Widmer Interview on Pub Changes and Staff Layoff

Widmer Brothers Brewing surprised everyone last Sunday–including the staff–when management notified everyone that the brewpub is closing for a remodel/refresh that will axe the kitchen and restaurant service portion of the space in favor of a tasting room model. Widmer insists it’s not a closure but a remodel, though some don’t see the zero notice given to the staff and removal of the food program as a good thing. In an interest to clarify what’s going on and why, I asked Brady Walen, Brand Manager for Craft Brew Alliance (which includes Widmer, Redhook & Kona), some hard questions about the changes and layoffs.

Q: Why is Widmer closing the brewpub? I assume it’s become unprofitable? 

Brady Walen: The Widmer Brothers pub is not closing permanently. We are closed temporarily for a few days this week as we begin construction remodeling the pub (former dining room and kitchen area)  and the addition of our tasting room. The pub will reopen this Wednesday at 3pm. We’re making the change from a full-service restaurant to a pub and tasting room model for several reasons, but it’s primarily to showcase more of our small batch beers brewed on our 10-barrel pilot brewery.

Q: Why do you need to close the restaurant and remodel to showcase the pilot brewery beers? Were you not showcasing them before?

BW: We’ve operated the pub and restaurant concept here for more than 20 years with a focus on the restaurant experience. Moving forward, we’re taking a different approach with a stronger focus on beer and brewing, as our sales have shifted in the pub to more beer – especially our small batch beers. The new model will allow us to put even more emphasis on beer, brewing, the brewery and our brewers.

Widmer pilot brewhouse tanks

Q: Why open a Redhook brewpub when Widmer’s hometown brewery is not doing well? Or why do you think the Redhook Brewlab will succeed where the Gasthaus didn’t? 

BW: Redhook and Widmer Brothers are two different brands with different objectives and challenges in two different cities. Redhook Brewlab is a much larger space where we’ve been able to combine a small batch brewery, two bars, and a kitchen under one roof. The Widmer Brothers Pub location simply doesn’t have the same kind of space. The biggest similarity between the two situations, however, is that we are working to evolve our pub experiences as our brands evolve. Much like Redhook Brewlab, which focuses exclusively on small batch beers, we’re planning for an even greater emphasis on small batch beers for Widmer Brothers with more visibility into our pilot brewery, expanded small batch capabilities, and the addition of a tasting room adjacent to the brewery. We’re confident that both pubs will deliver solid brand experiences with awesome beers.

Q: I think most beer fans are happy about the innovation brewery and a focus on beer, but few could get behind laying off the staff without any notice. Why was that choice made? Couldn’t you at least give them some notice, just like employers ask employees to give them at least 2 weeks notice? 

BW: Everyone impacted had the opportunity to receive severance or pay in lieu of notice. We did this to allow employees to spend more time planning their next career move and interviewing for new positions without having to work additional hours while doing so. Some employees opted for neither and are planning to rejoin the team in one of the newly created pub and tasting room positions.

Widmer taps at the bar of the old pub setup

Q: The staff was given one-week severance pay from what I hear; is that correct?. Just half of what they would have received if they had a fair two weeks notice. 

BW: Based on our experience, it’s not a common practice for an employer to give employees two weeks’ notice in situations like this. Our full time employees received one week pay in lieu of notice and they also received severance pay. Our part time employees received one week pay in lieu of notice. We felt that paying employees notice pay for the upcoming week was our best option given the circumstances.

Q: Why did the restaurant and full-service setup have to go away for the innovation brewing tasting room to succeed? After all, many if not all of those beers were still on tap at the pub and it doesn’t need a remodel or new staff to showcase those beers. 

BW: It would be nice to do it all, but we have limited resources and limited space. We considered various restaurant + tasting room models, but ultimately decided that we wanted to reorient the entire pub experience around beer, especially our small batch beers. We decided to prioritize beer and the brewery over food and restaurant service.

Widmer innovation brewing team. left to right: Tom Bleigh, Corey Blodgett and Dan Munch

Q: How does the restaurant get in the way of showcasing your innovation/pilot brewery and what are you changing that will better showcase them? 

BW: We’re looking to create a different experience for our guests than the traditional restaurant brewpub model, which is why we’re moving to a pub and tasting room concept. We are remodeling both the main area of the pub (including our dining area, kitchen area and some changes to the bar) and the back room of the pub. Guests can expect to have more visibility into the pilot brewery, more access to the brewers, better tour experiences beginning and ending in the new tasting room, specialty tasting-room only beers, expanded barrel-aging program, and limited run packages of our small batch beers.

Q: Why didn’t the food program and kitchen work for Widmer? 

BW: It’s not a matter of the kitchen not working for Widmer Brothers. We made the decision to move away from a full-service restaurant because the pub and tasting room model is a better representation how we want beer drinkers to experience the brand. Our team is excited about the changes and we’re looking forward to brewing and pouring even more variety when this project is complete. We’re happy to welcome outside food into the pub so we can focus on the beer.

Q: Will the new tasting room be kid friendly? 

BW: We’re working on it. The hours when minors are allowed will be posted as soon as we have them.

Q: Is the beer garden going to come back? If so, will it be different from last year? 

BW: Definitely. The beer garden will be back next year. We’re planning to make the beer garden even better when we reopen. Stay tuned for more info.

Q: It’s no secret that Kona Brewing is the successful brand in the Craft Brew Alliance. Has there been any discussion to refocus on Kona brews or a Kona brewpub on the mainland? 

BW: Kona is certainly the largest brand at CBA, but all of our brands are successful in different ways. As with any of our brands, we are focused on our great lineup of beers and we’re open to brewpub opportunities in markets and locations that make sense for each brand – that may even mean another Widmer Brothers Pub in Portland sometime in the future.

Widmer Pub exterior photo from beertrotter.com

Samurai Artist
Samurai Artist

Founder of The New School and most frequent contributor Ezra Johnson-Greenough has worked in the craft beer industry for almost 10 years, doing everything from illustrating beer labels to bartending at renowned beer bars and breweries like Belmont Station, Apex, Laurelwood and Upright Brewing. He has also had a hand in creating events like the Portland Fruit Beer Festival, Portland Beer Week, and the Brewing up Cocktails series. He is available for freelance consultation in marketing, events, graphic design and branding. Contact: SamuraiArtist@NewSchoolBeer.com