La Reforma bucks the trend by thriving in an era where most breweries are merely surviving

The lunch crowd had already departed by the time we snapped this photo, but let us assure you that La Reforma is one busy brewpub these days.

Sometimes, when searching for new story ideas, all of us in the Crew will go back through the archives and simply try to find which breweries have not written about for the longest stretch of time. I did that a few weeks ago and realized that we never did a Look Back/Look Ahead Series entry for La Reforma Brewery for 2021/22, so it was time to rectify that.

Once co-owner John Gozigian returned from a well-earned, much-needed family vacation, we sat down late last week over pints of the Wai-iti SMASH Lager to discuss all things La Reforma. The first question was the now-obligatory “How did you survive the Covid restrictions?” and it came with a surprising answer.

“We actually thrived,” Gozigian said. “I don’t know if I can completely credit it to the pandemic, but we already had momentum going into the pandemic. The first two-and-a-half months of 2020, really starting January 1, 2020, our sales were really starting to increase rapidly, up to the point by the time the pandemic hit our average weekly sales were up by 50 percent. It was like the area around us finally discovered us. It took a certain amount of time with word of mouth to get the back filled up. It was like OK, we made it.”

Part of that was due to the fact that La Reforma had a good opening, but not quite like the last brewery that Gozigian and co-owner Jeff Jinnett started back in 2008.

“In my most recent business opening before this with Marble, right when we opened, boom, super busy,” Gozigian said. “Oftentimes in Albuquerque when new places open, they have a real honeymoon period where the first couple months they just get crushed. It wasn’t like that. We started off with a moderate amount of business and just built slowly. It was at that point in mid-March of 2020 our sales were really starting to surge when the pandemic hit.”

The first public health order reduced every brewery and restaurant in town to becoming takeout only, and Gozigian said it was not an easy decision to go that route instead of closing down and waiting until on-site dining could resume. But, that was what La Reforma did, and it worked out better than anyone could have expected.

“It was really nice, because since a lot of places closed, there were a limited number of places doing curbside,” Gozigian said. “We actually gained a lot of followers during the pandemic. People started coming in that had never been here before because we were open. They became regulars. Now that we’re actually open to the public again, they’re still coming in.”

The kitchen, back behind the bar there, kept right on humming throughout the pandemic.

The next public health order said breweries could have customers on site, but only on a patio outdoors. That was an issue for La Reforma, because the brewery did not have a patio of any kind. It was up to Jinnett to fix that and fast.

“We were able to open again for business last June, outside only,” Gozigian said. “We bought two tents and put them out there. I give all the credit to Jeff, he’s the one that really bird-dogged that, and got the city to approve a long-term temporary (patio). We were the first ones to have a licensed on-premises semi-permanent tent out there with alcohol. Once we had that permit created, then everyone else could do it, too.”

We could imagine quite a few other brewery owners raised a pint or two in thanks to Jinnett. Ultimately, the pandemic and its accompanying restrictions provided a lot of lessons learned to everyone at La Reforma.

“During the pandemic, which is still going on, honestly, you just had to be really flexible and adaptable, and not let it get you down,” Gozigian said. “It was definitely tough sometimes. You wonder what you’re doing it for. We always had the mindset to do as much as we possibly could. … I think our customers appreciated that. We took the furniture from inside outside, so it had the feeling of being comfortable. We did good business last summer. We did a shocking amount of business inside those tents.”

Now that things are back to full occupancy, La Reforma can take advantage of its expanded interior, which was completed a while back but barely used before the restrictions were enacted.

“We built this expansion over here,” Gozigian said. “It increased our capacity from prior to the pandemic by about 25 percent. Because we still have our tables pretty comfortably separated. We could fit more tables inside, but little by little, we’re still struggling with staffing issues like everybody else. Our staff is working really hard so we don’t want to wear them out by opening the floodgates. Fast forward to now, our sales are up about 100 percent compared to pre-pandemic. It’s been a lot of work, it’s been a lot of stress, but ultimately it’s been worth it.”

