captain of this ship,” Dawson said. “A role I was reluctant to take, but I believed in this place and was passionate about the beer we produced. It was stressful to do the scheduling, oversee all social media, handle the event booking, dispute false Yelp! reviews, and work full-time as a server in addition to picking up other responsibilities. We no longer had a bar manager. I had to buy bottles of root beer and wine from other shops before my shift started. No more kitchen manager, (so) the owner’s wife, who already had a full-time job was handling the ordering, and if we ran out of something, one of the employees (often myself) would pick up supplies and take money from the till to cover the cost.
“No more sales rep/distributor, either the head brewer or myself would deliver kegs and service lines at the few guest taps we had around town. No more assistant brewer or cellarman. I scheduled myself and one other employee to help out the head brewer once or twice a week, otherwise, he was handling it all himself. But, brew days were few and far between because we didn’t have money for grain. The waters were turbulent, but we had a solid crew, and I was hopeful that we’d be able to ride out the storm into clear blue skies.“
The truth, however, lurked in the dysphotic abyss.
“I was purposely kept in the dark on some very important matters,” Dawson said. “Upon hearing a rumor in early October of 2018 about a new ad stating Duel was up for sale, I immediately questioned the owner directly, to which I was told, ‘That isn’t true,’ and ’I did just list some old pieces of equipment on a website. Maybe this is what he’s thinking about.’ I relayed the information about the listing asking an impressive $1 million for the brewery, but he would chalk it up to gossip and rumors, (as) if that were the case and the owner’s response was simply, ’High School.’ I would later find out this rumor was true. He was trying to sell the brewery, but felt there needed to be a line of separation, and I was not privy to the information for this reason.”
Meanwhile, the ship was floundering. Dawson said the head brewer cut back his hours significantly to save on payroll expenses, but paychecks continued to bounce. It was not uncommon for employees to rush to the bank (through which Duel conducted its business), cash their checks, and head to their own banks to deposit the funds.
“There were times when we weren’t able to tip everyone out at the end of the night because there weren’t enough cash sales to cover the credit card tips and no money in the safe,” Dawson recalled. “I even took $200 from my own pocket once for the till, just so we could conduct business for the day. The owner thanked me for my diligence on multiple occasions saying, ’I wish I’d met you 3-to-4 years ago. I have much less worry knowing you’re taking care of things with rational, logical reason. I applaud your time with Duel.’”
As the storm clouds loomed closer and closer overhead, Dawson said he was reassured the business was not going under.
“We just needed to make it through the slow season, and it would be smooth sailing from there on out,” Dawson said.
On Friday, February 1, 2019, Edwards apologized to his crew. He said payroll would not be issued due to lack of funds, but that after the weekend sales he would write the checks the following Monday.
“This was not the first time in recent weeks this had happened,” Dawson said. “I was working the following night when the owner, his wife, and a handful of their close friends gathered in the private event space upstairs for food and drinks. I was told it was a birthday celebration, so I waited on them, pouring drinks, busing their table, and comped out their ticket at the end of the night as was customary on the rare occasions they decided to have dinner or drinks at their place of business. There were no birthdays to celebrate, this was the final soiree, a closing ceremony of sorts and tribute to the owner and the business. They filtered out through various exits without so much as a parting wave.”
Duel was open for just one more day of business after that. On Sunday, February 3, Dawson said he received a call from the owner sometime in the evening saying he was “pulling in the sails.”
“(Edwards) would be signing over all assets of the brewery to the landlord tomorrow, and we had to be out by 4:30 p.m.,” Dawson said. ”He informed me the head brewer received a call prior to me, and he was going to send out a message to the remaining employees via the Slack application we used for official communication within the company.
”I was the first to arrive on Monday. I had to send a brief email to all the musicians, local and touring, apologetically canceling all the upcoming performances that were scheduled as far out as August of 2019. When the owner arrived, he informed me that he had stopped paying rent along with other bills when the Albuquerque taproom closed, and he was keeping the brewery open for us, the employees, for as long as he could, but had reached a breaking point. He owed $16,000 in back rent for the Santa Fe location, another $30,000 in equipment loans, another $17,000 in other bank loans, and was going to claim bankruptcy for his debts.
”He said after signing the paperwork that afternoon, the plan was for the landlord to bring in an auctioneer to liquidate the assets and hopefully we would all get paid from the profits once the landlord had recouped their costs. He then asked me to disable the Slack and 7shifts scheduling accounts for the company. Employees began filtering in for their paychecks as promised and filling their growlers one last time with the beers we had all grown so fond of, but the checks weren’t ready, and the owner had left to deal with some banking. I received a call, apparently, (that) an auto-withdrawal had been made on the business account and paychecks would not be issued.
”The whole day was very emotional for me. I was devastated. That night, through my company email account, I submitted the bookings fees for the last seven months worth of work I had done, the owner‘s response was, ‘Let’s see how the auction goes.’”
The next morning Dawson said his email account had been disabled.
“The sails were ripped from the masts without warning,” Dawson said. ”Myself and the crew were all scrambling for dry land without a lifeboat in sight. Over the next few days, we rallied together for food, drinks, and a trip to Tent Rocks for those who could make it, a bit of much-needed camaraderie while we gained our bearings. We all filed with the State individually for wages owed, our only real hope of getting paid, and were informed that once an investigator was assigned to our collective case we would be contacted through written word via USPS.”
Dawson said he is still waiting on that letter.
”While driving past the shipwreck a week or so later, I noticed an unusual amount of activity in the parking lot and stopped in to see the bay door was up,” Dawson said. ”Inside were the landlord’s business partners and some immediate family sitting at the bar enjoying a few beers. Through conversation, I learned Duel’s owner had made a request to sell some equipment to pay off the employees, but, ‘There’s no way in Hell he could be trusted,’ and the request was denied. They were trying to sell the entire space as a ‘full-on brewery, ready to operate,’ and if that didn’t work out they would auction off the equipment. I checked with the landlord on March 6 to see if they had any luck with the sale, (and) their response was, ‘I have a very strong potential buyer. Waiting for offer.’ I inquired again on March 27th, but haven’t heard back. I still have not received any word from the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions regarding our case.”
* * * * *
It’s possible that Duel’s problems began long before Dawson’s hire, but it wasn’t evident to him, and I won’t speculate any further. Because Dawson never handled payroll or had access to the company bank account, Dawson’s first indication that there was a problem was the closing of the Albuquerque taproom. And, to Dawson, that was the heart of the problem. The Albuquerque taproom was far too big and never able to sustain itself.
Of course, he wasn’t the only one affected by the closure(s). It was the whole organization, their close-knit family of employees, and the investors, who Dawson said allegedly never saw a dime in return for the thousands of dollars they invested. And, don’t forget the loyal customers, who never got a chance to say good-bye.
Dawson said he is still owed three weeks of wages and seven month’s worth of booking fees, which amounts to about $3,000 in total.
Currently, there’s not much the staff can do to get reimbursed. They’re at the mercy of the system, hoping that it doesn’t let them down, too.
As of the publication of this article, there’s still no word from the State.
Luckily, at least for Dawson, he’s already landed a job at another craft brewery. Not all of Duel’s crew is as fortunate. But, we wish them all luck in finding something as soon as possible.
The auction will be held April 26th at 1228 Parkway Dr. D, at the space formerly known as Duel.
May all parties involved get what’s owed them. No cheers today.
For more @nmdarksidebc news, follow me on Twitter @SantaFeCraftBro.