Metro breweries still adjusting to new regulations during pandemic

The beer-to-go setup at Steel Bender, where 96 percent of the front-of-house staff was laid off. (Photo courtesy of Mario Caldwell)

Most craft beer drinkers have been able to adjust to the new normal of to-go beer only from breweries, but we still wanted to know just how the breweries have adjusted with no major changes in statewide edicts since dine-in sales were stopped.

After Luke checked in with the Santa Fe-area breweries last week, I sent out an email questionnaire to most of the breweries that have remained open in the Albuquerque metro area. Here are the seven responses we received so far, most of which came from the smaller breweries.

NMDSBC: Between the back-of-house and front-of-house, how many staff members did you have to lay off?

  • Scott Salvas, owner/brewer, Brew Lab 101: We have only 10 regular staff and have divided up hours so everyone gets some, so technically we haven’t laid anyone off, not completely, just reduced hours. However, some of our staff have other jobs so they opted to not take any hours for now at Brew Lab.
  • Joel Gregory, owner, Ex Novo: All-in, we’ve laid off seven people here, and some others have reduced hours.
  • Andrew Kalemba, owner/brewer, High and Dry: We typically have six people on staff which includes myself. We are down to two staff and I have taken myself off payroll. Total of four.
  • Ken Carson, owner, Nexus: 24
  • Anne O’Neill, co-owner, Sidetrack: We haven’t laid anyone off, but bartender shift hours have been cut to 20 percent of normal.
  • Shelby Chant, co-owner, Steel Bender: Of our TAPROOM and KITCHEN crew (so this doesn’t include brewers and sales/distribution), we had to make the heartbreaking decision to lay off 96 percent.
  • Nico Ortiz, owner, Turtle Mountain: We’ve laid off 40 of our 60 employees. We will have a skeleton crew of kitchen and FOH staffers taking care of the to-go and delivery business.
Brew Lab 101 right before opening in the afternoon. (Photo courtesy of Scott Salvas)

NMDSBC: How many people are still working, back and front?

  • Brew Lab 101: Six.
  • Ex Novo: There are two people working the taproom, including myself. We laid off the draft self-distro team. We’re pooling tips in the interim to pass on to staff upon return to work.
  • High and Dry: Two-to-three-ish. Still making a little beer as needed to keep inventory up, but balancing that with demand is whole new calculation that we haven’t figured out yet
  • Nexus: So overall about 50 percent laid off. BOH – laid off four out of 10. FOH – laid off 10 of 20. This is for our main location. Laid off all of the Smokehouse, about 10.
  • Sidetrack: All employees are still working, but work hours have decreased significantly for some.
  • Steel Bender: For package to-go sales, we have four staff members (two of them are sales/distribution folks).
  • Turtle Mountain: We have 20 people between back and front still earning tips and wages.

NMDSBC: How big of a drop-off in beer and food (should you have it) sales have you experienced? A percentage would probably work better than a straight money figure.

  • Brew Lab 101: We are doing about 40 percent of normal revenue
  • Ex Novo: Oddly enough, our sales haven’t dropped off too much as we just do beer, probably 20 percent, and we’re only (open) six hours a day. Some people are seriously stocking up on package beer, so not sure if the consumption is keeping up with that or if we’ll see it drop off a lot when people’s fridges are full.
  • High and Dry: Our sales are 20-to-25 percent of what they were. So ~75-percent decline. Very sporadic from day to day. Not sure if this trend will continue to decline or level off
  • Nexus: Started off at 40 percent of normal sales during the first part of the week. (Saturday) we were at 50 percent.
  • Sidetrack: Beer sales are 20 percent of last year.
  • Steel Bender: Since food sales are now at zero, we have had a significant drop in TAPROOM sales. ON THE OTHER HAND, our taproom package sales are significantly higher. 🙂
  • Turtle Mountain: Our sales declined 61 percent week over week after we were were forced to do takeout and delivery only. We were closed for two of those days, however, for repair, cleaning and maintenance. But, daily sales are down 50-to-67 percent. But, we are at least bringing in some cash flow.
Early on during the pandemic, customers line up to get their food and beer orders at Nexus.

NMDSBC: Is this current to-go-only business model sustainable?

