Michigan breweries rebounding after pandemic challenges

By: Brendan Losinski, Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published July 28, 2021

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METRO DETROIT — As Michigan is bouncing back from the COVID-19 pandemic, its industries are finding their way back to business as usual.

Beer and brewing in particular are a significant part of Michigan’s economy. A recent report by the National Beer Wholesalers Association and the Beer Institute found that Michigan’s beer industry had an overall economic impact of $9.9 billion in 2020 and supported more than 66,000 jobs at breweries, distributors and retailers.

“Michigan’s independent, locally owned beer distributors are proud to work hand-in-glove with brewers big and small right here in Michigan, across the country and around the world to help them grow and thrive on a level playing field,” Spencer Nevins, president of the Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association, said in a press release. “This new data makes clear that Michigan is not just the Great Lakes State but also the Great Beer State, and Michigan’s beer distributors are proud to play a role in the beer industry’s continued success.”

Many local breweries had to find ways to stay in business during the long months when COVID-19 prevented people from patronizing their establishments in person, but many are reporting that, with summer in full swing, things are looking up.

“Business is good. It’s definitely improving,” said Janae Condit, the owner of the Michigan Beer Growler Co. in Beverly Hills. “I never closed down. I stayed open the whole time. I had growlers to go so people could get takeout. Not having to close kind of made sure things worked out.”

Copper Hop Brewing Company in St. Clair Shores opened just three months prior to the pandemic.

“Thankfully, we had created a decent following within that three months,” said co-founder Ryan Balicki. “When we were forced to close down, we did pivot to carry-out only through growler fills, which definitely helped to mitigate some of our savings loss.”

When outside seating was allowed, Copper Hop Brewing’s owners spoke to their neighbor, Ace Hardware, about leasing part of the alleyway between the two buildings. It ended up benefiting both businesses.

“They had wanted that alley closed anyway because their loading dock is there (and) cars use it as a cut through,” Balicki said. Copper Hop was able to create a large patio in the alley, “which saved us.”

When the microbrewery had first opened, it only had six tables outside. Expanding the outside patio allowed the business to offer nearly the same capacity outside as it had indoors.

“We were lucky that we stayed pretty busy, even when things were at 50% capacity,” he said. “We had the same capacity at 50%, with inside and out, that we used to have at 100%.”

While the weekend standing-room-only crowds haven’t quite returned to pre-pandemic levels, Balicki said that’s OK because some people still want their space.

“For us, the silver lining out of this whole thing is, we were forced to do some things we probably would not have done that have helped our business going forward,” he said. “It taught us how to pivot and adapt to the situation.”

Jason Schlaff, the owner of the Farmington Brewing Co., said the last year has been rough but local support from cities and customers have kept businesses like his afloat.

“We are approaching historical averages coming out of the pandemic,” said Schlaff. “I was recently working on our second quarter reports. We’re seeing a mixed bag because we’ve had some lousy weather lately, but more people are going out (in public) from a safety standpoint. We have an awesome (Downtown Development Authority) that has been helping us, and a lot of loyal customers who have been supporting us.”

“It’s hard to say what normal is right now,” said Condit. “As far as our numbers are going, I think we’re back to normal. I hope we never have to go through anything like this again. We had to stay focused and think outside the box. It made us become innovative to stay alive.”

Condit said that she may have actually seen some improved business during the pandemic since her takeout service for beer growlers was somewhat of a rarity and she was facing less competition.

“We actually, in some ways, compared to some of the other places that closed, people got to know us since there weren’t as many options to choose from besides us,” she said.

Both Schalff and Condit said they are planning on continuing the takeout services they offered during the pandemic since customers seemed to like the services and many are still cautious about going out in public.

Social districts are also helping the breweries reach customers who are ready to head back out, Schlaff said. Balicki agreed that the new St. Clair Shores Social District is a boon to business.

“It was a very good night, but just busy all night,” he said of the first such event in St. Clair Shores July 10. “Realistically, I think everyone can benefit from this event with the foot traffic.”

The Loaded Dice Brewery in Troy had the bad luck to open in the middle of the pandemic. Owner Jeff Smith said that, from an investment standpoint, they couldn’t delay any longer if they were to move forward with the business.

“We had the intention of opening in May, but we had to delay it because of COVID,” he said. “It hit during our build-out. Getting the contractors back in was an issue because they had to stop, too. It took a little longer than we expected, and we actually had to open because we were running out of money. Everyone thought this was going to only be a few weeks, but then it turned out to be a few months. It meant a lot of people had to change their plans.”

He said that, despite the uncertain start, the brewery is doing well for its first year. In fact, some of the biggest challenges have been adjusting to doing business under ordinary circumstances.

“(Business) is going fairly well — better than I expected,” Smith said. “We opened last December during the pandemic. We’re still in a bit of a panic mode since we’ve never had to be at full capacity before.”

Among the biggest challenges for businesses and their employees was keeping people on the payroll during long months of reduced and limited hours and service.

“We’ve been very fortunate, and I am very proud that our staff have full benefits, so we are retaining our employees very well,” Schlaff said. “They are hard workers, and they stay. We appreciate that.”

“We kept everyone on the whole time,” said Condit. “We had to reduce some hours, but we’re doing better, and even if we’re not always at capacity, we’re more or less back to normal now.”

Schlaff is cautiously optimistic. Things are looking up, but he added that if the pandemic has taught him anything, it’s not to assume anything about the future.

“I think we’re hopefully over the hump,” he remarked. “We’ve had our staff back for a while. I don’t want to make predictions because we had a bad 2019, but between the help of government agencies, the city of Farmington and our customers’ generosity, things are getting better. We have a great community that loves beer, and we love them and they love us.”

Balicki said he feels the adaptations they learned throughout the pandemic will serve the business in the future.

“If you can make it through what we just went through, you should be able to make it through anything,” Balicki said.

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