“I wake up kind of angry every day, but we gotta get over that and look forward to a brighter future,” says Dan Hart, co-owner of Prost, Mississippi Marketplace, Stammtisch, Bantam Tavern and Interurban.
Recently, the owners of pFriem Family Brewers, Boneyard Beer, Beergarden, PublicHouse, Prost and Stammtisch (among others) joined us for a virtual discussion on the reopening of bars and taprooms in Oregon. Most Oregon counties are now approved for phase 1 of a gradual reopening, that includes Hood River where pFriem Family Brewers is, Bend where Boneyard Beer is, and Eugene where Beergarden is located. Even as some members of our industry reopening discussion have resumed operations, things are far from going back to normal and there will be a steep learning curve for not only bar and restaurant owners, but customers as well.
Watch the New School Beer Fireside Chats episode for our full discussion or you can read an abbreviated version with some of our takeaways below.
Ironically Dan Hart has been doing more bartending than he has done in years. Though his beer bars and public houses Prost, Stammtisch, Interurban and Bantam Tavern are all closed for on-premises consumption, they all came back online for take out. The most difficult part was bringing back some of his staff, and that’s put Hart and his management team back behind the bar where they got started. Hart is often manning the bar these days, when he’s not talking to the press, researching how other areas are reopening, and juggling multiple scenarios for how service could resume, he’s taking orders and filling mason jars of German beers usually only found on draft by the liter at one of his pubs.
Early on in the pandemic, Hart and his team understood it was a time to look after customers and staff and try their best not to lose too much money. Their kitchens gave away the food pantry stock to staff but then had to restock it all weeks later to gear up for take out. Their more spacious locations like Prost! and it’s surrounding outdoor Mississippi Marketplace have some room to maneuver, but his newest spot Bantam Tavern is primarily bar seating with 4 booths.
“We’ve been planning or weeks if not months,” says Hart. Predicting the regulations to distancing, sanitation, occupation and keeping their minds open and plans fluid. Being ready to maneuver in any direction and figuring out how new rules would apply to them. “We are there to throw a party, the party is going to be a little bit different at this point, but people are itching for that community.”
“We are not waiting to blast the doors open and go cowboy on this and let everything fly, it’s got to be done in a conscientious way” says Hart, who is itching, but also careful to reopen as soon as June 12th in Portland. “It’s gonna be odd, it’s gonna be a little bit rigid, it’s not going to have that fluidity.”
Colby Phillips is known for his successful beer bars in Eugene like Tap & Growler and Beergarden, in 2018 he opened one of the most beautiful taprooms in the U.S. with PublicHouse. The shutdown of Beergarden and PublicHouse meant not only those staffs had to be laid off, but also the 10 different food vendors that partner with them to operate 5 at each location. The pressure to keep the businesses afloat was even greater with not only Phillips and his staff to worry about, but even more associated small businesses. PublicHouse’s nearly 11K square feet is more costly to maintain, heat and cool and has to be open for the small businesss that operate out of it. While Beergarden’s food trucks could feasibly be open even if the taproom is not. Beergarden and PublicHouse quickly pivoted to to-go and delivery options for beer and their food partners and have both now reopened for on site consumption, but Tap & Growler remains closed.
“Delivering beer to someone’s porch, you get a pretty good response out of it!” says Phillips, who says it hasn’t all been bad. On the bright side, Phillips and his partner John Barry launched an app called ‘Porter‘ in 2019 that is perfectly suited to socially aware service industry pursuits of the times we find ourselves in now.
Porter was designed as a consumer option for table and bar service to place orders and pay by phone. Now, the Porter app seems like a perfect solution for limiting interaction and promoting social distancing.
“It’s kind of perfectly suited for this pandemic,” says Phillips. “You can open and close tabs from the table, incorporates the food vendors and their menus, beer menus, cocktail menu, all on one tab and delivered to their tables.”
Phillips Porter systems allow customers to open and close tabs, incorporates the food vendors and their menus, taplists, cocktail menu, all on one tab and delivered to their tables.
Phillips has now reopened both PublicHouse and Beergarden for dine-in service. The main caveat of being able to enjoy a pint and a bite at one of his establishments? There is no servers or counter service, all orders are now placed via the Porter app which all parties must now have to get served.
“It’s a big switch, it’s a completely different environment, it’s a party but it’s a different kind of party now,” says Phillips, adding the only way they were able to reopen so quickly was because of his Porter App.
“Our experience in the hospitality industry is pretty new overall, especially for myself, and in general Boneyard,” says Tony Lawrence, founder of Boneyard Beer in Bend, OR.
Boneyard has quietly celebrated their 10th anniversary this year during the pandemic, but they only opened their pub just shy of 2 years ago. The first year in the hospitality business was a challenge, but the first parts of 2020 were looking good. “Were really starting to kind of high five each other because we were going to get in the green somewhere and then this thing hit,” says Lawrence.
Boneyard has pivoted to delivery and takeaway like others. “We had a lot of fun doing it” with the management team delivering beer. “We may or may not break even, we pretty much didn’t break even before anyhow,” says Lawrence.
When Bend restaurants received the go ahead to reopen, Boneyard’s management team took another week to asses the reopening plan. Boneyard pub has a lot of elbow space and three different points of access from outside the building which has made it easier for them to reopen with outside seating only. Food and drink orders can be placed from the south patio and runners deliver the beer and food to tables. A monitor/controller helps to direct patrons and facilitate the flow and new policies. Boneyard’s pub was already forward thinking as it had established an online phone ordering system when they first opened. That mobile option for placing food and drink orders accounted for only about 10% of their orders before the pandemic.
