They're tapping clever tactics to safely serve patrons, both on-site and online.
The impact of COVID-19 restrictions on foodservice goes beyond restaurants alone. Bars, breweries, and wineries that built their businesses around in-person experiences have watched revenues nosedive in recent months. Now, as regulations ease in parts of the country, operators are welcoming patrons back, albeit with some new provisions.
In Paso Robles, a Central California wine region spanning some 1,000 acres, wineries are reconceptualizing the in-person experience.
Thanks to lobbying efforts from California’s Wine Institute, the region’s 150 tasting rooms were able to reopen under stipulations different from bars. Tasting rooms had the ability to utilize available areas on their estates to meet social-distancing regulations. And although a statewide order prohibited indoor tastings in mid-July, wineries generally sit on expansive properties, which allowed them to take the operation outside. California’s temperate climate also facilitated the migration.
“I think the big thing is having this outdoor space. That has really allowed us to reopen in a manner that’s safe and successful,” says Christopher Taranto, communications director of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.
With more space available, wineries are able to serve guests in a way that somewhat resembles pre-COVID times. However, visitors in Paso Robles are required to wear masks, socially distance, and limit parties to six people among other guidelines when they visit the new outdoor tasting spaces.
Taranto says some brands are even getting crafty with wine presen-tation. “Wineries are trying to get really creative in how they’re able to present the wines in an educational format without crossing over those safe and sanitary guidelines,” he says. Some avenues they’re exploring include pre-pour glassware, plastic glassware, and even pre-poured wine.
While the open-air availability of a wine estate lends itself to a successful use of space, those relying on their brick-and-mortar establishments must rethink within existing confines.
Cocktail bar Bordel is one such example. It used the shutdown time to update furniture and sound equipment before reopening under Chicago’s COVID guidelines.
“We’re essentially just repositioning sofas and our seating arrangements in a way that keeps a decent amount of guests in the room,” says Daniel Alonso, owner of Bordel. Alonso and his team also implemented changes, like QR code–friendly menus and a reservation-based system, in hopes of limiting contact.
Due to pandemic restrictions, Bordel is admitting only about 30 guests at a time. But Alonso is determined to keep the atmosphere of the bar the same as pre-COVID. With an upgraded interior, he feels the room has never been better.
“With a smaller bar, we were able to carve out the room in a very social distancing–friendly way without losing any of the vibe,” Alonso says.
Operators still need to prepare for constant change, as the in-person experience isn’t a guarantee. Los Angeles–based taproom Boomtown Brewery reopened with a newly trained staff before having to shut its doors again only two weeks later.
“We invested in all the infrastructure there, trained people up on new protocols, and spent all the money to do that,” says John Rankin, cofounder of Boomtown Brewery. “And then [the government] shut us down again.”
Because operators can’t predict when—or how long—they can reopen, off-premises solutions provide fixes during dead time.
Boomtown Brewery used money from disaster relief loans like the Paycheck Protection Program to start canning its beers. The brewery’s pivot from event-based marketing to social media has helped Boomtown promote new beer varieties, as well as growler and crowler products, and keep customers engaged.
“The mobile canning that we have is great. It gives us a product with the margins,” Rankin says.
Many wineries in Paso Robles also focused on off-premises products during the initial shutdown. As the department of Alcoholic Beverage Control temporarily relaxed laws across California, curbside-type pick up became common, especially for smaller brands.
“During that first true wave of being sheltered in place, people still wanted to get their wine,” says the Wine Alliance’s Taranto. “That [direct-to-consumer] element for wineries became exceptionally important.”
Some wineries are even attempting to recreate in-person experience online. Wine brand Zenaida mailed miniature bottles to consumers as a pour-your-own wine flight, which became an unexpected success. A few winemakers in Paso Robles are exploring digital channels for a more personalized approach. Some hold weekly Zoom calls for patrons, while others offer bookable times to virtually chat with an associate who then guides them through wine tastings.
Taranto foresees this move to digital connection becoming more prominent because of the personal relationships wineries forge with consumers. “This medium has allowed wineries a new way to connect with their customer that will continue into the future,” he says.
Hospitality as an industry has always prided itself on personal connections, and the pandemic has further elucidated that, whether interactions be online or in-person. Trust has also come into sharp focus; businesses must rely on consumers to be good actors, and consumers need businesses to take proper precautions for a safe experience.
In Chicago, Alonso is prepared to take a monetary hit for the sake of the community. He has abided by the limited hours set by the city, and in turn ensured that Bordel remains a trustworthy, responsible enterprise, both in the eyes of its guests and its staff.
“The reality is that our relationship with people is our first duty in this business,” Alonso says. “The priority of what we do is not to create hospitality experiences, but first and foremost, create a healthy community here at work.”