Last week, I wrote on the many challenges all of us in the Crew face when trying to write about a brewery when it closes. Among the people who read that story was Matt Simonds, the owner of Broken Trail, which closed late last year, and he made the decision to share everything that went into the tough decision he made to permanently shut down his business.
“I get why people wouldn’t exactly want to talk about it,” Simonds said. “I think we’re in a unique position where I don’t really care anymore (so now I will).”
Our phone interview was brief, candid, and enlightening.
“For Broken Trail specifically, it was a number of factors, the first of which was we weren’t really set up well to survive the distribution game,” Simonds said. “And so, we weren’t going to go throw a million beers at Total Wine or a million beers at Kelly’s and Jubilation. We weren’t going to sell enough vodka, even on the spirits side of things, to cover our costs. So the distribution and packaging aspect of things were really challenging for us.”
Broken Trail was also down to just one brick-and-mortar taproom, on Menaul just east of Louisiana. Simonds had closed the tasting room at Green Jeans, and the original production facility in the Brewery District off Candelaria had been shut down before that. Production had moved to the Mother Trail facility off 12th Street in the Sawmill District, which is still open.
“It kind of came down to, and I think this is me personally, I don’t see a recovery in the system anytime soon,” Simonds said. “What I mean by that is people are creatures of habit, and so you’ve already seen changes in how people buy things. Ordering online, ordering delivery through grocery stores that we would never have done a year ago.
“If people aren’t coming to Broken Trail because Fork and Fig is closed down, or they aren’t going to restaurants, even if things (fully) opened tomorrow my customer base is decimated and gone. Now that we’re basically a year into this, I got to a point where I didn’t see this being done anytime soon. Even if we are at green, and we’re still at 50 percent (indoor occupancy), is that sustainable? Is that going to pay my bills? I don’t think so. I think for some of the larger breweries that had that shelf presence and brand awareness, they were in a great situation to thrive in all of this, and if not thrive, survive.”
None of that made the decision to close up shop any easier. Broken Trail had started as Distillery 365, the first combined brewery/distillery in Albuquerque, in 2015, and it can often be harder to say good-bye to a more well-established business than one that had only been open for a year or less.
“We had our five-year anniversary last May,” Simonds said. “I had a special bourbon pulled aside for it that was the oldest bourbon we ever had. A week before that we get notice that we’re shut down again. Me, specifically, I’ve poured my life, blood, and tears into it. It does sting. It’s tough to talk about it. It’s tough to think about, well, did we fail? No, we didn’t. But, it doesn’t change the outcome.”
Perhaps the toughest part of all was for Simonds to part ways with his employees.
“We sat there, this was right before Thanksgiving, when we were going to this tier system and shutting everything down,” he said. “I finally let the staff know what was going on. The difficult thing is, going back to last March when we had a full staff, and furloughing people off and not bringing people back.
“We were down to three bartenders. The most amazing people on the planet. We had Alec, who had been with us for three or four years. He’s a total nut job and I love him because of it. The customers loved him. He’s just so honest in who he is. We had Brian, who had one of the best palates of beer that I’ve ever worked with. And then, of course, Courtney, our manager, who was our lifeblood over the course of the last year. These were people who stuck with me from the shutdown and all the way through. We would sit down and chat. To have that conversation, I’m tired of losing money, and not just a little money. As a group we sat and cried. We laughed and remembered some more of the positive times, and then got pretty drunk together.”
Simonds does still have Mother Trail, the joint production facility he built with the former owners of Mother Road Mobile Canning. It is still producing beer and spirits under contract for multiple companies.
“Mother Trail is still operating,” he said. “That perhaps helps with the sting a little bit. I’m still busy, I’m still going to work every day. I’m still making lots of different packaged spirits and beer, all kinds of stuff. Not specifically the Albuquerque market, but clients over the country. On a personal level, I’m doing OK. In some respects, what we’re doing at Mother Trail is a lot more interesting. The manufacturing, the packaging, a lot of the technical skills, which is where my strength is, I’m getting to do every day. It’s the marketing and managing a bar, managing a taproom, that’s what I’m not doing anymore. It wasn’t my strength in the first place.”
From his perspective, Simonds does not see things improving instantly whenever the pandemic is declared to be over.
“I think the biggest question I have, and only time is really going to tell, is the traditional brewpub model going to be around six months or a year from now?” he said. “And if it is, what’s it going to look like? Is it going to be what it was a year ago, or is it going to be something completely different? My fear is the regulations regarding public safety are going to be such that the brewpub model is just going to be gone. Your only option is to be a rubber-stamp, Applebee’s type bar to have any chance at success. I hope I’m wrong, because that’s why we love these breweries. It’s a community place. It’s some place to go meet friends and families, bring your dogs and kids. It’s not a bar to go get drunk at, it’s a place to commune. That’s my biggest question, if and when is that environment going to come back.”
While on the surface, it has appeared as though many breweries have benefited from a greater shift into packaging and distribution, Simonds said from his experience, it is not nearly as profitable as people might think.
“Obviously there’s going to be a huge shift into packaging, (but) I don’t see that’s a sustainable model for all but the biggest breweries,” he said. “Some of these smaller breweries, you just don’t have a chance at the margin. The margin on a canned beer is horrible. With my experience at Mother Trail and knowing all the pricing that goes into the aluminum itself, not to mention the machinery, and it’s New Mexico, so people balk at a $12 six-pack. I guarantee most breweries would be losing money at every can at $12. And remember, they’re not selling it at $12, they’re selling at half that to their distributor.”
Simonds said he hopes that some of the new liquor laws currently under consideration with the state legislature will benefit the industry, though he will reserve final judgment on some of the proposed changes.
“I do like the fact that there’s at least a discussion to some of these changes to the liquor laws,” he said. “But, at least we’re talking about it, and talking about it for real. That, in and of itself, is promising.”
As for his own future, Simonds said he will mainly focus on Mother Trail, with no immediate post-pandemic plans to jump back into the brewing/distilling fray from a taproom-centric perspective.
“I don’t foresee ever trying to recreate what I’d already done with Broken Trail,” he said. “One, there’s kind of an ego, or a hit to the ego, just accepting that that model didn’t work for me, for a number of reasons. But also, could this ever happen again? I’ve spent a lot of my money and my wife’s money and my family’s money, and basically lost all of it. I don’t know if I would ever do that again.
“But, could I see a situation where we’re co-packaging under the Broken Trail name, or doing some fun things, especially if what we’re doing at Mother Trail paying the bills. I could see a situation where we (re-)introduce the Broken Trail stuff. I don’t think it will look like what we did. You’re not going to buy a bottle of Holy Ghost Vodka. I plan on keeping the whiskey for myself. There’s about seven lifetimes worth.”
Simonds and the staff at Mother Trail will still have a little fun with some pieces of their past, while remaining focused on the present and preparing for the future.
“The other day we brewed a batch of Lone Pine (Pilsner), just for us,” he said. “That was a damn good beer. I like having good beer around. The other fun part is to work with other breweries and a lot of the other distilleries as well in ways because I couldn’t before when I was an industry insider. Now I’m a supplier. We’re doing a lot of cans for people, working on ways to work with and for any breweries that need help. You want to come in and do a beer and put it through our 15 heads of filling capacity, we’re here.”
A bit thanks to Matt for taking the time to give us all a little insight into the difficulty of making the decision to close his business. We wish him, his current Mother Trail staff, and his former taproom staff all the luck in the world going forward.
Now more than ever, keep supporting local!