Local breweries rely on flow of loyal customers

Local breweries can only sell their product in to-go containers. (Submitted photo)

DOVER — The days of enjoying pints and beer flights at local breweries have been put on hold thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Beer enthusiasts can still get their fix however. Breweries are allowed to sell on a to-go basis, meaning six packs, crowlers and growlers are available for enjoyment.

While sales are significantly down across the state for breweries due to the current pandemic, those in charge are appreciative of the customers who keep showing up.

“Every time someone comes into the tap room I look at as they’re going out of their way to support their local brewery,” said Dustin Davis, president of Fordham and Dominion Brewing Company in Dover.

“We always appreciate it when people stop in, because at the end of the day, it’s their choice. They could go to a liquor store if they really want beer, they don’t have to come to us, but they’re choosing to support us.”

Fordham and Dominion Brewing Co. in Dover would like to get their taps flowing again to serve customers in their tap room.

Thanks to social-distancing regulations put in place by Gov. John Carney’s state of emergency order, breweries have closed their doors to sit-down patrons in attempt to halt the spread of the virus.

The classic happy hours and trivia nights have been paused until the pandemic clears. Breweries are now selling to customers who are looking to take the beer home and enjoy it while hanging out with friends online.

“You can’t come and enjoy some pints with your favorite bartender but you come pick up a six pack and enjoy it with a virtual happy hour,” said Suellen Vickers, co-owner of 3rd Wave Brewing Company in Delmar. “If that makes you feel a little better or more normal, we’re glad to be open for you to come down and enjoy that.”

It’s a double-edge sword for brewery owners in that regard. It’s nice patrons are still coming to support, but it’s tough not being able to stay and chat to build up the relationships with their client base that they cherish.

“When customers come in we try to give them the warmth we’ve always given them,” said Eric Williams, president of Mispillion River Brewing Company in Milford. “Places like ours and the 24 other breweries in the state, we’re an oasis among stress. It’s not alcohol that clears the minds of people, it’s the community. It’s difficult not being able to sit down and talk with people like we usually do.”

Breweries are following all guidelines from the Center for Disease Control.

Any employee who deals with customers must wear a mask and gloves.

Social media has become key to keep the public informed of what is available. Online ordering is available at some places while others are taking orders over the phone. Breweries have encouraged their customers to check their website and social media accounts to see what is on hand before ordering.

Everything in the building is sanitized each day, even the pens. Strict cleaning regulations are nothing new for brewers says Mr. Williams.

“We’re constantly evolving our safety measures for our customers and employees,” Mr. Williams said. “We’re social-distancing, making sure there’s no hand-to-hand contact. One thing I can tell you is brewers are clean and we work very hard to be clean on a regular basis. Ninety-percent of a brewer’s job is being clean because you want your beer to be clean then the other 10 percent is the brewing part. The cleaning regulations were easy for us.”

While life in the COVID-19 age is never truly easy, breweries have been able to learn and adjust to develop a routine since the start of social distancing nearly two months ago.

“It was a nail-bitter,” Mr. Davis said. “We were all hoping they would let us be open. Kent County Tourism and the Brewers Association have each been great with anytime there’s an update, they’re really quick with letting us know.”

“Alcohol has survived many phases of our history,” Ms. Vickers said. “We all had personal fears and a lot of it is you’re venturing into uncharted waters. It’s the fear of the unknown. But right now we still have an ability to maintain a sense of life. People have become very inventive to decrease interactions and still be able to see products.”

The main priority at first was researching what government assistance was available.

“A couple months ago seems like yesterday when I had no idea what the future looked like,” Mr. Williams said. “That first week we shifted our attention to figuring out all the programs that the federal government was doing and doing research with the state, trying to be a positive force to get through all this. That first week was definitely a tough week. It got a little better after that, once we got to see how the government funding works, but we still can’t survive like this.”

“It’s a guessing game so you got to budget accordingly,” Mr. Davis said. “We’re running a skeleton staff, making sure we’re managing expenses and hoping government loans come through. They’re probably used to 100 of those a year but got like 100,000 this month so I understand it might take a while. It’s just tough and frustrating to not know. It’s nobody’s fault, you don’t want to rush. But how long can you stay closed? You just try to stay optimistic and realistic at the same time.”

It’s not just beer available too as food can also be picked up at several breweries.

Fordham and Dominion is partnering with a local food truck, The Wandering Chef, on weekends for food to-go.

Breweries around the state like Blue Earl Brewing in Smyrna and Brick Works Brewing and Eats with locations in Smyrna and Millsboro are offering curbside pickup for beer and food. The same thing is happening at the Delaware beaches with The Crooked Hammock in Lewes selling food and beer with contact-less pickup available. Dewey Beer Company in Dewey Beach has meal kits for sale on its website while Big Oyster Brewery in Lewes is doing takeout, curbside pickup and delivery.

As the weather heats up, breweries, especially those at the beaches, would normally expect to see a bump in sales over the next few months. But the uncertainty of when they will be allowed to fully open back up is weighing on them, making it all the more important to lean on their loyal customers for now.

“I don’t think I can ever remember a time where it’s so important to be thankful for people who buy your local product,” Ms. Vickers said. “We’re not a chain. This is a time in this country where it’s important to support your local products and small businesses who are trying to hold on.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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