The Brew Crew has been reporting on how the coronavirus pandemic and related regulations have been affecting the breweries around the state. No one expected to have to suddenly close their doors for several months. Even today, in the middle of July, it’s not clear when we’ll return to anything approaching normalcy. To see how Bathtub Row Brewing in Los Alamos has been faring, I conducted an interview with assistant manager Rob Hipwood and head brewer Brandon Venaglia. In keeping with the times, the interview was done entirely by email (a first for me).
DSBC: Did you shut down when required to, or did you shut down earlier? What was that decision-making process like? It must have been difficult.
RH: We transitioned to takeaway sales per the Governor’s mandate, but we did have several discussions about closing regardless, trying to balance the business side with doing our part to keep our staff and community safe. To be honest, it all happened extremely fast. First, the transition to 50-percent capacity, then to-go-only sales, and then our next challenge was running out of (crowler) cans due to the rapid increase in takeaway sales. Before we knew it, we had no choice but to close our doors entirely. Other than the loss of income, we took the opportunity to hunker down some, and then we just got to work on some needed upkeep around the Tub.
DSBC: Unlike some parts of New Mexico, Los Alamos has been fortunate to be pretty isolated from the pandemic, with about six known cases in the county. (Note: Unfortunately, there have been several more cases since this questions was written.) What’s the feeling about the coronavirus and the restrictions (closure, reduced capacity, etc.)?
RH: As the COVID crisis unfolded, we were basically expecting the closure. From a health perspective, we don’t think our Governor had a choice.
With the increases occurring across the country, including New Mexico, and particularly in our neighboring states, the guidelines seem very reasonable.
Financially, it has been a big hit to our reserves and we’re constantly evaluating what we need to do to make it through another year of limited income. But, this is our reality for now.
DSBC: What has it been like for all of the employees? Front staff was obviously not kept busy while closed; were they furloughed? Did you keep brewing the whole time? Was that any different?
RH: All bartenders were furloughed for a few weeks until we re-opened again on May 1 for takeaway sales, but then we only needed a few to cover our limited hours of operation, so until mid-June most were out of work. Fortunately, for most of our bartenders, this is a second job. At one time, except for Justin (our assistant brewer), we were all furloughed for a few weeks.
We did brew a couple of times, but certainly scaled back as the closure continued. We simply did not have any place to put beer, so we probably went at least a couple of weeks without any brewing.
BV: We continued to brew, but in an appreciated fashion, of course. When the first order came down the pike, it was devastating for sure, but I don’t dwell on the negative for long — almost immediately I was thinking of the solution to this unprecedented problem.
The calendar had to be thrown out completely. Some seasonals had to be cancelled, and some ales became lagers. Our dark lager on the board, for instance, was originally supposed to be our stout, and the doppelbock was something like three separate beers entirely! If there’s anything positive to say about the current situation, its that it’s taught us how to be very flexible and resilient — admirable traits in good times for sure, but now necessary for our very survival.
As far as furloughs go, I’m still riding that roller coaster, which is OK simply because we are trying to be strategic and maximize our position going forward, so that there is a future to look forward to. If that means rolling furloughs for staff, including myself, then so be it.
Although my assistant hasn’t been laid off yet, we unfortunately may have to in the near future. With the most recent public health order lasting for who knows how long, by the winter we may be down to most skeleton of crews around here. That’s just the new reality we are all living in, and we will do whatever it takes to keep us alive …
DSBC: I stopped by for some bottles (very convenient, thanks!), and I think you were out of crowlers at the time. What was it like shifting entirely to to-go sales? Were beers that you had already made backing up? Was there any danger of spoilage?
RH: The support from our community for to-go sales has been incredible. By itself, it is not a sustainable model for us, but we have been so grateful for the support of our customers. The flipside was we were going through cans at an unprecedented rate, which led to a 32-ounce can shortage nationwide due to the sudden spike in demand as breweries throughout the country were all in the same boat. We transitioned to bottles due to their availability and we hand bottled and labeled A LOT of beer!
Our beer has backed up to an extent, but during the early goings of COVID, Brandon made the smart decision to focus on brewing lagers versus ales, so they could sit a long time.
BV: We definitely had a challenging time moving to to-go-only, since our model is all about providing a community space that literally was built by this community. So the sudden change in business model was daunting for sure, and the nationwide shortage of cans only compounded the problem. We technically could have filled growlers, but felt we had a responsibility to our customers/owners to ensure their safety. Since we couldn’t guarantee any vessel that was not first in our possession has been thoroughly cleaned and sanitized, we decided to err on the side of caution and prohibit them. The bottles were a real pain to deal with! They’re heavy, they take up a lot of space and it takes a lot to clean and sanitize them, but they were a short-term solution that worked beautifully.