  • Brew Lab 101: No, not in the long term.
  • Ex Novo: As it stands, yes it probably is sustainable for quite some time here, although I hate that it comes at the expense of jobs.
  • High and Dry: I’m not confident that this is sustainable. We are taking it day by day. It might be just enough to cover some bills and keep a little money flowing to our remaining team. It’s going to be tough, but we will go as long as we can. Our numbers aren’t zero, so that’s a positive. I’m hopeful that we will be able to weather the storm, but there are so many unknowns at this point it’s hard to put an actionable plan in place.
  • Nexus: It could be sustainable if we can build to 60 percent, if we get better at our to-go business we can get to 60 percent. We are also seeing wasteful things we know we have, but have not addressed during the good times. Like going to cash and carry all the time and paying full price. It is also amazing how much food we do not need that we have on the shelves. We need to start doing daily inventory. We have good discounts with Shamrock. But, you can not get those discounts on weekends, unless you order online. I have to go to the store. If we do not plan, which is really hard to predict today, we are paying 20-percent extra. But, we have been doing that daily during good times. Margins are so critical.
  • Sidetrack: Nope!
  • Steel Bender: With our current staffing and doing JUST package beer/cider to go, this is sustainable for now. But, as I’m sure all the others would agree, it’s not a model any of us would want to sustain since we’re all about bringing folks together.
  • Turtle Mountain: Not at all. The fixed costs that we have to pay, in addition to variable costs such as payroll and food and beer vendors, cannot be paid in the long run with what we are currently bringing in.

NMDSBC: What has been the public response? It seems like crowler sales alone are at an all-time high, if nothing else. There’s reports of a national shortage, so how are all of you doing in terms of stock?

  • Brew Lab 101: Response has been great, it has really been inspiring to see how many people support us and the industry as a whole. We sell PET growlers as an alternative to crowlers, sales have always been great with them and there are plenty in supply.
  • Ex Novo: Public response has been inspiring, people coming out again and again just to keep us going. People definitely buying more than they would otherwise to put money in the till, and people are tipping really well on package beer sales. I wish we had a crowler machine for this; it was in the plans, but didn’t pull the trigger yet and I’m all regrets there. We have been blowing through cans and running out of some core brands.
  • High and Dry: Our fans are supportive and willing to continue to buy our product when then can spend what they have right now, and that’s pretty meaningful that with a lot of tough choices, right? People are choosing to spend money with us. We very much appreciate that. Right now, I wish we had the crowler machine! Getting one is part of the plan by the end of the year with the additional equipment upgrades. Growler glass stock is moving quickly. Luckily we placed an order for backup right before the changes. Lucky timing, I guess. Fresh shipment coming in early next week.
  • Nexus: I wish I had pulled the crowler trigger … boy that was a mistake. We do not do cans or crowlers. Our beer sales are running 15 percent of total sales. We normally run at 25 to 30 percent.
  • Sidetrack: Our patrons have shown up big for us and for our staff. We’ve had nothing but encouraging words, generous tips, and love for the staff. Crowlers are definitely hard to come by. We went through the small inventory of cans that we keep in three days (normally about a three-month supply). All suppliers are on backorder, currently till the end of April. We were lucky to have begged and borrowed a few cans from some very kind and generous local breweries to help us limp along. Plus, we just got a small order filled. They will have to last until we receive a larger order that is supposed to arrive in beginning of April.
  • Steel Bender: The public response has been supportive and appreciative (that we’re able to provide a bit of normalcy). Everyone who purchases simple wants to help and support in any way they can. Crowlers are doing well, it’s actually been quite surprising how many folks didn’t know about them. 🙂 Our stock ran super low, and Quarter Celtic reached out to get 250 from us, we were happy to help, and placed an order for more. Fortunately, our shipment arrived late last week in the nick of time.
  • Turtle Mountain: We are doing OK in terms of our crowler stock, but we’ve already put in an order for another 2,400 cans since Ball is already backordered on them. Our crowler sales have been through the roof, especially the 3-for-$20 that we and most other breweries are offering. If takeout and delivery goes on much further into April we will run out.
Can sales at Ex Novo have, at times, been so strong that even the core brands have sold out. (Photo courtesy of Ex Novo)

NMDSBC: For those who distribute beyond your taproom(s), how are can/bottle sales doing?

