Taprooms open, taprooms closed. Kitchens open, kitchens closed. Patios open, patios closed. One taproom open, another closed.
The early weeks of the pandemic left Bosque Brewing’s employees, owners, and customers feeling like their heads were spinning. Things have stabilized, as much as anything can in 2020, since then, but it has still been a heck of a tumultuous year for the brewery and its six locations.
I caught up with Bosque co-owner and chief experience officer Jess Griego over Zoom last week to try to recap all of it for our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series.
“I think that our model of being taproom centric has made it, like you said, even more critical to pivot quickly and frequently,” Griego said. “It was frustrating for us and our employees, and our customers, almost like a kind of whiplash.
“Now we have a much better ability to steer this ship since March. I think, at the very least, now because we’ve been through each situation possible — and had to make different decisions on to-go, patios only, do we do food, do we not do food — now we’re able to see clearer as to how we’re going to adjust.”
That has been a pretty common theme throughout all the interviews we have done with breweries this year. None, though, had a key staff member sort of jinx them well in advance of COVID-19 arriving in the United States.
Griego said the command team had a meeting toward the end of 2019, where everyone was talking about the future of the company. Chief financial officer J. Quinn Wingerd was asked by co-owner/chief production officer John Bullard if anything could potentially derail their plans.
“Essentially as we were discussing the financial health and stability of the business after seven years of rapid growth, we were positioned in 2020 to capture the economies of scale that come along with a production facility and organizational structure of our size,” Griego said. “(Wingerd) qualified that assessment by saying, ‘Unless, of course, a tree falls out of the sky,’ which I look back on now as an eerie premonition about what we all would be blindsided by in March.
“Regardless of the ‘tree’ we have made some difficult short-term decisions to ensure that long term we come out of this repositioned to hit the ground running in a post-pandemic environment whenever that may be.”
Yeah, a Bosque executive doomed us all with a line about a tree. Well, not really, but it was still one of those moments that deserved some creepy music and furtive glances around the table like one sees on TV.
“We were thinking we would be coasting, making some real deliberate decisions,” Griego said, getting back to the serious business at hand. “Growth is challenging, and we’ve grown quickly. It’s been disheartening, the timing. We’d done the ground work last year. We were going to stabilize. The timing has been rough.”
Griego had nothing but praise for Wingerd, whom she called essential to the process, especially when the pandemic hit and Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham issued her first public health orders, which ended up reducing every brewery in the state to only having beer for takeout.
“We were the first brewery to close,” Griego said. “We were trying to make decisions with people getting furloughed, getting first in line for unemployment. We had 200-plus employees. Deciding to close, those were decisions we still stand by. What came after that, I still can’t wrap my head around it.”
We recapped how those first few difficult weeks went for Bosque back in April. Griego and the rest of the command team quickly realized what worked at one taproom would not work at others.
“It’s been, like everyone can say, it’s been hard to make short-term decisions in the moment,” she said. “You’re trying to make the best decisions with the information you’ve had. What we try to do is make sure we come out of this strong. We can hit the ground running whenever this ends. It’s been a lot of short-term decisions. We’re pretty big-picture and long-term strategy minded thinkers. To have to shut that off, to worry about what this week looks like, let’s just stop the hemorrhaging. Whether that’s talking to landlords and talking through leases, or applying for PPP and SBA loans. We were all in triage mode in March and April. We tried to stabilize as much as we could.”
That stability proved to be elusive.
“By July, we thought we would be back to normal,” Griego said. “At this point, we’ve all become aware of this is what it is for the foreseeable future. We have to play the long game at this point. I think it’s become a skillset we’ve all gotten better at. We’ve had to make tough decisions. We’ve had to bring back people, furlough them again. We’ve had to close taprooms for periods of time. The revenue just hasn’t been enough to justify being open normal hours.
“With six locations, it’s difficult to do what’s best for everyone. It’s just difficult to make those decisions. Each taproom has a specific need or story.”
Here are some of those taproom stories.
Santa Fe opens at last, but not without new challenges
The decision to open the Santa Fe Market Station Taproom over the summer was not an easy one, but it was something that Bosque had to get done.
“I’m so proud that we opened the location during a global pandemic,” Griego said. “We had invested time, resources into that project. We were slated to open at the beginning of March. The show had to go on. We had leases signed and obligations. We just felt like it was the right thing to do to keep pressing forward.”
If Bosque had 20-20 hindsight, for instance, it would have built a bigger patio in Santa Fe. That proved to be tough, as did the fact the owners decided not to open the kitchen just yet.
Griego praised events coordinator Ezekiel Gomez, who had no events to plan, in basically taking the reins in Santa Fe and getting the place up and running as smoothly as possible.
“We were able to use his experience in Santa Fe,” she said. “We did this with several people. We were able to get our staff into several roles. We brought in new co-workers taking a chance on a new job. We were grateful to everyone in that opening.”
Griego also looked on the bright side in regards to the kitchen.
“It’s given us the opportunity to revamp our menu,” she said. “We want to come out strong with food in Santa Fe. Holding off on the kitchen there is to make sure we have a really strong menu. When people start traveling to New Mexico as tourists again, we hope they get an authentic experience.”
Still, it has been a bit of a mixed review for the location, which is understandable this year.
“It’s been difficult being in the Rail Yards with the Rail Runner not running,” Griego said. “Tourism has come to a halt. We’re getting a lot of support from local Santa Fans. We’ve been intentional about limited hours, proving those opportunities for to-go and patio. We’re taking baby steps.”
