There has always been a sense of fun when it comes to Quarter Celtic. Long ago, in the before (COVID) times, the brewpub would post funny videos, come up with clever beer names, and just keep everything light and cheerful.
Then came the pandemic, which got so rough that at one point, the Quarter Celtic staff even declined to do an interview for the 2020-21 Look Back/Look Ahead Series. Luckily for all fans of the brewpub, that was the low point, and now the two locations are packed, the beer is flowing again, and the staff is generally, but cautiously, looking up.
I sat down with co-owners Ror and Brady McKeown, and general manager Allison York, at the brewery last week.
“It was tough,” Ror said of 2021. “The taproom had only been open for a half-year or so. When we went down to just carryout, it was almost like we had to open that store twice. But, that one is doing great now. It has a bunch of regulars, and not the same regulars, so it’s perfect. At this one, we have the luxury of a covered, heated patio when you could only do patio service. That was the saving grace.
“We’re fortunate to have a really great core staff. There’s four people here and three people up there that pretty much just ran the stores all through COVID, because that’s the only staff we needed. We all look a lot older than just two years older.”
Hey, we all have more gray hairs than before, but as Ror said, the trio does seem to feel as though they have turned a corner.
That does not mean that staffing the two taprooms and kitchens was easy, as Allison recalled.
“I think we’re in a good place right now,” she said. “It was definitely our biggest challenge of 2021. It was just surprising for most people who assumed that, hey, now we’re open and things are trying to get back to normalcy, people for sure are going to want to come and get on their feet, get off unemployment, get off their couches, and that just wasn’t the case. That was tied in the beginning to the politics aspect, and then it was about living wages and benefits, and all of the things in the restaurant that we’ve never really had to discuss before. So we definitely pivoted in a few ways to make sure that we can provide some of those things to not only entice new job seekers, but also to keep and reward our existing workers.”
The global supply chain woes only added to the headache.
“It’s still a challenge, we’re not a chain, we’re not a huge multi-unit type of deal,” Ror said. “The past two years, labor is up at least 30 percent, cost of goods are up 30 percent, too. A lot of our beers, we try to keep them true to style, since we’re kind of a European-style brewery. Logistically, it’s interesting on the supply chain, because we get our number one seller, our Crimson Lass Irish Red, comes from the Irish Malting Company. A lot of our lager grains are from Germany, so when those get stuck on a boat or stuck on a dock somewhere, you just have to wait. We’re a little guy. It’s been interesting.”
Allison pointed out that there a lot of discerning beer drinkers among the brewpub regulars, so changing a core beer due to a lack of ingredients was never really on the table. The food was also an issue, particularly for the best-selling dish.
“That even came down to the haddock,” Ror said. “It’s a sustainably sourced fish, but I guess it was a low-run year, so everyone that has fish (on the menu), it forced more people to take the stuff we carry, so it made it hard for us. We had to work all of three of our purveyors, not just to keep the price in line, but to keep the supply coming. We sell a lot of fish.”
Quarter Celtic had to adapt in numerous ways in how it operates, and that included in cutting back on hours.
“It’s a trend that I’ve noticed, but ‘business late’ isn’t as big as it used to be,” Ror said. “For us it’s nonexistent. We decided to save money on labor and everything else. We’re going to be open when people want to come here, so we changed our hours to noon to 8 every day on the week, and noon to 9 on the weekends. That way we can run with less staff, which is nice. We really didn’t have a choice, but it seems like it’s going to stick. When I’m out and I’m not working, if you want to find something to eat you better go before 8, or you’re going to a fast-food drive-thru.
“For better or for worse, that is kind of where we’re at now, and we’re probably going to stay there for a while. You don’t want to over-extend (the staff). If something else happens, we want to make sure and we out to ourselves and our staff, and to our customers, to give it our best shot to stay open.”
As for the beer, brewmaster Brady said there were not many changes to the lineup, but his time on the brewhouse has decreased.
“(It went) kind of the way of the restaurant,” Brady said. “We definitely did less beer. We’re not producing as much. It’s kind of the same thing everywhere.”
“Pre-COVID, we had plans. Right now, we would probably have a third location open,” Ror said. “So you have to take the little wins. Brady is old and threw out his back, so we got him a keg lifter. That was the big thing for 2021.”
“It’s like the Rascal for brewers,” Allison quipped.
Quarter Celtic has long been one of the more active breweries in terms of entering national and international beer competitions. Ror said they have scaled back, though they do have entries at the Best of Craft Beer Awards, and will be entering the World Beer Cup again in May. Quarter Celtic won a bronze medal in the Mexican-style lager category in 2018.
The brewpub did participate in the recent Celtic Festival in Edgewood, and Ror said they will be at the upcoming Rio Grande Celtic Festival. He will even be competing in some of the games this year.
“We may do one or two of the city-sponsored events, it’s kind of a lottery now, but we applied for it,” Ror said. “Back to the staffing part, it’s hard to pull just a few people off the floor (to work a festival). Now you realize it’s half of your night crew.”
“A few years ago we talked about me stepping down from doing beer festivals, but then everything hit and it’s still me,” Allison added. “Which I love to do, they’re fun, but it’s not as easy.”
As things settle down in terms of the pandemic and its accompanying restrictions, Quarter Celtic will remain focused on just getting back to normal, rather than expanding or anything of that sort.
“Right now, business and just the world in general, is unpredictable,” Ror said. “We’re just going to concentrate on in 2023 you can still go visit your brewery and your taproom at Quarter Celtic. We’ll figure out the rest after that.”
Allison said it is just about getting back to that pre-pandemic mentality that beer is fun, for everyone involved.
“The one thing I’ll say about 2021 was everyone expected everything to get better right away, and it didn’t,” Allison said. “Now it’s almost more of a strain on staff morale, on customers, on everybody. We wanted it to get better and (instead) it got worse.
“I even had to shake off the cobwebs lately. I had to get a little pep talk. We’ve got to have fun again. We have to make this a welcoming place again, as far as guest service, making people feel welcome, our staff having fun together, working as a team, not just as a job you have to come to that’s not fun anymore. In fact, we are making a video today.”
Oh, yes, the video. Check out the Quarter Celtic Facebook and Instagram pages for that one. You might even catch a special guest star in there, who is quite happy to report he did not aggravate his sore lower back.
A big thanks to Ror, Brady, and Allison for the interview. It was great to spend some time with them again, have a little fun, and remember what it was like in the before times.
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