Steel Bender and other brewpubs still facing their own unique challenges in reopening

Even though they opened first, the brewpubs have faced their own challenges in reopening to 50-percent occupancy. (All photos courtesy of Steel Bender)

While much of the attention over the last several days has focused on the many breweries getting to reopen at last, the brewpubs (which we define as any brewery that offers food made on site) have been navigating the 50-percent occupancy waters for some time now. Their kitchens may have granted them that privilege of opening first, but it does not mean life has been any easier at those places, as in many ways they were the guinea pigs for the entire industry in New Mexico.

Anyone who has had the opportunity to get to know Steel Bender owners Ethan and Shelby Chant has learned they are two of the most genuine and friendly people in the craft beer scene. They legitimately want to make every single customer’s experience at their Los Ranchos brewpub the best experience possible. But, even they have had their patience tested as their staff and customers adjust to the new rules set forth by the State of New Mexico.

In a series of email questions and answers, Shelby opened up about what has worked, what has not worked, and how they still hope to make any visit to Steel Bender a good one for everyone involved.

“As you know, we did a super-secret opening last Monday (June 8), but didn’t advertise we were open until Thursday night,” Shelby wrote. “But, word got out as it does, so we were already seeing happy guests leading up to and including the weekend. It was great to see life back in the taproom and on the patio.

“We definitely filled up, starting Thursday night right after the Governor’s announcement. Through the weekend, our staff did a fantastic job working with guests within the new systems they had worked so hard to put in place. So, while we were busy all weekend, the planning, training, it all paid off with happy guests relieved to have a beer in hand at the taproom.”

The initial rush of returning customers, and the long lines that followed, was tough on the staff. It was one of those situations where it was great to see crowds again, but at only 50-percent occupancy inside and on the patio, it was often a challenge.

“(Recovering) that ‘muscle memory’ after being so used to systems, procedures, the order of things, etc., is a bit difficult,” Shelby wrote. “Our servers and bartenders are accustomed to helping each other out, but we’ve implemented systems where servers and bussers (handling clean vs. used items, respectively) stay in their respective roles. It’s working well, though, and it instills some additional comfort in the guest that we’re taking steps to keep them and our staff safe.”

The “Host Tent” is the most obvious change at Steel Bender.

The first big change at Steel Bender is obvious right at the main entrance.

“Another challenge is how much must be communicated to guests,” she wrote. “We have a ‘Host Tent’ out front (might as well let our festival tent get some love) where all guests must check in (no open seating anywhere during this time). Our hosts have a very important job to verbalize and explain much of what is already hanging on walls/windows and printed on sandwich boards. Businesses have grown very ‘intimate’ with the requirements, best practices, order updates, etc., over the last three months so that they could plan, train, and execute when it was time to open.

“Consumers, understandably, aren’t aware of the numerous operational changes that businesses have had to make. The best thing businesses and media outlets can do right now is to reiterate over and over again what guests should expect when walking into a brewery or restaurant … what the business’ promise is to the guest, and what the business (and the public health order) asks in return to help keep folks safe and to keep businesses open.”

Communication is key during this time period. One problem is though guests are willing to be seated in groups of six, the compulsion to mingle with other tables (or even try to move tables together) is still strong. The breweries know that people miss their friends, relatives, and colleagues, but the State of New Mexico is quite serious that once you sit down at a restaurant or brewery, you should only leave your seat to use the restroom or to leave after you have paid your bill.

Again, these are state rules, so getting mad at brewery staff members is pointless. They have to follow these rules, whether people like it or not, or risk being fined or even shut down by State Police.

As La Cumbre owner Jeff Erway put it best to us in another email, “Please, please, please, be patient with your beertenders. They might be a little rusty, (but) they are trying to keep all of you and themselves safe and healthy.

“Please, please, please, if you feel like this is all a conspiracy and the governor’s orders are BS, don’t blame us. We’re just trying to operate legally in this very weird landscape.”

Another challenge, for patrons and staff alike, are children and pets. The latter are no longer allowed on any brewery patio, unless they are registered service animals. As for children, I personally witnessed little ones running amok on the patio at Canteen on Tuesday afternoon. The staff informed their mother they also had to stay seated, and luckily she complied without complaint. Kids are going to be kids, and we all understand that, but the rules handed down by the State of New Mexico do not make distinctions between children and adults.

Customers, for the most part, have followed the rules and kept to themselves on the patios and indoors.

Overall, though, these problems have occurred far less frequently than people coming in, following the rules, and enjoying themselves over a beer and a bite for the first time outside the house in months.

“The support, the ‘We’re so excited to be back!’ it’s been humbling,” Shelby wrote. “But, we were lucky during those two-and-a-half months of takeout to get the same support. So yes, mostly not just GOOD, but wonderful. Of course the vibe is different without the place full, without our music Tuesdays, and (other) events, but it’s just great to have folks back in seats and enjoying a swig of normalcy after all this time.”

Wearing masks remains a bit of a politically charged issue for some, but for the most part customers at Steel Bender have not made too much of a fuss about wearing them when they are not sitting down to eat and/or drink.

“The mask issue is tough, but the more that NM breweries can collectively influence customer behavior and show that we’re keeping our promise in this ‘social contract,’  hopefully the smaller percentage of ‘stubborn/ornery’ will respect how hard we’ve worked to get to this point while adhering to, even obsessively, the requirements for reopening,” Shelby wrote. “It’s about everyone doing their part to keep the community safe and to keep business open.”

The more everyone follows the rules, the likelier we are to keep the virus rates low, and the better chance all of our breweries have to eventually get closer to 100-percent occupancy.

A big thanks to Shelby for squeezing in the time to answer our questions, and of course we also want to remind everyone again that Peach Dynamite returns on tap and in cans this Thursday, followed by the Pink Boots Society collaboration Essential Pie arriving in cans on Friday.

Keep supporting local!

— Stoutmeister

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