Local support key for surviving coronavirus pandemic pinch, say London, Ont., brewers

A recent survey from the Canadian Craft Brewers Association (CCBA) found nearly half of respondents had year-over-year revenue losses of over 50 per cent in March amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

David Reed of Forked River Brewing Co. in London, Ont., says his own experience is in line with those results.

As a result of the pandemic, Forked River has lost all licensee sales at bars and restaurants as well as sales at events and food pop-ups. The company is currently operating with less than half of its staff of nine — though it plans to bring some staff back soon thanks to the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy — and has had to hold back on plans to expand food offerings at its taproom.

“Bars and restaurants are a large portion of our sales, and at this point, we know some will survive, but sadly, some will not,” Reed said.

“Our big goal for 2020 was to drive people to come to the brewery, and this pandemic had stalled those efforts. That being said, we have worked to bring the beer to our valued customers through home delivery and other means.”

Reed says Forked River was in the “fortunate position” to have their product available through the LCBO, grocery stores and The Beer Store and to also have an existing online store before the pandemic.

“We were ready to start online sales immediately. The economics have forced a rather abrupt pivot to direct online sales and delivery fulfilment for local customers and reinforced the need for our delivery logistics outside of our local area,” Reed said.

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Local business is key for Reed, who has seen “a great outpouring of support locally by customers buying our locally made beer to help local jobs.”

“I hope this only builds further once things open up and support our local small businesses,” he added.

“We all need to eat, breathe, live and spend our time and money locally. Buy food from a local source, buy goods made by a local source and drink beer and/or beverages made locally. Put your valuable money back into the pockets of your neighbour small business and not some foreign corporations. That’s how we expedite the recovery.”

Val Cull with Powerhouse Brewing Co. in London also noticed a strengthened community spirit.

“A lot of our loyal customers have been great. They continue to come in and purchase their favourite beers to take home. We’ve also noticed an influx of new customers, which is great for us. They’re a generation that’s not typically used to craft beer and are opening their horizons in beverages,” she said.

“In Old East Village, we do have a bit of a community now where everyone’s supporting local. They are throughout the city.”

Still, the pandemic has forced the business to pivot from focusing on drawing customers in and instead offering take-home sales, curbside pickups and even home deliveries.

“We’ve learned a lot going through this, as have many businesses. We’ve changed our model in regards to food that we offer. We used to offer pizzas and sandwiches. Now, in these times, people want comfort food so we’ve moved to a more barbecue-based takeout to go along with the beer.”

While there is no good time for a pandemic to hit, the Ontario Craft Brewers (OCB) association says the timing couldn’t have been worse for craft breweries.

“The January to March quarter would be their slowest quarter of the year, and at the same time, they’re investing a lot of their resources into staff and preparing beer for the busiest season, summer,” said OCB president Scott Simmons.

“This hit at a really bad time for them. Sales are down dramatically.”

Simmons referenced the CCBA survey, which found that 61 per cent of respondents have cash reserves of three months or less.

“The vast majority that were surveyed from coast to coast indicated that they only had enough cash to probably survive a couple months, to the end of June. Of course, there’s exceptions to that. There’s some that think they’re OK for the end of the year and there’s others that may be considering closing shop permanently as we speak.”

According to Simmons, there are roughly 300 craft breweries in “pretty much every corner” of Ontario, and he, too, believes a focus on local business is the key to recovery.

“This isn’t just about craft beer, but I think one of the things we’ll see coming out of the pandemic is Ontarians wanting to stay closer to home when they travel and supporting local,” he said.

“The best way for us to all get out of this crisis is to support Canadian-made products and businesses and in Ontario support Ontario businesses, and I know our craft breweries will be very appreciative of that.”

The CCBA survey was conducted between April 15 and April 21. Of roughly 1,100 craft breweries and brewpubs in Canada, 317 responded, and responses came in from all 10 provinces and three territories. The CCBA says survey results have “a confidence level of 95 per cent with a five per cent margin of error.”

— With files from Global News Radio 980 CFPL’s Matthew Trevithick

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