Laurelwood Brewing and their staff is among the hundreds of breweries and thousands of employees in the Oregon beer industry struggling to make ends meet due to the Coronavirus. Last week – the same day as Oregon governor Kate Brown ordered the shutdown of bars and restaurants – brewer Brandon Easley worked his last shift at Laurelwood. Two days later, Easley deposited his second to last paycheck while still waiting on his last, which he was told was delayed until Monday because the brewery did not have the funds. It bounced.
“At this point I’m out of work and need to quarantine. I stock up on food and anything else I may need and I prepare to quarantine for as long as I can,” Says Easley. Unfortunately, the paycheck didnt clear and resulted in a overdraft fee that left him with negative – $854 in his account. To put a cherry on top of the entire bad situation, Easley’s final paycheck never came.
After emailing Laurelwood owner Mike DeKalb and inquiring on the status of his paycheck, he was told there was nothing they could do about it. Easley took to the internet, posting on his personal facebook page and then on Reddit, first explaining the situation while calling out Laurelwood and asking for advice. The comment threads garnered hundreds of comments and social shares that resulted in a publicly posted indirect response by Laurelwood Brewing that was later deleted.
“Brandon was among a handful of people whose checks didn’t clear the bank. You can run on about the reasons why, but the short version is that we let a few of our staff down. Period,” said Laurelwood owner Mike DeKalb to The New School.
Laurelwood Brewing is a 19 year-old Portland institution that has had moments of great success and it’s ups and downs. Laurelwood has operated locations in NW Portland, SE Portland, NE Portland, Battle Ground, Washington and the Portland airport but is now down to the flagship brewpub on Sandy Blvd. In 2019 Laurelwood sold the brand to Ninkasi Brewing/Legacy Breweries while founder Mike DeKalb and his wife kept ownership of the Portland brewpub independently.
Easley says that businesses like Laurelwood do deserve some leeway in these difficult times, but believes ownership owed him and the other employees advance notice that their checks would not clear.
“The timing of this and the lack of communication when it’s clear that they knew what was coming is both negligent and illegal,” asserts Easley. “Workers have to be protected. We have the most to lose.”
According to Laurelwood business analyst Ian De Kalb (son of owner Mike De Kalb), the brewpub’s sales were down more than 50% the weekend prior to the shutdown. People were beginning to stockpile, save money, and conserve resources while preparing for the crisis and the slowdown in the hospitality business was already underway.
“With such a short notice on the mandate of closure we were unable to stop the withdrawal of several automatic ACH transfers on the Monday they called for closure which negatively impacted our ability to focus all our income on payroll needs,” said Ian De Kalb. “We handed out paychecks in good faith that our bank would cash them. We were and are still working with them to make this happen.”
Laurelwood is now in the process of finding funds to keep the business in operation while operating to-go service for beers and food from the pub. Will more paychecks bounce? Possibly, but the brewpub says they are doing all they can to compensate staff and keep the company afloat.
According to the De Kalb’s, they will keep running to-go sales of beers and take out orders for food through this weekend before deciding if it’s worth carrying on during the shutdown. A management staff is running the service to conserve money.
“All funds we have received from take out orders and beer sales have gone straight to paying our employees and we receive daily emails from our bank updating us on paychecks that have been processed but we have no control over what the bank chooses to process or not, we are only given an update after the fact on what has gone through,” said Ian De Kalb. “Our only priority at this point is making sure we pay our employees as quickly as possible.”
Part of that process has been an application for an SBA Disaster Loan, Laurelwood is one of many breweries and businesses that have applied.
“We have a claim in with our insurance company for business loss (might take government intervention to get that) and we’re looking at other assistance as well,” notes Ian De Kalb. “The SBA Disaster Loan program is claiming a 3-day approval time and 30 day funding. Our bank seems to think we’re a perfect fit for the program.”
Laurelwood has other income coming in too, Ninkasi Brewing makes some of their beer and distributes it through Maletis Beverage. Laurelwood receives bi-monthly royalties on the product made through Ninkasi and plans to use that money to help pay off debt and keep the business going after the shutdown.
But for Brandon Easley, it’s too little and too late.
“When you’re talking about a company letting this happen, knowingly, during a crisis. Does that align with the type of values that we have here in Portland? I think we both know the answer to that,” says Easley.
Laurelwood’s story is becoming all too familiar, a legacy Oregon brewery already hit by a market downturn before the Coronavirus even hit America’s shores.
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.