a guest article by Holly Emery-Walen Muckerman, a veteran of both the Portland and Eugene, Oregon craft beer community
Shutting the doors to the pubs in compliance with the Governor’s mandate on March 16th was not a choice. We all did what needed to be done. Whether you are a busser or a business owner, the pandemic was going to impact your finances and future. That much was very clear. There were many choices to be made and a great sense of urgency to make them. How to navigate, how to innovate, how to stay safe, so many questions flooded everyone’s minds. Who will we be in the history books? And when will we be able to reopen?
PublicHouse, located in Springfield, and beergarden., located in Eugene, are both owned by Colby Phillips and Patric Campbell. Two self-made, local businessmen who were automatically tasked with leading us through this storm. Full disclosure, I have worked for them for the past 5 years as a bartender, manager and buyer, as well as owning one of the carts on the beergarden. patio (Bounty Meat and Cheese). That said, I feel fortunate to have them at the helm and to trust that they are going to make decisions that are not only beneficial to the business’ financial future but the quality of life of the entire team.
Phase 1 reopening was allowed in Lane County on May 15th. Colby Phillips, the managing owner, had devoted much of his time to staying looped into the government’s discussions of potential protocols and policies that would dictate the reopening. He was committed to keeping his pubs afloat as well as the multiple food vendors that are housed within the pubs. At each of these locations there are many other small, independent businesses that synergistically work together to create the full experience for the patrons. beergarden. houses 5 food carts and PublicHouse with its state of the art commercial commissary kitchen, houses 4 more food vendors.
In order for all of these businesses to survive the economic hardship of Coronavirus, all safety procedures would need to be strictly enforced by each business on the premise. Further, the staff would need to be re-trained on all the new health department protocols, as well as reassured for their own safety coming back to work. Brenna Foerster, the general manager, informed me that, “some staff members were ready to return, and many needed time to evaluate what was best for them. It is important that our staff feel safe while also providing enough shifts to keep them financially stable.”
Lastly, and the largest obstacle by far, the patrons would need to be educated on all of the new policies, and such policies would need to be enforced. In preparing to reopen, a hurdle was the energy spent, “guessing at the public reaction to [us] being open. Will they be excited, wary, or hostile?” asked J Brezovar, manager of Whisk(e)y Lab located inside PublicHouse. The infrastructure was already there with a well trained staff of veteran bartenders who are more than capable of diffusing a misunderstanding and guiding patrons to follow the policies for the betterment of everyone’s experience. This now includes avoiding contamination and staying healthy- something that restaurants have always done, but never to the extent of wearing masks while serving customers.
Questions swirled again. Who would these customers be? Would our loyal regulars make it back out right away? Or would they stay home for their own safety? Would they wear masks and maintain physical distance? Should they? Would they be forgiving of the inevitable hiccups that arise with any drastic change? The owners and the managers have been actively troubleshooting and working on plans to reopen since the pandemic hit the West Coast.
PublicHouse reopened to dine in customers on Friday, May 15th, the first day of Phase 1 reopening in Lane County. “The most challenging part was having to re-train all of the staff and customer base to adapt to our new service style. In order to have safe table spacing, we incorporated no-contact phone ordering & payment from the customer’s table, instead of counter service which creates lines and does not allow for proper social distancing.” Foerster commented. Both beergarden. and PublicHouse were built with spacious outdoor dining areas that were more readily adaptable to new table layouts to accommodate distancing.
Once the dust cleared and the patrons were back at PublicHouse ordering their food and beer via Porter, a web-based app, the patrons’ response was “at least 90% glowingly positive”, Brezovar described. “But I think that also has to do with the demographic of the people willing to go out to public gathering places”. Foerster, who quickly turned around and reopened beergarden. the following Wednesday, May 20th, commented on the subject that “[the customers] appreciate us being open and making every effort to create a safe dining environment.” Phillips added, “The public response has been very encouraging. We’re running at about 2/3s of normal at this point which is telling about how many customers are willing to come back out. We have an advantage of a fair bit of outdoor seating which helps. The vast majority of customers seem happy that we’re open and they seem willing to work within our new protocols. The people coming back out just seem happy to be able to go back out again.”
But as we know, it isn’t just about the customers safety, it is also about the staff’s safety. And while there are inevitably customers who will not follow all of the rules and jeopardize the system, they are dealt with swiftly. The overall sentiment from chatting with many team members over the last 2 weeks is that they feel comfortable. “We are doing the most contact free way of doing things,” Kaleb Cruz-Wilson, a full time bartender at beergarden. said. “[Porter] is the best way that we could be doing this without risking our health. I feel like we are setting the standard and that other restaurants might look to us for how to open up themselves.”
You can find information about Porter, the technology that is making contact free ordering possible in a New School article from a few weeks ago (Oregon Developed App ‘Porter’ Emerges as COVID-19 Reopening Asset, May 12). Phillips, yes-the owner of the pubs, and his team at Porter were already deeply invested in developing a technology to accommodate table service in a counter service culture. The program allows customers to place orders from their phones on one tab, ordering from multiple businesses, and have everything delivered to their table by staff in gloves and masks. It was so adaptable and applicable to the evolving circumstances of Covid-19 that they were ahead of the curve in ability to meet the reopening guidelines.
When asked what pointers Brenna Foerster had for other beer bars and restaurants looking to reopen, she said, “Adaptability and patience. We’ve found that we have to be willing to change our protocols and setup at a whim in order to ensure safety and sustainability of our staff, patrons, and the business.” If there is one thing coronavirus is teaching us all, it must be the importance of adaptability and patience, not only in our business practices but in ourselves as well.
Holly Muckerman is a beer geek based in Eugene, Oregon. She committed the last decade to managing beer bars and brewpubs, as well as most of her leisure time in them enjoying craft beer. She is the beer and cider buyer at Beergarden (Eugene) & PublicHouse (Springfield). Her free time is dedicated to her food cart, Bounty Meat & Cheese.