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Ohio City brewery seeks public input on how to stay in business

Bookhouse Brewing
Posted at 2:57 PM, Jan 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-23 19:10:14-05

CLEVELAND — In a lengthy note sent to patrons of Bookhouse Brewing in Ohio City, owner Vaughn Stewart detailed how he has shifted operations to best serve customers during the pandemic. However, his note also served as a call for help, seeking ideas from customers about how they would best like to utilize the business going forward.

“We’re trying to keep that connection alive with our customers,” Stewart said. “That’s what’s going to help us keep moving. I wanted to come at it from a more productive and constructive dialogue. Here's what we’re trying to do, what do you think? Does that sound good to you or do you have an idea of something else we can do?”

Over the past two years, Vaughn has worked to alter his business model to the ever-changing guidelines, including cutting capacity by 60%, offering home deliveries for beer, and spending about five times more on cleaning supplies.

“The next few months are going to be a little tricky,” Stewart said.

Here is a copy of the note:

Thank you for your continued patronage.

Bookhouse exists as a place for people to get together.

It's a limiting factor, in some ways, but also a lesson we've learned about ourselves. I was just reviewing our financials for 2021, compared to 2020, and thinking about how our strategy to continue to exist as a business has evolved. Early in the pandemic, we tried to package as much as possible. Over time, we realized that our pricing would have to continue to increase in order to actually deliver money to the bottom line, because of the way our brewery operations were designed.

The result in 2020 was a pretty sizable loss of margin. I made it a goal to not repeat that mistake in 2021, and largely succeeded, though not without a few bumps along the way.Not only that, but our bread and butter is people coming to our place and drinking our beer here. It has been difficult to turn down pursuing more packaging operations, not because of a fear of inadequate quality, but because the amount of time, effort, and lost assortment that the pivot requires.

The fact of the matter is that we are a business who exists to be a place to consume beer (and cider, wine, etc) that is brewed 50 feet away from where it is served. I think it's a perfectly understandable miscue that folks have about just how "big" certain breweries are, and how economies of scale are quite literally the way many breweries, both here in Cleveland, and around the world, continue to exist.

Like roughly 40% (by count, not by volume of beer made) of all US breweries who are about our size, we made a certain set of assumptions about who our customers are, and how we would serve them. These are not inflexible or intractable expectations, and indeed part of being a business is adapting to change. Adapting to change after change after change is how we've gotten this far, and we'll adapt again.

But before we make another hard pivot, I wanted to reach out and see how you're doing. Since this is kind of a one-way format, I'll try to do that by talking about how we're doing.

· We removed and relocated chairs and tables to the most aggressive degree of social distancing that we've ever done. Our inside capacity is now 35; the space is rated by fire code to 105. This is both to protect our staff (who we check in with at least weekly to see how everyone is feeling about working behind the bar), and to ensure more than enough space between seats.

· We're requiring masks any time folks aren't at their seats. We're still offering curbside pickup of everything we're legally able to sell, for folks who would prefer that method of getting their beer.

· We're cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, checking temperatures, and minimizing staff overlap as much as possible. I'll note one big thing here: part of why we're able to stay open with more flexibility than a lot of other places is because we usually only have one person working behind the bar. Consider it a bug masquerading as a feature; our behind-bar is too small for more than 2 people anyway, even without social distancing.

· We're doing our best to accommodate changing requirements and expectations from our various health authorities and regulators. We've passed every inspection, increased sanitation and monitoring standards, paid for every license on time, renewed certifications, maintained line cleaning schedules, increased spending on cleaning supplies 500% in 2021 v 2020, completed more repairs and scheduled maintenance, and had fewer near-misses in the brewery.

The thing is, all of this only continues to make a difference if we have people coming into the taproom. If that traffic pattern decreases to the point where it is unsustainable, we'll need to find a new way to bring beer to you. And with about 2-3 days' notice. So, yeah, that's how we're doing. I'm not coming to you with all of this as a way to worry or complain, just to be realistic about the situation in front of us.

It's a tough situation, because we're well aware of how scary the caseload is right now; my wife is a nurse who knows firsthand how foul the COVID winds are blowing in our area. The upside of course is that every expectation is that this is a temporary (though extreme) damper, and the hope is that it is short-lived.

But the time is now for figuring out how to weather that storm ahead.So let me know, from where you're at - is it time to batten down the hatches? Would you buy beer for delivery, could you place a curbside order this week? Have you reviewed us on Google,Yelp, Facebook, or anywhere else? Know anyone who needs a shirt shipped nationwide? Interested in coming in for a pint, at a substantial distance from others?

Send me an email: vaughn@bookhousebrewing.net
Vaughn Stewart, Owner of Bookhouse Brewing

This past week, craft brewers from across the state gathered in Cincinnati to help organize how the industry would continue to survive as we head into the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In September, Bad Tom Smith Brewing in Ohio City announced it closed permanently because of COVID-19.

Since the note went out, Stewart told News 5 he’s already heard a choir of responses asking for a return to some of his earlier pandemic successes.

“We had a lot of people who said we would like delivery again, we would like some of these other options,” he said.

Stewart said his business would resume deliveries and keep doing so as long as there was demand.

“Come March, April and May, we’re going to be getting a better place,” he said.