Just Don’t Let It Rain In My Beer – Will A Cold/Wet Spring Hurt Indiana Craft Beer?

Just Don’t Let It Rain In My Beer – Will A Cold/Wet Spring Hurt Indiana Craft Beer?

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

We recently talked about the freeze that occurred on May 9th and the effects it might have on the apples, barley, wheat, hops, and grape harvests this fall – greatly affecting your locally sourced Indiana craft beverages (see post here). Unfortunately, the weather this year is having an additional importance when it comes to craft beverages in our state. Coming out of the Covid-19 shutdown, businesses are limited in their opening, both in timing and capacity. The great outdoors is going to be much more important in keeping breweries, restaurants, and winery/distillery taprooms open as we move from spring to summer.

Limited capacity indoors and/or outdoor service-only doesn’t just put businesses at the mercy of sometimes arbitrary local and state orders, it also puts them at the mercy of Mother Nature. There’s a reason that most restaurants have a dining room, and most taprooms have indoor seating – the Earth Mother is a fickle little minx, so living in Indiana means never knowing if it will be nice outdoors. Who would have considered four months ago that a bad stretch of weather could cost a craft beverage producer or restaurant their survival – but that’s where we find ourselves.

In our previous article on the freeze, Jim Pfeiffer of Turtle Run Winery gave me a great lesson on the degree to which growers are also meteorologists. This informed us on the freeze of May 9th and how that may have come about, but Jim was also able to go further, giving me an insight into longer range weather for Indiana.

The Farmers Almanac says spring here will be wet and cold – they’re right. image credit: The Farmer Almanac

Jim said, “One thing also about the weather that I have noticed over the years is we had very little frontal movement in December, January, February and March, meaning the total number of fronts coming through during a week was rather low in comparison to other seasons.  I’ve done some crazy calculations over the years and a strong truism has been this: when the number of fronts decrease in or remain below normal and are weak from early February through March, then a strong drought sets in for the summer.  In my 20 years of watching this phenomenon, I had never seen the number of fronts increase after that period.  But that’s what happened this year.”

The result of this number of fronts has been a wet and cool spring. Jim added, “The number of fronts coming through has been staggering. Before the weather could possibly warm up in the two days after a front moved through another arrived, thus keeping the temperature down. All of this makes sense to me since we had such a wide temperature variation in the Arctic compared to the sub-Arctic this year. Perhaps this crazy weather, and more than likely it has something to do with a variant on the elliptical variations we go through as the Earth rotates around the sun.”

I certainly can’t speak to elliptical variants of our planet like Jim can, but I did manage to figure out that The Farmers’ Almanac says that the next 30 days will be a bit cooler and wetter than normal. That doesn’t bode well for people who are reopening restaurants, brewpubs, and taprooms, especially those forced to serve only out of doors. Brandi Ingals, General Manager at Blind Owl Brewery in Indianapolis agreed with Jim, and told me that likely that if things were “normal”, their patio would be producing for them right now. She said, “I work off of historical data to predict sales and staffing and this time last year we were rocking our patio and ended May 2019 with record setting sales figures.  I’d be hard pressed to believe we would have done the same this year, even without COVID-19, because the weather really hasn’t been patio friendly yet.”

image credit: Bind Owl Brewery

Without a good stretch of weather in the offing, Brandi thinks that there is some merit to the idea that small places may do better with just carryout, rather than trying to make it on outdoor seating. This is especially true in Marion County, where Mayor Hogsett has decreed that restaurants and brewpubs that open this Friday (22nd) can ONLY do outdoor seating. This led me to wonder about what other things enter consideration when assessing meteorologic and economic forces on reopening.

The brewpubs I spoke to in regards to these issues had much to say. As you can guess, they have a lot to think about beyond just the weather – a cold and rainy spring is just one more thing they have to factor into their calculations. But the subject goes way beyond weather, including things like what your tables are made of, what your capacity is indoors and out, and what expanding outdoors might mean in terms of trying to man that area.

First of all, it’s common sense that the 50% capacity rule makes outdoor seating more important. Seats used outdoors free up seats indoors. Establishments have to do increased spacing indoors and out, but if you have the room, spacing outdoors is much easier than spacing indoors. Lucky are the places that have big lawns or other available space to put out more tables. That can make up for lost capacity indoors. Of course, that extra capacity only helps if the weather plays along.

