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Nearly a year into pandemic, local beverage companies crafting niche in challenging climate

Nearly a year into pandemic, local beverage companies crafting niche in challenging climate

With the turn of the calendar from 2020 to 2021, some local craft beverage establishments are hoping to put the pains of the past year behind amid continued rising cases, a labored vaccine rollout and finding what has become a new normal during the pandemic.

“Looking in the rearview, it was indeed full of challenges, but the Virginia Distillery Co. team made the most of it,” Marlene Steiner, brand director for the Lovingston company, said in an emailed statement. “We have had to adapt to the current environment and have definitely learned a lot that we’ll continue to put to use.”

In mid-March, the Virginia Distillery Co. closed the doors of its visitors center because of the pandemic. Although the distillery briefly welcomed guests in June, it again halted visitor center operations in July and has yet to reopen.

“We continue to be focused on developing the business where we can but will be excited to host visitors again in 2021,” Steiner said.

Devils Backbone’s COO Hayes Humphreys said it was “symbolically significant” to switch over to 2021, but he noted business won’t pick up until after the winter months when the brewery can better use its outdoor space.

Overall, though, Humphreys said the brewery is optimistic for the new year compared to the low bar of 2020.

“2020 was tough. Every day that vaccines are administered, every day that people do the right thing … we are moving in the direction of a better local economy and I think we’re going to keep going in that direction. It’s just a question of speed,” Humphreys said.

Amid the occasional closure as a result of COVID-19 concerns, it became more expensive for Devils Backbone to operate, requiring more staff and additional supplies. Servers also were generally receiving less money in tips and wages had to be adjusted as a result.

For Taylor Smack, co-owner of Afton’s Blue Mountain Brewery, continued rising cases in Nelson and a delayed vaccine rollout has translated to a more pessimistic outlook for the new year.

“Unfortunately, I wouldn’t say we’ve moved past the pandemic at all, and I imagine it will be the major concern in our lives and our businesses for more than half of 2021,” Smack said in an email. “The vaccines are promising, but with a slow rollout, reluctant citizens and new variants of coronavirus, I’d say the bulk of 2021 is going to be like 2020. We’re ready for it.

“We have adjusted by relentlessly following the protocols: all staff in masks all the time, hourly sanitizing, enforcing distancing and reminding guests they have to mask up. We just show we are doing the best we can to stay in business while not being part of the spread of the virus.”

For many restaurants in Amherst and Nelson counties, outdoor space has become a lifeline to keep steady business throughout the pandemic, offering patrons a safer way to dine in rather than relying solely on to-go orders.

Humphreys said Devils Backbone, located in Roseland, has had to get creative with its outdoor space during the winter months, including installing outdoor fireplaces, cabanas and heaters.

“Guests have been flexible and understanding of changes that needed to be made,” Humphreys said. “We were blessed to have so much space but we had to completely reinvent the way we ran our operation. That creativity and adaptability has been the name of the game since March.”

Despite a recent expansion at the Blue Mountain Barrel House in Arrington that has allowed for ample outdoor seating during the pandemic and has compensated somewhat for the loss of indoor seating, the Barrel House has lost more than half of its orders for distribution of bottled, canned and kegged beer, Smack said.

Blue Mountain’s South Street Brewery, located in Charlottesville, has been hit the hardest, Smack said, reporting losses of about 96% in one quarter of the past year and having to cut a majority of staff.

Steiner said the distillery was able to shift to online selling platforms as in-person sales dropped off, even amid the launch of a new product line.

“With COVID-19 impacts, we had to quickly pivot to other launch strategies,” Steiner said. “Like every other business, none of us had lived through managing operations during a pandemic, so it just meant we had to be very thoughtful about our approach to adapting some of our strategies.”

Humphreys called it “survival creativity” that allowed the brewery to come up with unique solutions that before COVID-19 seemed improbable.

“Everything that I have seen suggests that COVID has not really created a whole lot of new trends. It’s accelerated things that were already happening,” Humphreys said.

For example, he noted the quick rise in the use of technologies, like online menus and the use of QR codes, to continue steady operations.

Humphreys called the constant changes from the pandemic “exhausting.”

“Everything was so challenging but I think it was just adjusting to the mentality of constant evolution. We’ve been in business for over a decade out there we have a pretty good sense of how things work, how to operate, what different times of year look like and COVID just erased all that,” he said.

Despite the changes, Humphreys said Devils Backbone has no intention of returning to the way things used to be done before the pandemic. Both he and Smack said some changes will be here to stay.

“We have made some innovations that will definitely stick around,” Smack said, referencing curbside service and additional construction.

Derin Foor, owner of Loose Shoe Brewery in Amherst, said 2020 was disruptive on many levels but made him think outside the box and be creative with the business’s approach.

“We’ve never had to plan for, or around, something like a pandemic,” Foor said. “Like all breweries, we saw a sharp decline in customer traffic, especially in the early months of the pandemic.”

Loose Shoe had to make some quick decisions since some supplies faced a national shortage, he said. “You hate to sit on a lot of inventory but running out isn’t an option.”

Foor said he knows many people are looking forward to a more “business as usual” way of life but he thinks the overall recovery will be slow.

“I’m not sure what the right answer is to solving this mess, but I’m certain it’s not a ‘shut down the economy and deal with the fallout later’ scenario,” he said.

Loose Shoe Brewery currently has more selections of beer to go than it has had before, Foor said, and that will remain in place. The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act relief money received also has been a help, he said.

“We owe a huge thank you to the local business leaders that work tirelessly to make sure that our local economy is positioned to rebound when the smoke [of COVID] clears,” Foor said.

Foor added the local community was phenomenal in supporting the business in much of the past year during such hard times.

“The ‘buy local’ idea is essential to every small business,” he said. “It’s what motivates us to keep doing what we do and plan for a brighter tomorrow.”

Reporter Justin Faulconer contributed.

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