The biggest piece of (unexpected) good news came for La Reforma last October, when its year-round dark lager, Maximillian, won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival. All the credit for that goes to head brewer Robert Buskirk-Lechner, Gozigian said.

“I was really pleasantly surprised,” Gozigian said. “I never go into GABF or World Beer Cup with any sort of expectations. There are so many entires now, the odds of medaling are super slim. But, on the other hand, because that’s the case, when you do medal, especially in a competitive category, it feels really good. You know that we have a really experienced and talented brewer in Rob. We know our beer is good. It was still a validation that’s nice to get.”

Seriously, the Wai-iti SMASH Lager is worth the visit alone.

Further validation of the La Reforma beer lineup comes from other folks in the industry.

“The most gratifying thing for me is seeing other brewers coming in and drinking,” Gozigian said. “I think that kind of tells you whether or not you’re doing a good job with your beer or not. They’re going to be the most discerning customers. Obviously, our regular customers like our beer and they drink it regularly, but when you get professional brewers coming in and drinking your lagers, it definitely makes you feel good.”

La Reforma is also a distillery, making its own spirits for the long list of cocktails on the menu.

“On the spirits side, our spirits sales have really increased,” Gozigian said. “When we started it was probably and 80/20 mix between beer and spirits. Now it’s like 55/45. I think that speaks to the fact that, A) there’s a lot of people that don’t drink beer and prefer spirits and cocktails, and B) we felt it’s important to differentiate ourselves from other breweries by offering something that wasn’t beer.

“When we first opened we had a lot of people asking for cider, because when they go to breweries and don’t like beer that’s what they ask for. Now that we’ve educated the public that we have our own spirits and make our own cocktails, I haven’t had anyone ask about cider for months. Now it’s all about the cocktails and the beer.”

Gozigian said that they have purchased a larger still, upgrading from one that produces 53 gallons to one that will make 135 gallons, and are only waiting on some upgraded electrical work to get it up and running. In turn, that will cut back on distilling days from several times a week to only once or twice, Gozigian said.

“We’re starting to wholesale to other breweries, so more than ever we need increased capacity,” he added. “We’re never going to be a big player. We’ll be happy to make enough for ourselves for our cocktails and enough for some breweries that want to introduce a cocktail program.”

As for the future, there is nothing major on the horizon, but La Reforma will seek to take advantages of any and all opportunities that present this year or next.

“We were actually looking at a potential second location in Rio Rancho earlier this year,” Gozigian said. “But, we decided that dealing with the level of uncertainty, we’re going to wait a while, wait things out, and wait until we get to moment of more predictably and stability in a lot of things, like building materials, labor market, and so on. Those things are really under a lot of stress right now. We’re always looking. We’re not on a mission to open other locations for the sake of opening other locations. It really has to be the right time, the right place. Really, a lot of stars have to align for us to open another location.”

While we would love to see a patio take up those parking spaces, there’s an unfortunate Catch-22 that will probably keep that from happening anytime soon.

For now, Gozigian and Jinnett are mainly trying to figure out if there are any changes they can make to better serve their customers and support their staff. Figuring that out will be the first priority, but one thing that is not in the cards is the return of outdoor seating.

“That’s one I’d really like to do, but I don’t know if that’s in the cards,” Gozigian said. “Unfortunately, given the square footage of this whole center, and the number of parking spaces available, if we were to add a patio it would bump up the the parking requirement. Right now, according to the city, we have five more parking spaces than are required. OK, so we can take up five of those and make a patio. The problem is if you take up five of those to make a patio and it has X number of seats on it, that triggers the higher parking requirement. It kind of cancels itself out. It’s an unfortunate Catch-22 to be compliant.”

Ah, well, it just seems as if everyone will have to enjoy their beers, cocktails, and delicious food in the air-conditioned interior. Darn it, right?

A huge thanks to John for the interview and the pint. We will make sure to never again skip La Reforma for future Look Back/Look Ahead articles.

Keep supporting local!

— Stoutmeister

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