The last couple of months sure have been different. The old adage that you throw the business plan out the day you open can easily be replaced for some of us by throwing the long term plan out the window when a pandemic comes along. Needless to say there has been a lot of time for reflection as well as good old fashioned jam sessions talking about all manner of crazy ideas.
Yesterday I saw the wonderfully written piece by Carl Soderberg from Able Ebeneezer Brewing Company, and beyond how nice and positive the message within it was, we could also relate. Grind on Able!
I will similarly cut to the chase. We aren’t opening our patio on the 18th as NH guidelines would permit. We will be sticking with our Take Out model which has been successful. It has allowed us to keep the business open, running at partial capacity, and given us the time and flexibility to be able to muse over the big question, what next?
Read on and you’ll get it. Oh, and we were open for Take Out on Star Wars Day, May 4th. I was the Jedi bartender.
In early March we had a swirl of things going on at Ancient Fire. Second Birthday party, prepping for the Made in NH Expo, and I was getting ready to head to Colorado to present at my first Brew Your Own Magazine NanoCon.
By then I had heard of coronavirus, but now I was seeing more and more news reports about this new illness COVID-19, caused by the virus, that it was quickly spreading, killing people and already upending life elsewhere in the world and Western US. I knew something was wrong, and I knew we were going to be in it soon. By the time we opened on March 11th for the first of our birthday party events, we were already doing extra sanitizing and the topic of coronavirus really did consume a lot of the conversation. On Friday March 13th I predicted we would be forced into Take Out mode early the next week and introduced a Take Out menu and ordering process. By the end of the weekend we had worked out kinks with several orders and had already received feedback from customers that they appreciated the option.
We had fun over the birthday party weekend. We really did. We accomplished so much of what we had planned in 2 years, and the love and support from our community was easily felt. When Margot and I locked the door on March 15th to head home I remarked that we should remember this moment because everything was going to be different. I was trying to celebrate the two years that we had just eclipsed in the way they should have been, but my mind was elsewhere. This makes the four years of business planning and operations that led to here seem like a past job already. So weird.
The Made in NH Expo was cancelled, and so was the conference late in the month. Things changed that fast. I’ve subsequently been part of two additional conference cancellations and two more wine judging events that have either been cancelled or postponed.
At least my schedule was clear! On the 16th we opened for Take Out, a rare Monday, but honestly we weren’t sure exactly what would happen in NH, and we wanted to book some sales to at least go down fighting. Over the next two weeks we stabilized our process and hours, and continued to see strong engagement with our community. We didn’t know what to expect, so anything would have been welcome, but what we did experience still feels really special.
Sadly our staff found themselves with no work to do (bar & dining room closed) and an uncertain future. We furloughed everyone that week, but thankfully Ancient Fire is a second job for all of them, so this did not immediately impact them. Margot has been working her full time job as well, balancing time between both as best as possible. As of last week the staff have begun returning to help with Take Out orders and cleaning. It has been a pleasure to have them back, and be able to talk with them from 8 or 10 feet away. We have a fun wheel of social distancing that we practice as we work around the different stations at the meadery.
Because of the Made in NH Expo being cancelled we found ourselves sitting on a sizable inventory of bottled product, more than we would typically have on hand in the winter season. What a stroke of luck. And it immediately started to move. We had a small amount of direct shipping business prior to all of this, but once everyone was stuck at home getting a shipment of mead from us definitely seemed like a realistic option for those outside our pick up area. We are still working from that inventory, but new bottling plans are already on the schedule.
Making a difference in our local community has always been part of who we are, and from the very first week of Take Out we decided to share a portion of our weekly sales with local non-profits who would be struggling to react to COVID related issues in their missions. Since we began we have donated $2000 to several non-profits including: The NH Food Bank, American Cancer Society, local mask makers, American Red Cross, FrontLinesNH, FIRST and the NH Hospitality Employees Relief Fund. We have also made a new batch of Making A Difference, our wildflower draft mead that generates non-profit donations with every sale. This mead will be back on June 7th.
As the V1 ordering process stressed from increasing demand we pivoted again and moved to a new web site with integrated payment and a lot more options to include in orders. Two days. That is all it took. I am a retired software engineer, but clearly not completely retired.
In the weeks since we’ve introduced new meads, new honey wines, new snacks, a new Social Distancing T-Shirt and local honey to the store. We lost track of the number of Take Out orders after about 500. As we continue to fit this process and offerings to our audience, it has gotten smoother, and we’ve been able to stay on top of all the other changes.
We are cleaning a lot more now. Growlers are a significant portion of our business, and for the last 8 weeks we have been swapping them for clean glass, and cleaning the dirty growlers in between our open and closed days. It is definitely a crappy job. This is also a great example of a change in costs. We didn’t spend as much time doing this work in the past. Between this type of work, extra cleaning and the cost of cleaning supplies, we definitely are spending money differently today. Food is more expensive to buy, and our supply chain for a lot of ingredients is either still disrupted or has seen cost increases as well. But don’t worry, we’ve got a healthy list of products we can make that won’t break the bank as we try to keep things rolling!
Getting all of this in place, and especially bringing the staff back, has allowed us to plan some short and medium term goals. We hope this will allow us to continue to successfully work through the COVID crisis, but also let us flex into other areas that at a minimum are good marketing, but could also have bigger long term potential.
The cancelled conferences are a hint at other aspects to my work as a meadmaker and are really one of the big reasons why I am where I am. I have been a writer and educator on homebrewing topics since 2010, something I very much enjoy. Getting to share experiences with other people who are passionate about beverage making has got to be one of the coolest jobs out there.
Earlier in the year I turned down a couple articles due to time constraints, but with a newly cleared schedule I revisited the jobs and found some were still open and have subsequently gotten to work. I have more pitches to make. I have conference content that I expect I will finish and use as part of virtual workshops and videos that I am planning to create. We’ve got more ideas like this in the queue, and taking this time to develop them to help engage our community seems like the right choice.
We’ve begun talking about our business model and what the next version might look like. We’ve not made any decisions, but are grateful that we continue to be able to pay all of our bills and can use this foundation to cautiously look ahead.
Honestly, I am consumed by all of this. Margot reaches her limit with me early in most days. I often get up early to read news, share my strong opinions on Facebook, and then set about my day trying to use what I’ve learned to navigate changing State guidelines, consumer sentiment and operational issues all with an eye to “what next?”
I wrote this piece after genuinely realizing that people would be curious. What has this been like for the local craft owners? How are different businesses reacting and making changes based on their unique skills and opportunities? I hope this has been interesting enough to have spent the time.