  • Ex Novo: We are fortunate enough to have a big part of our business here be focused on can distribution, and that side of the business is obviously holding up well. We’ve run out of stock on some core stuff, which sucks, as we didn’t plan on this new world, of course.
  • Steel Bender: We definitely saw a spike in distribution retail accounts for the first week, leveling out a bit now.

NMDSBC: How many of you have had to put future projects (e.g. another offsite taproom) on hold or cancel them outright?

  • Ex Novo: We are putting those conversations on hold for sure until we see how we come out of all of this.
  • High and Dry: As you probably have gathered, we purchased the Blue Grasshopper equipment right before/as these changes were coming down the pipe. This definitely impacts the ability to finish out the some of the upgrades and installing of the equipment. We still have plans to keep pushing forward. Going to set up and get as many things in place that will not burden cash flow. But, being confident I want to be in a good position and ready to execute when we come out of this thing.
  • Nexus: We had nothing big planned, just trying to get better. I am toying with reopening the Smokehouse, before the quarantine is lifted. Our old business model was not sustainable at 40-percent sales. Our (original) location was carrying the business. I think we could reopen, but we can not do it the way we were structured. Just a thought …
  • Turtle Mountain: I have certainly had to back-burner our taproom plans for late summer/fall. I’m not going to sign a long-term lease with this much uncertainty hanging over my head.
The normally bustling Ex Novo taproom is mostly silent these days. (Photo courtesy of Joel Gregory)

NMDSBC: How are you staying optimistic during this time? Or are you even been able to?

  • Brew Lab 101: Yes, we are optimistic because support has been so strong. I’m confident we will all be open soon and stronger than ever!!!
  • Ex Novo: It’s tough, but we’re leaning into our community, and they are propping us up. Running on that right now.
  • High and Dry: Lots of bad jokes. At the end of the day it’s out of our control and we can only react, be safe, and follow the guidelines that are given to us. We need to follow these rules for everyone’s safety, and the better we do that and respond, the quicker we can pull hopefully pull out of these times. It’s hard to be optimistic. It’s my default because panicking and being negative won’t change anything. We should be concerned and worried, but use that as positive energy to move forward. Oddly, I’m a bit a relaxed and I don’t where that is coming from. Perhaps I have conceded that we are long for the ride and need to make the best of the situation. I guess I learned that I’m the toughest critic and push myself, and am my main stressor in life
  • Nexus: Optimism is all we have. Each day you just try to get better and learn.
  • Sidetrack: Gotta stay optimistic. Grateful that we can still keep the door open for a little revenue. Keeping staff on has been helpful for morale. It could always be worse … right?
  • Steel Bender: Support, support, support. From customers, from friends/family, from our furloughed staff that posts pictures from “before” (@fracdow keeps me in tears) … they keep each other strong. Our community and customers tell us incessantly that they can’t wait to come back to the taproom for an actual pint, they comment on social (more tears). And last, but not least, our NM craft beer community. My God. We are strong together. Our optimism … confidence … that we will come back and come back strong is rooted in the strength of our industry (and I do believe New Mexico’s Guild is one of the strongest out there). The daily texts checking in on each other, asking for opinions and guidance, leaning on each other. It’s just not heard of in the business world. No doubt, the anxiety, worry, uncertainty, and stress roller coaster is unprecedented for us. But, we’re tenacious. We’ll get through it.
  • Turtle Mountain: I’m optimistic because of the tremendous outpouring of support that Rio Rancho has shown Turtle Mountain and its employees. I know that this shelter-in-place order cannot go on forever, and that the economy will need restaurants to reopen for normal service. I am hopeful that the new stimulus bill that just passed Congress will actually include helpful financial programs for our industry. And, being optimistic is much better than the alternative.

* * * * *

If other breweries choose to respond to our questions, we will post those answers here or in a new post. If any further changes in hours/days of operation, or those that are open/closed, happen to occur, we will of course update all of you.

In the meantime, stay safe, support local if you can, and keep hoping for the day we can all return to the breweries and enjoy a pint in person.


— Stoutmeister

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