Another year is coming to a close, and what a year it has been. It’s difficult to even approach this year’s Look Back/Look Ahead Series, because don’t we all really only want to look ahead? And yet, we might sort of be afraid to at the same time. In some ways, there’s not a lot more for people to talk about, other than how to hang on to survive. However, there are lessons to be learned in all this craziness. Gary Socha, owner/brewer at Casa Vieja, has remained flexible, and that is advice that could be useful to all of us in these times.
First off, I wanted to make sure the Casa Vieja family is all doing well, and Gary said they are. They are all healthy. Business-wise, having a great patio has made a big difference for them. In fact, Casa Vieja has not been able to always keep up with the demand for beer, relying on guest taps when they run out of their own brews. His customers convey the safe environment is everything to them. That’s why they keep coming; they feel secure there.
During this latest two week “reset” — a.k.a. shutdown — when there was only to-go sales, Casa Vieja decided it was best to stay completely closed. During the first shutdown, Gary said he didn’t know anyone who had it. It was pretty easy, he said, to believe they could manage it. This time the numbers were much higher and climbing too fast. In his other business, Gary reported that there were multiple “tertiary exposures.” When one of your employees knows someone who was in contact with someone who tests positive, it changes your world.
Gary said he can also see the fear on the faces of their clients. What would normally be a warm and cozy environment inside their lovely building, with all the fireplaces going, is not where anyone wants to be. Even when it’s cold. They have plenty of heaters on the patio, and not one person wanted to come inside. The building being empty is a sad situation for Gary, he said, considering what it’s like when the building is full of life.
Gary said he feels customers really do listen to the Governor, because they can be crazy busy, then as soon as one of her updates comes out, people suddenly disappear. But, not for long, as a day later, they start to come back, he said.
The ultimate act of optimism, Gary said, is that during this recent shutdown they just started making beer like crazy. They are keeping the fermenters full, kegging, developing new beers — doing all of the things they need to do to prepare for reopening. They bought a filter so they could get the seltzer to become clear faster to keep up with demand on that, as well. The seltzer is very popular now, and the Ghost Stout continues to be a big hit. They recently made a coconut stout (The World is Nuts) that came out great, and they brought back the seasonal Spruce Tip Ale from last year.
As a special request, they made a gluten-reduced beer. It was surprising, Gary said, because some people don’t want it if that’s the first thing they know about it. If they taste it first, then they want it regardless. It’s now one of their top beers.
I asked if the can shortage is affecting them, but Gary said it has not been an issue for the quantities of beer they make. If you don’t need pallets at a time, it’s still pretty easy to get boxes at a time. He is also partnering with a former chef that used to provide food for the brewery and is now starting to grow hops in Corrales. Again, because Casa Vieja does not need large quantities, it’s easier to source some things locally.
Casa Vieja recently employed a new POS system out of Colorado developed specifically by brewers. This system helps reduce contact because it streamlines many of the typical brewpub payment processes. It’s the same system that Sidetrack uses, and Gary said it is great.
Social media has really opened up their world to new customers. People are desperate to go and do something fun. When they hear there is live entertainment and they can sit on the patio and have an adult beverage, people will come from outside Corrales to do that. This was my biggest takeaway from this interview. I began to reflect on issues I have noticed when looking to support local. Too many businesses are sadly just barely trying to get by, and hence do not spend their limited resources on keeping social media platforms current, relevant, and outreaching. Unfortunately, most of us are carefully planning each trip out of the house, and if we cannot get the information we need about businesses’ hours, policies, etc., we are not going to take a chance on that business. We will go somewhere else. I am on the mailing list for Casa Vieja, and the amount of info they send out is just right.
In a previous interview, I learned that Gary had also adapted by moving his other business into the event space at Casa Vieja since there are no events happening. I asked if the news of the vaccine coming has caused an uptick in people trying to book events again. Gary said yes, a lot of people are trying to book events again. To some extent, people are more optimistic about events coming back in 2021 then he is. Even though they are not ready to really start booking events again, they are thinking about new ways to work with people who want to secure dates and put down deposits.
To wrap up, I asked Gary if he could boil down one main lesson of this pandemic, what that might be. He said he did not fully realize just how nice people really are. Of all the people they have had visit during this crazy time, there have only been two or three total who tried to cause any problems over the restrictions and needed to, as Gary put it, “go away.” Well, it’s great to end on a positive note right now!
Casa Vieja is opening back up this week for to-go orders and 25-percent capacity on the patio, The new days and hours of operation are Thursday through Sunday from 2 to 6 p.m. There is also a Toys for Tots drive going on, with general manager Joe Corbin offering to buy a beer (pint or 16-ounce can to-go) for anyone who brings in a new toy to donate.
Remember, local beer and merch make great holiday gifts, and please stay safe everyone.