Even at that, outdoor space may not be all it’s cracked up to be. The Marion County decree states that even with outdoor seating expanded, a restaurant can’t exceed 50% of their normal seating total. Steve Lowe of South Bend Brew Werks told me that, “Any reduction in seating is going to hurt, but not as much as no seating at all. I’m operating under the idea that anything is better than nothing at this point,” but he added, “We are using our patio space as basically a waiting area for when we reach capacity inside. We are only to seat about 17 people inside with 50% dining room and no bar, so we will probably fill up quick.”

Offers: $10 Towards the Purchase of a Minimum Flight of Five (5) or More Five Ounce (5oz) Samples.

image credit: South Bend Brew Werks

It gets even harder for Steve, since he and Michele uses wooden picnic tables on their small patio. They’ve had an issue with the powers that be (local and landlord) about using their picnic tables, since they say they can’t be disinfected well enough. So before they can do outdoor seating, they will have to procure some plastic tables and chairs – just one more added cost with which they shouldn’t have to deal.

Brandi expressed a similar sentiment when discussing the possibility of trying to expand outdoor seating. “So many of the big line items on our expenses are fixed…rent, insurance, utilities, technology, etc. even tightening the belt will still leave us upside down for a while no doubt. There will be no room in our budget for expenses that don’t have a full and immediate ROI.” Directly to this point, she added, “We might have room to expand outdoors, but purchasing more tables and chairs is probably not in the budget.”

Steve and Michele have used umbrellas in the past at SBBW and will continue when they open the outdoor seating, but this isn’t the only way to try and increase the revenue from outdoors in different weather conditions. Brandi said, “We installed solar sails a few years ago to help shade our patio space.  It has made a hugely positive difference for us.  Umbrellas are a real pain in high winds (they can be dangerous too), they don’t provide much shade, and often they break and have to be replaced. We have found the solar sails to be a visually appealing, cost effective, and efficient way to provide shelter. However, neither an umbrella nor a solar sail will protect you from a good ole fashioned Indiana downpour.”

And that’s going to matter in the current environment. Brandi commented, “At 100% capacity outside and 50% capacity inside (in June) that means we are at about 2/3 total seating capacity inside and out. That’s a loss of potentially 30% of sales in a business that is running an 8-10% profit margin (standard for the industry I suspect). Subtract a few more percentage points for those rainy days when we cannot seat outside and it can make a real difference.”

We need dray days in order to pack the breweries. image credit: Leeds-List

If weather can affect your outdoor seating and therefore your indoor seating, then it will most definitely affect your need for labor (servers, bussers, kitchen, and more). This is where overall capacity can have a big effect. Steve told me that they are small enough that the coordination of labor, seating capacity, and weather doesn’t make a big difference. But for a place the size of Blind Owl, it can be taxing. Brandi said, “Because we are already set up to provide outdoor service on a larger scale, I’ll actually be saving labor dollars right off the jump. But the place I will spend more on labor will likely be carryout. I typically don’t need employees on staff just to run carryout orders (it’s only about 1-3% of our sales under normal circumstances) so that’s where I am trying to adjust the most. The phones are ringing off the hook (even while we’ve been closed for more than a month!) and the orders will be larger and more complicated.”

This last comment shows that regardless of how much planning and thought a business puts into their reopening, the results are somewhat out of their hands – they’re going to need to be flexible. Steve said, “These next few days when we do reopen for dine-in will be instructive in regard to how well or poorly the plan we have in place is working. We will adjust as we go along to what makes the most sense for us.” Brandi concurred, saying, “Lots of things are still being worked out – reopening is a work in progress. You try to get as much information from what people are doing in other businesses, cities, states, but nobody has the definitive road map for this; it’s all new.”

My hope is that we, as craft beverage fans, take into account all the hurdles that restaurants and brewpubs (and eventually tasting rooms and taprooms) are being required to navigate right now. Please don’t let a sprinkle or a cool breeze keep you from sitting outdoors – take an umbrella or jacket. People using the outdoor seats will allow for more people to use the few indoor seats.

In the end, it’s evident that we as craft beer fans need to pack our favorite places this spring, both inside and out. If we don’t visit them now, they may not be there in the fall no matter what the weather. We’ll have more on the efforts of a places to survive next time, including one very special place in Greenwood.

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