A tale of two taprooms in Las Cruces
The original Las Cruces Public House and the Telshor Public House have endured far different experiences so far, despite only being less than seven miles apart. Currently, the original is closed, while Telshor remains open. That reflects their respective locations, with the original across University Avenue from New Mexico State, which has most of its students learning remotely instead of being on campus.
“Yeah, I would say that for sure (is having an effect),” Griego said. “The decision to close it is a direct result of that. The hope is that it’s temporary. Not having the students has been difficult. The foot traffic in general is down. Dona Ana County is so close to El Paso, neighboring a part of the country that really suffers right now has an impact. It’s been a heartbreaker, to be honest. We’ve opened and closed, made decisions based on numbers.”
Bosque has managed to keep a substantial number of its employees working by concentrating them at Telshor.
“For the foreseeable future we’re trying to generate all the traffic to one place,” Griego said. “We can employ the people there. Again, short-term, but a lot of really difficult decisions. We want to make sure long-term we can come out of this stronger.”
Three locations and three stories in one metro area
If there is an MVP among taprooms, it has been the one that does not even carry Bosque in its name.
“Restoration (Pizza) has played an enormous role in generating revenue throughout this time, from the beginning to now,” Griego said. “Whether that’s to-go only or dine-in, they’re the most consistent. We’ve seen a ton of to-go pizza and beer revenue. We’re really grateful that that brand has been able to help temper some of the other locations that don’t have that sort of ability generate to-go. When the weather was nice, Bosque North was another example of that, but Restoration, regardless of the weather, has been great. Pizza is great as a to-go. We’re generating a new clientele from there.”
Over at the Nob Hill Public House, the story has been told in cans. Namely, in how many they have sold.
“Nob Hill does the most package traffic,” Griego said. “They’re standing in line for releases like Pickle Down Economics. We’ve been sending a lot of package beer there. Each location has its own avenue where we’re trying to strengthen. For Nob Hill, the package and to-go is theirs.”
Griego also praised the veteran team at Nob Hill for their hard work. Up at Bosque North in Bernalillo, the praise goes to the folks behind the scenes, namely the brewing team led by Bullard.
“It can’t be said enough how our brewery team, from the very beginning, was pivoting,” she said. “You don’t see it. You see our hours changing. Those are more at the forefront. What was happening in the brewery was equally as difficult. That canning line has been running nonstop. Before COVID, 30 percent of our beer sales were off premises (in keg distribution). For all of that to go away, and hundreds of retail accounts, to convert that beer that was going into kegs into package, that was no small feat.
“That entire team has been making sure the beer is getting into the hands of people. I can’t say enough how the brewery team has ridden this out. We couldn’t have made it through without them. We’re not through it, but we’re going to make it. We wouldn’t be positioned to come out of this the way we’re planning to if it wasn’t for the brewery team, package team, cellar, putting their noses down and working hard. They continued to show up every day.”
Unlike other large packaging-and-distribution breweries like Ex Novo, La Cumbre, and Marble, Bosque currently does not have a secondary brewhouse to create 5-barrel or larger batches for special releases. Still, the brewing team has still managed to squeeze some popular seasonals into the lineup alongside the year-round cans like Elephants on Parade and Scotia. One of those, the aforementioned Pickle Down Economics, proved to be so popular that it is now a year-round beer in its own right.
“We’ve all had to approach this differently,” Griego said of all the breweries. “I’ve been impressed to see how everyone has been able to utilize the time and different constraints and still come out with exciting beers. To still give people the excitement of a pickle beer was amazing. Something else with this whole experience, really knowing that everyone is doing their best, it’s different for different breweries. It’s just a reminder that everyone is doing an incredible job, continuing to maintain their old business models and still provide something fun and new.”
Finishing the year and looking ahead to 2021
Bosque does have one more notable fun release coming out this Friday. Royally Stuffed, an imperial pastry stout inspired by Oreo cookies, will arrive in cans only at all Bosque locations and select retailers. It was originally brewed as a tiny 1-barrel batch by Bullard, and it sold out so quickly not even a single member of the Brew Crew made it to Bosque North in time.
“Going back to the positives of this year, we’ve been able to release some fun stuff,” Griego said. “We opened a new taproom in Santa Fe. We brought on a new release, Pickle Down, that takes a lot of work.
“We had the Kool-Aid glitter beer that everyone came to have at the taprooms. It’s been fun to distract ourselves from the monotony of the every COVID talk. It’s been fun to generate some excitement around. Give people the opportunity to have fun.”
Last year, Bosque chief executive officer Gabe Jensen talked about all the future taprooms, with two in Santa Fe, and two more coming to Albuquerque. Only the Santa Fe Market Station Taproom has opened since then, with the other three on hold, though there may be a little forward movement for one.
“Everything basically went on hold at the middle of March,” Griego said. “Mostly everything went on hold, we are still moving forward on some projects. The show must go on. Eubank is one of those. We’re continuing to move forward on that one.”
It helps that the taproom set for Eubank and Spain already has a building to move into, whereas the Westside location has not even seen any construction start at St. Joseph’s and Coors.
“Everything else, there’s nothing completely canceled,” Griego said. “We’re in this limbo on some of those. Those conversations are happening. We’re still inching towards to some sort of decision. It takes a lot of resources. We’re going to be reopening six locations whenever this pandemic is ending. We’re being mindful of opening these at full capacity, and how that affects future projects. We’re going to give our current locations priority.”
Bosque is still buzzing, still moving forward, but like every other brewery, it is now doing things more slowly, cautiously, and methodically.
A big thanks to Jess for hopping on Zoom for this interview in between other online meetings. There is no rest for the weary these days.
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