As far as beer backing up, yes we did have that problem — specifically the Irish Red, which was supposed to coincide with what is typically our first big event of the year — but St Patty’s was effectively cancelled, so we were stuck with a massive amount of this red ale for a party that didn’t happen! Also, the Anniversary Lager, whose release was to coincide with our fifth anniversary celebration in April. That was obviously cancelled as well, so we turned it around and bought some snazzy labels, did an exclusive bottle release, including a members only weekend pre-sale that was very successful (some folks were buying it by the case!). Such is the new COVID reality, as they say.
DSBC: Financially, how did BRB weather the extended downtime?
RH: Our financial reserves have been critical for us during this time. It has still been stressful with the continued uncertainty of how long this could go on, but we would have been in a real tenuous place without our savings. We did apply for and receive a PPP (Payroll Protection Plan) loan. Money spent on payroll, rent, and utilities should be forgiven. It’ll run out in about three-to-four weeks, but we were very relieved when we received the money.
DSBC: What’s the current situation, in terms of indoor space, outdoor space, hours, beers, mask rules, etc.? You must be relieved to finally be at least partially open. (Note that rules have tightened up again, sadly, since this question was asked.)
RH: We’re set up well for space with the additional area west of our patio. We have plenty of outdoor space to maintain physical distancing protocols and our set up inside is working well too. We are concerned when the weather changes in late October and sitting outside isn’t as appealing as it is now. It’ll be very challenging assuming that we will still have limited capacity throughout the winter and maybe well into the next year.
We are back to our normal operations other than closing at 10 p.m. (instead of 11 on Thursday, Friday, Saturday) per the Governor’s mandate. Certainly not a hardship for us to close one hour earlier on those days.
We currently have a great selection of beers on tap — four ales and three lagers, plus Sandia (Hard) Cider. Brandon has a good plan moving forward to keep our customer favorites in rotation while trying the occasional new beer. The Great American Beer Festival is going virtual this fall, but there is still a beer competition and Brandon has been working on a brew schedule for his entries. Depending on how much beer we sell here over the next month, he might enter as many as eight or nine beers, but at minimum I’m sure we’ll be sending six-to-seven entries to GABF. We were literally taking our World Beer Cup entries to Colorado when the shutdown started happening. Brandon and Justin had spent months on the four beers we were planning to submit. We were not surprised when the WBC was cancelled, but it was still a bit frustrating.
DSBC: It doesn’t seem like the coronavirus is going away anytime soon. What does this do to your longer-term planning in terms of staffing, beer brewing, and other plans (such as the ski hill expansion)? Will you continue to focus more on to-go beers?
RH: Even at 50-percent capacity we are almost back to the staffing levels we had pre-COVID. Table service requires more people than our previous model of ordering at the bar. We don’t expect to return to normal operations any time soon and, honestly, with New Mexico numbers increasing, we won’t be surprised if we’re shut down again. Even best-case scenario and the Governor were to allow higher capacity sooner than later, it appears that a lot of people, understandably, are still very hesitant to venture out. Or, at minimum, people are limiting their public excursions to keep their health risk low.
The ski hill expansion is on hold currently. To-go beers will continue to be an area of focus. We just bought a better canning machine to withstand the volume of canning that we’re doing now and we’re considering purchasing a basic canning line. No decisions have been made yet, but like all breweries in the COVID age, we’re rethinking our business model and need to look at other sources of income. Providing other packaging options for our customers might be a prudent move on our part, but it’s also difficult to pull the trigger on a big purchase right now.
DSBC: Is there anything else you’d like to comment on relating to the shutdown/startup?
RH: It has been a surreal experience for all of us and the uncertainty of the coming months makes it more difficult, but we’re keeping our heads up and we’re determined to keep Bathtub Row in business for years to come.
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I want to give my great thanks to Rob and Brandon for being such good sports about taking the time to respond to my questions. Hopefully our next interview will be in person again. The good news is that the ‘Tub, with its years of careful management and conservative financial planning, should be around for a long time to come.
Having said that, I think everyone is aware that our breweries and other small businesses are going through a very difficult time right now. It may not be the same as hanging out at your favorite watering hole, but they all need your business right now. So whatever businesses are able to do, whether limited patio seating or just takeout, please visit them if you’re able to, and give them some much-needed revenue. If nothing else, purchase cans and bottles from your local brewery at the grocery store. And please, wear a mask in public!