COVID-19 challenges breweries to survive and do good

Scofflaw Brewing founder Matt Shirah. CONTRIBUTED BY SCOFFLAW BREWING

With bars, restaurants and taprooms closed, the COVID-19 pandemic has become an existential threat to metro Atlanta breweries.

Most small and local production and brewpub businesses that rely on taproom sales to bolster the bottom line are resorting to takeaway and curbside pickup.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

But while they’ve had to lay off employees, and struggle to keep the beer flowing, many are trying to help others, too.

For example, Wild Heaven is offering free hand sanitizer to customers who come by its beer pickup locations at its Avondale and West End breweries.

Each weekend in April, Monday Night is offering up two free six-packs of I’m on a Boat golden ale to a different group in the community, including health care, service and grocery workers.

Many breweries like Wild Leap have set up matching GoFundMe accounts to support Bottleshare, a nonprofit in Kennesaw that grants emergency financial assistance to craft beverage workers.

And it shouldn’t be a surprise that Matt Shirah, the founder of Atlanta’s Scofflaw Brewing, has gone all-in on giving.

Shirah’s audacious approach to branding and marketing has been controversial at times, but it accounts for much of the success of the brewery. And with his background as a Wall Street executive, his approach to the crisis has been “go big or go home.”

Recently Shirah developed a Scofflaw program with GoFundMe and Bottleshare to match every dollar donated up to $10,000. He developed another $10,000 matching program for the Giving Kitchen. And Scofflaw donated $7,500 worth of Kroger gift cards and $7,500 of Publix gift cards to be distributed via Bottleshare.

Shirah put together similar Scofflaw partnerships in Alabama. And in South Carolina, Scofflaw donated $20,000 directly to the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association to help service workers meet rent obligations.

In the meantime, Scofflaw has managed to keep its employees working even though the taproom is closed.

“We are keeping our folks busy and on payroll by having them perform other tasks,” Shirah said. “We pay at least four times the required wage so this helps some when tips are not coming in. We also have a tent set up outside, with plenty of isopropyl alcohol and gloved employees to sell to-go beer.

“The tasting room is decimated. On-premise sales are gone completely. And grocery stores are probably slowing down a little bit because everybody went haywire in the beginning. The uncertainty is unbelievable. But I’ve hired three more people since this started. I saved some reserves up, in case we had a problem. And my old career was basically crisis management, so I feel pretty comfortable in this situation.”

As to his personal approach to this crisis, Shirah said now is the time to lead.

“If you own a business and you’ve got a bunch of money in the bank, and you’re just sitting back and putting people on unemployment to try to preserve your own wealth, that’s just not the way I see it,” he said. “This is about being human, and not about politics. I think our mayor has done a good job. The city and the county have done a good job. And it’s our responsibility as small, successful businesses to bridge the gap between reality and bureaucracy. If you’re going to be part of the community, be part of the community.”

Good Word Brewing co-owner and brewer Todd DiMatteo. CONTRIBUTED BY GOOD WORD BREWING

Good Word Brewing and Public House in Duluth is a small brewpub operation opened in 2017 by two former Brick Store Pub employees, Todd DiMatteo and Ryan Skinner.

Though they don’t have the resources some bigger breweries have, and were doubly burdened by closing their dining room in March, DiMatteo and Skinner made the decision to open a soup kitchen to provide free meals to the community.

“We talked about doing to go at first, but our initial reaction was not to do it,” DiMatteo said. “I don’t know if it looked like we were giving up, but that wasn’t what I felt. We had all this food on hand, so we decided to give it to staff, feed our people, and feed other restaurant workers. And then it was like, let’s give it to anybody.

“We started on March 17, and we made one meat and one veggie soup, and it went from there. With some news coverage, we found out that there were people close by who were hungry way before the coronavirus was pandemic. We had several families come in every single day. But we still weren’t really having the kind of impact we wanted to have.”

After some soul-searching, the partners decided to reopen the restaurant for pickup and curbside service on April 1. They will open the soup kitchen on Sundays from now on, and also help provide food for Meals by Grace, a program available to children in Forsyth County and their families.

“My plan is to set up in the parking lot with our Good Word tent to give food to needy folks, and what’s not used goes to Meals by Grace,” DiMatteo said. ”You get so entrenched in your own life and problems, and then you do something like this, and people respond, so you really want to share it. It’s why I got into hospitality in the first place.”

DiMatteo also serves as the head brewer at Good Word, and he’s been working to keep a supply of beer for crowlers to go. But he’s also involved with Bottleshare and is brewing a new beer in support of the nonprofit with ingredients donated by suppliers like Riverbend Malt, Yakima Chief and White Labs, and artwork by Rachel Eleanor.

Looking forward, DiMatteo has plans to acquire a canning line to be able to sell more beer to go, and brew more collaborations for causes like Bottleshare.

“Some people might think that if you’re open, and in business, you’re just killing it,” he said. “At Good Word, we aren’t killing it. We weren’t killing it before this. We were doing pretty OK, and we were growing, but ...”

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