By: Donald Snyder, President/Consultant, Time & Tasks
For the first time as an author, I hope this article does not age well. With a bit of luck, you are reading this article in a post pandemic world where these concerns are a thing of the past. That said, as I write this, the world is slowly recovering from a pandemic that had a devastating impact on the hospitality industry including craft distilleries large and small. As you begin to welcome visitors and bring back staff, here are some important and helpful tips when planning your reopening.
Advice from Distillers who have Re-opened
Throughout the pandemic, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) published fluid and ever-updating recommendations for operating a business to keep both employees and patrons safe. Suggestions like contactless payment, outdoor and reduced seating, staff and customer mask use, and social distancing were mandated to help reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread to keep businesses open, if only at a lower capacity. (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus)
However, the ultimate decision of whether a tasting room could re-open to the public was in the hands of local regulators. Every state had a different set of requirements for operating a business during the pandemic. Some states, like Florida, reopened and removed capacity limits very early in the pandemic as compared to New York City where most hospitality restrictions were not rescinded until the summer of 2021. Soon after the nation-wide lock down in the spring of 2020, some distilleries were able to re-open under various restrictions.
Cardinal Spirits Distillery in Bloomington, IN was able to open in 2020 under pretty tight restrictions. The distillery opened for carryout bottle, food, and cocktail mixes only. Additionally, they re-configured their front entry area into a curbside drive-by for order pickup. The state of Indiana did not permit cocktails-to-go so Cardinal Spirits developed hand labeled bottles of mixer kits that people could use to make cocktails at home. Using social media and on-line platforms, they maintained and increased customer engagement with distillery tours, cocktail classes, and even virtual tastings. They hope to fully re-open in Spring 2022 although they have recently re-opened their restaurant for in-distillery dining. Jeff Wuslich, co-founder and President of Cardinal Spirits, recalls his concerns with reopening. “We are most worried for our staff. We do not believe they should have to enforce mandates and safe behavior, but we know it will likely happen. It keeps me up at night. I believe that with our air circulation, safety protocols, and distancing we will all be safe, but I hate to think about our staff having to argue with customers.” Jeff offers this additional advice for distilleries thinking about their own re-opening. “Think of the customer and what experience you would like them to have. Then, work backward from there.”
Smooth Ambler Distillery in Maxwelton, WV was also impacted by COVID-19. At the beginning of pandemic, the entire distillery closed public-facing operations, including their gift shop and tours for about a month. During that time, they re-allocated their labor and resources into making hand sanitizer to be donated to front line workers across the country. Once they had a better understanding of the virus, they slowly reopened their production facility with a new set of rules that included social distancing, segregated teams, masks wearing, and frequent sanitization. Smooth Ambler’s continued priority is the safety of their employees and guests.
They were cautious about reopening the tasting room. Many of their customers were from out of state so they initially re-opened to the public with curbside pickups only. A few months later, they opened with limited capacity and slowly increased indoor occupancy as the guidance from the state permitted. Masks, temperature checks, and hand sanitization were available for all guests. So far, the re-opening has been successful for Smooth Ambler as more and more people are beginning to travel again. Travis Hammond, Operations Manager of
Smooth Ambler, cautions distillers not to be too hasty or rigid during their public reopening. “The past year has been very difficult on everyone – the best advice I can give to other distilleries that are about to reopen is to be patient and flexible.”
Reopening slowly and cautiously with the appropriate safety protocols in place has given many distilleries across the country a beacon of hope that things can return to a sense of normalcy. However, even with the best precautions, there still can be issues. Asymptomatic employees and customers that spread the virus can be a serious risk to all parties involved. For those in the beverage industry, contracting COVID-19 can be especially dangerous as a possible long-term loss of taste and smell could impact a distiller’s ability to make and blend high quality spirits. In addition to transmission risks from reopening, there are also risks from patrons fighting required safety protocols.
Golden Moon Distillery in Golden, Colorado experienced that firsthand when a customer refused to wear a mask and retaliated by shoving an employee. Physical altercations with employees about safety policies or verbally abusive customers are real risks that distillers need to consider when planning for a full or limited re-opening. Stephen Gould, Proprietor and Master Distiller of Golden Moon Distillery has made employee training a pivotal part of his re-opening plan. “We’ve coached our team members to be extremely polite and courteous when asking folks to wear masks. Our main concern is the safety of our staff and customers. Having said that, the one piece of advice I can give folks that are reopening is that they need to work hard to make both their staff and their customers feel safe.”
Another consideration for reopening is how to deal with heavy foot traffic as people continue to feel more comfortable traveling. Large tourist areas like central Tennessee have many craft distilleries that offer tours, tastings, and spirits for every palate. Pigeon Forge, TN is in the gateway to Smoky Mountain National Park that sees over 10 million visitors per year. In the spring of 2020, when everything shut down, the owners of King’s Family Distillery in Pigeon Forge were understandably nervous. Like many distilleries, by taking advantage of small business loan programs and pivoting production to hand sanitizer for local consumption, they were able to stay afloat. Cara King, Owner of King’s Family Distillery, is starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. “When our state began lifting restrictions in 2020, the people flooded back in.
More than before, even. We took precautions, put up plexiglass, and welcomed the tourists, masks, and all. Our distillery has reached the other side of this epic world event bigger than we were before.”
Capital Investments and Infrastructure
Safety protocols, standard operating procedures and thorough employee training are critical to a successful re-opening. However, some additional capital investment may be required. Dalkita, an engineering and architecture firm that assists distilleries with design, safety, and construction, was instrumental in helping businesses re-open.
Colleen Moore, Director of Marketing & Operations for Dalkita, kept up to date with all the CDC recommendations, re-opening phases, and safety recommendations. Dalkita kept the distilling industry updated with recommended and required re-opening procedures via regular webinars and blog updates (https://www.dalkita.com/news/).
The group quickly became aware that each state and jurisdiction had varying requirements for re-opening protocols, social distancing rules, seating capacity limits, and mask requirements.
In terms of physical and capital improvements to the distillery’s public spaces, Colleen Moore from Dalkita has been advising distilleries what they should consider. “With COVID-19 in mind and trying to reduce the likelihood of a lockdown situation due to a highly communicable airborne disease from recurring, I would suggest upgrading ventilation inside buildings. Any feature that would increase the amount of outdoor air you can bring into a building such as window walls, roll-up glass garage doors, and new increased air handling units with better filtration media and filters.
If cold, rainy, or snowy weather put a stop to your outdoor activities, consider adding flexible open courtyards or structures with roofs and no walls for use during inclement weather. Anything that can increase the health of the people using a facility is a good investment.”
As I write the article, I fully acknowledge that regulations are still changing. I began writing this article in March of 2021 before the mass availability of COVID-19 vaccines while most distilleries were under 30-50% occupation and seating capacity. It is now July 2021. Some states are open 100% with no restrictions but the Delta variant is growing. The article will be published the Fall of 2021 and who knows how much the world will change by then.
For distilleries reopening or increasing capacity in 2021 or early 2022, connect with local authorities for the latest restrictions. Make every effort to keep employees and guests safe. Then again, by the time you read this, hopefully the pandemic and social distancing will be just a distant memory as we all return to normal.