Susan’s Fine Wine and Spirits has been serving Santa Fe since 2005, and since then, they’ve seen a lot of trends in the beer, wine, and liquor industries. For instance, this crazy concept called craft beer becoming a thing, and taking off like no one had ever imagined. The owners might’ve said that they had seen it all in 15 years. But, with the threat of a global pandemic shutting them down temporarily, and forever changing the way they, or anyone, does business, Susan’s can say they’ve seen something new.
Allen Withrow has been with Susan’s since August 2019, taking over full-time as official beer buyer and manager. Since then, he’s brought plenty of fresh ideas to the store, and not to mention plenty of good and interesting beer! In a short time, he’s established himself as a trusted pillar of the local craft beer purveying industry, become a guide for curious palates, and often a conduit for some groovy times. Last year, he helped lure new tastebuds to Susan’s bar spaces, with fresh craft taps and cocktails, and also hosted plenty of events like Meet the Brewers, which frequently turned into a who’s who hangout of the Santa Fe craft brew scene.
This week I caught up with Allen while shopping for uh, “school supplies,” and we talked about how COVID has affected business for this well-respected liquor store and how business is going during the pandemic.
Withrow: Business has been really good actually. I think booze is pretty recession proof. And, I think people are drinking more, and with the restaurants being shut down, it has added on to our business, I would say.
We were shut down for a little bit so for a yearly, we’re not where we should be, but day to day, and monthly, we’re doing significantly better than in previous years.
DSBC: How has COVID changed the way you do business?
Withrow: Before we even closed down, we did an occupancy limit immediately. Actually, before we were told to shut down, we locked our doors. We were doing curbside pick-up only. We did that for two weeks before they shut down the liquor stores indefinitely.
DSBC: And now?
Withrow: Now that we’ve been able to open back up, of course, everyone has to wear a face covering or mask. We started off only allowing three customers at a time in the store, but we have now expanded that to five.
DSBC: How’s that been received?
Withrow: You know, I would say that 99.9-percent of the people that come in here are understanding.
DSBC: And the rest?
Withrow: We’ve had some tourists come in from another state who threw a little fit once. But, that’s fine, you know?
DSBC: It’s going to happen.
Withrow: It’s inevitable. You know everybody seems to be understanding. We’re still doing phone orders. At the front of the store we have a white table where we put together the orders, so all people have to do is come into the store and show us their ID and they’re able to leave with their goods.
DSBC: Without having to hang around the store. Brilliant. Since being able to reopen has the pandemic affected your work hours? Has there been less work?
Withrow: Yes and no. As far as less work? No. We just put in more work in less hours. There’s still the same amount of ordering, receiving, stocking shelves, but you have less time to do it in with limited hours.
DSBC: How has COVID affected beer buying? And, what does that look like for consumers?
Withrow: It’s been difficult in a sense that a lot of the breweries/distributors may not have all the products or all the answers that they did at one time. They might not have a driver, or (breweries) may not have made this product that they thought they were going to. I get a catalogue every year of what’s going to be available, and there’s been quite a few beers that just haven’t come out.
It’s still a constant struggle. You may put in an order, but what’s actually going to show up may be different. It’s like, if you don’t have it, just send me something. Fill in that hole for now. And then, you may get whatever you get, and you just have to take it.
DSBC: What are people drinking now? Has it changed since COVID?
Withrow: I don’t think people are going for higher or lower priced items, but you’ll see them bulk buying more, buying cases and cases more.
DSBC: Why do you think that is? Stocking the beer fridge for extended shelter-at-home stays?
Withrow: It’s the perfect storm of the bars and restaurants being shut-down, and I think people have been more depressed and maybe tend to drink more in those times. But, it has changed. You see less and less of the daily drinker coming in for their six-pack.
DSBC: It must have been hard having to basically close down the two bar spaces Susan’s opened just a year ago.
Withrow: We’re not allowed to serve inside the store any longer, but I’m still doing growler fills in a growler exchange program. I’m pretty much selling beer at cost. $11 for a growler fill for anything you want. I feel that’s a very fair and reasonable price. Part of that is I want to keep people interested in our draft system, and what is interesting and fun, locally. So, when all this is over, I hope people remember, ‘Hey, I got that great beer in a growler at Susan’s.’
And so, they can bring in any of their own growlers for the exchange, but say they want to keep their double-walled, insulated growler, or growler from a brewery they really like, just give me 15-to-20 minutes, I’ll send it through the washer, I got some iodine solution in the back, and I’ll sanitize it, cool it, and fill it.
DSBC: Start it now, and go browse, right?
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Something I’ve noticed during the pandemic is the strengthening of community, brewers helping brewers, industry folk just trying to cut each other some slack, because it’s hard enough out there.
One of the things that Withrow did, when they were shut down and closed, was he returned a lot of beers back to the local breweries. He says because he didn’t know how long the shutdown would last, and he didn’t want the beers just sitting on the shelves when the breweries were still open and able to sell it. It didn’t put any money back into Susan’s pockets, really, but it allowed the breweries to take back the beers so at least someone was able to make some money from it. And, I think that’s one of the ways we’re getting through this thing. When we’re doing OK, it’s a good time to help out the ones who aren’t.
- Coming soon to Susan’s Fine Wine and Spirits is Second Street’s Sloppy Sloth Strata Hazy IPA, which is, you’ve guessed it, a hazy New England-style IPA featuring Second Street’s new favorite hop, Strata.
- Santa Fe Brewing Company is also celebrating Oktober in July at Susan’s with their Oktoberfest released a tad early this year.
- Fresh off of Tumbleroot’s shiny new canning line is the Mojito, the first of their canned cocktails.
- Bow & Arrow will be loosing their own hazy IPA soon, joining an excellent array of beers on Susan’s shelves like their Strawberry Amigo and Denim Tux.
- These beers join a slew of Ex Novo brews and a few summer thirst palate busters like La Cumbre’s Project Dank Summer Edition, Acclimated, Zuzax, and Full Nelson, while supplies last. Ahem.
- They also have a huge selection of great wine and spirits, go figure, whatever your glass desires, for those not just reading my articles for the fun beer facts.
“Susan’s has been here for almost 15 years,” Withrow added. “All the staff is well trained, have many certifications. We care. We give a shit. We’re not just here doing what we’re doing for a pay check. I mean, that’s part of the gig, but we all have a passion for what we do. So, we’re happy to help any customers, and there’s no judgement here on what you know, and what you don’t know, when you walk through the doors – we’ll find someone that can help you and stir you in the right direction.”
Thank you to Mr. Allen Withrow for taking the time to chat, as always.
To Susan’s, to the owners and staff, to many more years in Santa Fe, and to the health of all of you, dear beer readers, I raise my glass, cheers!
For more craft beer news and @nmdarksidebc news, follow me on Twitter @SantaFeCraftBro. Untappd: SantaFeLuke