Food & DrinkFood Features

Charlotte Breweries Work to Curb Economic Effects of COVID-19

Avoid the drain

It’s a made-for-March cloudless early afternoon Friday at Salud Beer Shop, one that’s easily justifiable to start the weekend early on the side patio with a refreshing IPA or crisp pilsner. A month from now, the craft beer mainstay will be named Best Beer Bar in the country by USA Today for the second year in a row.

Normally, Salud would be packed with patrons at the bar or buying beer to go along with a pizza from the shop’s kitchen next door, or perhaps drinking upstairs at Salud Cerveceria, the brewery that opened three years ago.
Except these are not normal times, as we all know. In fact, phrases such as “the new normal,” “unprecedented event” and “times of uncertainty” have been unconsciously hammered into America’s lexicon.

The coronavirus has tremendously upended industries across the board, with breweries no exception. Gone are packed taprooms, replaced by curbside beer sales and home delivery. Employees have been furloughed, revenues are sharply down and while some Charlotte breweries were able to secure government assistance, others have been shut out, creating an uncertain future for many.

As Salud owner Jason Glunt sits by himself on that patio waiting for a car to pull up with an online order, he describes a state of “constant exhaustion,” with sales down nearly 40%.

“It’s been petrifying at times,” he adds. “We worked so hard to build three great establishments, and literally overnight I had to rewrite our whole business plan.”

Charlotte breweries hit a wall

The local craft brewery scene has exploded over the last several years, with more than 30 sites in Charlotte proper and an additional 25-plus in the surrounding area. The Queen City has become a destination for craft drinkers, as Charlotte beers have won prominent awards in the U.S. and overseas.

Predictably, it’s become popular to rail against craft beer lately — you’ll commonly see/hear some form of, “Do we really need another brewery?” among social media comments — but there’s no questioning that the local craft scene has created numerous jobs and helped the city draw in visitors.

Triple C Brewing Company is one of the first core breweries (along with NoDa, Olde Mecklenburg and Birdsong) that helped usher in the Charlotte craft beer renaissance. You can find many of the South End brewery’s beers (including the award-winning 3C IPA) in bars and grocery stores, and the adjacent Barrel Room is an event space for weddings and other gatherings.

Charlotte breweries
Triple C Brewing in South End now offers drive-thru service. (Photo courtesy of Triple C)

On the surface, things would seemingly look good for the beer business but owner Chris Harker says what many don’t realize is everything else that goes on behind the scenes to make it all run. Add in a pandemic and everything is suddenly up in the air.

“People think we’re cash rich but they forget about things like all of the inventory we have to keep on hand, taxes we continually have to pay, things like that,” he adds. “I always have thought about what would happen if we went into a recession, but could never have planned for this.”

Like other local breweries, Triple C can only now offer drive-thru service. While they are still brewing, several beers planned for the summer were scrapped, with no place to put them.

“As our tanks have gotten full, we just aren’t emptying them as fast because of the lower demand,” Harker says. “We’re fortunate to be in grocery stores where sales are way up but with less production and fewer deliveries, we still had to furlough some people.

“We’re surviving for now and just trying to make decisions with the team’s best interest at heart,” he continues. “It’s hard to say what the future holds; there doesn’t seem to be any one right answer, just a ton of wrong answers.”

The local little guy

Amidst the larger breweries, in recent years Charlotte has also seen a wave of neighborhood-centric breweries that operate on a smaller scale, such as Protagonist Clubhouse in NoDa. You won’t find their beers in stores and they are sparse among restaurant taps. The clubhouse was designed as a local hyper-focused spot that also has guest taps from other area breweries.

“Our revenue wasn’t the most robust, which I guess you could look at as a good thing,” says co-owner Mike Salzarulo. “We didn’t need to make up a lot of restaurant sales so where I was first expecting a 50-60% drop, it’s actually been just 25%. And we haven’t had to lay anyone off. Really, it’s been amazing to see the outpouring of support not just to us but Charlotte beer in general.”

Shortly after Gov. Roy Cooper ordered all restaurants and bars (which included breweries) to shut down in mid-March, a large group of local brewery owners scheduled a Zoom call, which was followed by an email chain that they still use regularly to help everyone stay in touch, sharing tips on trying to secure a loan and sending out requests for anything that may become scarce.

For instance, as Protagonist was running short on crowler cans, Town Brewing was able to provide some, and when Protagonist’s order finally came in, they helped Lower Left Brewing supplement their waning supply.