“When things started to close up we lost a good portion of our business, we had to make some major decisions,” says Josh Pfriem. A lot of pFriem taproom’s customers are visiting from other places in the northwest outside of Hood River. That overwhelming crush of out of town visitors crowding the tiny waiting area at pFriem lead the team to stop any customer hospitality operations for a time.
“We took a pause on all service for a couple weeks,” says Josh Pfriem. After reassessing their systems, the tasting room has now opened for online curb service which they are now expanding. And now with Hood River slowly reopening for dine-in, pFriem is considering the next steps in reopening but for now continues only takeout and local delivery with a cautious approach.
“Everyone’s situation is going to be really unique, every owner business operator is going to have to look at their own business and see what they have to work with and what their level of safety and comfort is,” says pFriem, for them safety is the top priority, even though the company is under tremendous financial pressure due to their ongoing expansion into a major new facility in Cascade Locks.
pFriem will stagger their reopening process, sometime soon reopening the kitchen and doing takeout and later determine a dine-in opening date after looking at Oregon’s pandemic response and the feedback of customers and staff. The park across the street already makes crowd control difficult in the pub even before the pandemic. Now more than ever people are looking for a beer and to enjoy Hood River’s open container laws. This is both a pro and a con, contact and crowds need to be managed but the ability for consumers to order from pFriem and enjoy in a much more open air setting could alleviate the pressures of indoor floor plans in the tasting room, at least while weather allows.
Another potential issue will be glassware that is touched multiple times by many people from the bartender to the waitstaff, dishwasher and patron.
“A lot of people like to talk to the bartenders and get samples” notes Phillips.
Tony Lawrence wonders if there will be more interest in pitchers.
pFriem uses a number of different types of glassware that are particular for their broad range of styles. But Josh Pfriem does not think it will be an issue. “Before COVID we ran a really tight ship everyone who works for me knows how important it is to have clean glassware. That won’t be a stretch that they are worried about.”
“Host stands are mandatory at this point,” adds Dan Hart. “There is no way of getting around it. Reservations are going to be key to find those big groups and situate them.”
“We are setting up a host(ess), controller station right where you come up onto the patios” says Lawrence on a similar plan at Boneyard. “Developing matrix flow charts for staff and customers with different scenarios. How to deal with interactions with customers and possible issues.”
PublicHouse will have someone working the door as well, especially in the evenings. That person is critical in helping direct customers on where to sit, rules and procedures in what ends up being an integral role that Phillips estimates eliminated 90% of issues on PublicHouse’s reopening weekend. He also says having a queue to prevent people from wandering around, and a dedicated busser to clean and sanitize tables and glassware. Behind the bar, they wash their hands but in front they sanitize.
For Hart’s many bars, the situation will be vastly different with the outdoor seating at Prost! being more ideal with the tighter more indoor quarters at Stammtisch being a much greater challenge. Eliminating bar seating will greatly hurt their occupancy, but street seating could be a bandage that will hold for the summer.
Bantam Tavern only has 4 tables available, if they are taking up by one-tops of just 4 patrons it hurts the occupancy and forces bar owners to choose between being welcoming to anyone over prioritizing more customers. Usually a single person looking for a beer would sit at the bar, but with that option eliminated they may take up a table that would occupy 3 or 4 people. This is where reservations come into play. Some locations may be reservation based to maximize table space, some not, this is also important to their staff who will rely on tips. Bar owners must be smart and think about how to use every inch of their space. But then again reservations might just be a nightmare, or it could be a saving grace.
“Things will go back to normal” says Hart. “I don’t think our society is going to change on the experiences that they enjoy” though he does think that opening small closed in public houses like Interurban and Bantam Tavern may have been a poor choice knowing what he knows now. “I kinda shot myself in the foot on this one.”
Hart actually prefers indoor and more intimate spots where you can have a relationship with the bartender, likening that interaction to it’s own entertainment. The dialogue between bartender and customer is the most important part of his business.
“I’m not a businessman, I am just a bartender who own’s businesses” – Dan Hart
“Anyone can grab a pFriem or a Boneyard and go back home to enjoy it with their buddies, it’s cheaper even, but you go to the bar for that experience,” says Hart. “I don’t get to shift to cans…service is what we do, we sell service.” But Hart remains optimistic, he knows anyone can get the food and the beer at home for a cheaper price but people crave the hospitality industry experience of being taken care of.
“There are a lot of models being developed that could stick around,” says Josh Pfriem. Their plan is for a quicker service format that minimizes time and interaction. He predicts curbside and online ordering will only become more popular and established alternatives. “We are preparing for a world where we have 50% for quite some time.” But they have a lot more room to spread out.
“Humanity has always overcome pandemics…and when they get done with it they always come together for beer,” says pFriem, but likens this period to a partial world.
“Before I think our meandering building and meandering decks seemed awkward and difficult to deal with, now I guess they are going to be an asset,” says Lawrence. “We will get through this whether it’s 60 days or 600 days, I’m not sure which one it is. Keep it simple, make all the adjustments necessary, try not to overreact.”
Phillips offers no predictions on the future, but a turn toward wider open and outdoor spaces suits him just fine as it’s always been his preference. The open beer gardens and patios are fun for consumers too, but lost the intimacy Dan Hart enjoys, and in Oregon, weather will eventually become an issue.
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.