“It’s been really nice to have that communication to talk through things,” Salzarulo says. “We’re not competing against one another; we’re in it together.”

Charlotte breweries
Crowlers await their destiny at Protagonist. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Protagonist is also one of several Charlotte breweries that had expansion plans affected by the pandemic. They were set to take over the space in LoSo previously occupied by Great Wagon Road Distillery and The Broken Spoke with a targeted summer opening date … until the coronavirus came along. Now that date has been pushed back for at least several months, with a ton of unknown variables in tow.

“We still have to pay rent on that space so while we have to delay the opening, we have hopes for 2020 but it will depend on how everything looks,” Salzarulo says. “The fact is, some things we want to do in that space we won’t be able to because we won’t have the expected amount of revenue. We’ve dipped into money earmarked for that location to pay our people here now.”

No new taprooms

Resident Culture quickly became a favorite among many local craft beer drinkers after opening in fall 2017. The Plaza Midwood brewery is steadily packed, and can releases have been punctuated by people lining up early on Saturday mornings.

In early March, shortly before the world as we know it changed, Resident co-owner Phillip McLamb was in the closing stages on securing a new taproom space. Opening another location (McLamb declined to specify the space, for now) seemed to be the only logical next step following his success on Central Avenue, but as McLamb watched the news coming out of China, he quickly got on the phone with his attorneys.

“I asked them, ‘Is this something we need to be doing right now with everything going on in the news?’ and even wondered about adding a pandemic clause in the agreement,” McLamb says. “They kind of chuckled and said, ‘Well, we’ve never been asked that.’ Then everything with COVID-19 started happening quickly, not by the day but by the hour, and everything came to a screeching halt. So we’re holding off on that for now, and I really don’t know if that’s in our future plans anymore.”

Charlotte breweries
Resident Culture’s parking lot has been turned into a drive-thru beer store. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

With profits tanking and rent and bills continuing to come due, Charlotte breweries have also had to get creative and innovative. Ever since they first started making the beer, there’s been strong pleas from fans of Birdsong to can Higher Ground IPA. Those cans are now available for a limited time. Legion’s Juicy Jay IPA has become one of the most popular craft beers in Charlotte, but it hadn’t found its way into cans until three weeks ago, when Legion finally began to offer packaged beer. Other breweries are offering mixed four-packs for the first time, offering percentage discounts on orders and even selling sixtels and full kegs to the public.

Resident Culture has taken things a step further with its “pop-up” events. McLamb says when the brewery began offering home delivery on Tuesdays and Thursdays, they set the boundaries to a handful of nearby zip codes. However, they kept getting requests from townships outside of Charlotte, so it made sense to set up an all-afternoon event in a specific location for those areas rather than have employees continuously drive around neighborhoods. Resident Culture has had two successful pop-ups so far in Union County and Davidson, with more on the way.

“The reception has been great; it’s been awesome to see us being able to get our beer into the hands of those who may not be able to make it to the brewery now for whatever reason,” McLamb says. “Amanda (Phillip’s wife and brewery co-founder) did such an incredible job and worked so hard getting our online store set up and making it easy for customers and overall, I’ve been really proud of our team to be able to adapt and change so quickly with everything going on.”

Adaptation will continue to be the theme as Charlotte breweries navigate these uncharted waters. Plenty of questions remain on what everything will look like when the ban lifts.

However, there is agreement across the board that it won’t be the same as before. It’s highly unlikely people will immediately flock to restaurants or breweries, especially with no coronavirus vaccine in sight for the near future.

“It will be interesting for sure,” McLamb says. “Are we going to be re-opening at 25% occupancy and if so, what does that mean for all of us who have outdoor space? And will our employees be asked to do new jobs like counting people at the door and looking around to make sure everyone is practicing social distancing? Our drive-thru service is working well right now; do we keep that going or shut it down because we need the parking? There are so many questions to be answered and understood, it’s hard to wrap my head around.”

Adds Glunt, “We’re all in a groove now but then we’ll have to figure things out yet again. It’s cliché, but all we can do is take it day by day. Try to provide a sense of normalcy, and if that’s something we can do to make someone’s day, that’s great.”

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One Comment

  1. A detailed, in-depth article from one of #CLTbeer’s finest journalists that reveals the true impact of COVID-19 on #CLT breweries. More importantly, I’m happy to see Matt McKenzie back in the beer writing saddle, and I look forward to seeing more behind-the-scenes articles from him in the pages of QC Nerve. His voice has been missed.

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