Lessons from a brewery's response to COVID-19
COVID-19 presented many challenges for breweries, but Charlotte, North Carolina-based Divine Barrel Brewing faced the opportunity head on and found success during a time of turmoil. Divine Barrel is no stranger to being flexible – since their launch in 2017, they’ve adopted a “ready for anything” mentality and have built their business around a willingness to change and go with the flow.
Ekos sat down with current customer, Gavin Toth, co-founder and general manager at Divine Barrel, who shared how they responded to COVID-19 and three key takeaways.
Gavin, his partners, and employees were in a team meeting when the decision to close North Carolina bars, restaurants and taprooms was announced. It was immediately clear that the brewery needed to quickly adapt and make plans for the new reality. The team sprang into action with two key initiatives – setting up an online store and developing a setup for curbside pickup. Gavin encouraged the team to work quickly, but to “make it good.” He knew that curbside pickup would be a new concept for customers but that it could lead to long-term success if customers had a positive experience when they visited the brewery.
The Divine Barrel team has continued to follow this mantra throughout the shutdown, focusing on putting the customer first and making quick but smart decisions for their benefit. As North Carolina and many other states begin to loosen restrictions, the team is still proceeding with caution and care. Although breweries could reopen with limited capacity in late May, Divine Barrel took a thoughtful wait-and-see approach to give themselves a few extra weeks to prepare and retrain employees, secure PPE, and set up new processes. "Even though it’s an unknown every single day, you have to think three, four, five steps ahead,” said Gavin. “This is a new and fresh challenge, but we made sure we had a plan to make good decisions.”
Taprooms used to be the best vehicle for selling beer to local consumers. Many breweries were able to stay afloat financially based on the success of their taprooms alone, and consumers and breweries alike were comfortable with the status quo. While some advertised growler refills or offered 4-packs to-go, breweries didn’t see a need to pursue other sales avenues. All of that changed in March, when taprooms closed and breweries had to get creative to get their product in consumers’ hands.
One of the first actions Divine Barrel took was to set up a customized ecommerce site. Through the website, they offer preorders for upcoming releases, take orders for local delivery, and sell product to ship across North Carolina. Prior to March 2020, Divine Barrel didn’t have an ecommerce site, but in April and May, they did nearly 60% of sales online. In addition, the sales team, which was accustomed to stopping by local restaurants and bottle shops throughout the region, added local home deliveries to their routes.
Even as taprooms reopen, Gavin believes that new ways of selling will continue. “As long as we have support, we want to keep it going,” said Gavin. “When we reopen, you’ll still see a tent outside and neighborhood deliveries. We want to reach people who can’t make it to the taproom.”
From the beginning, the team at Divine Barrel has had to adapt, change and welcome new ideas. “When we were planning, our brewer said he would never make a hazy IPA,” said Gavin. “But sure enough, we had one right when we opened because that’s what the market wanted.” Gavin said that to be successful, you must be willing to change your plan and adjust along the way.
In the first year, Divine Barrel was heavily focused on the taproom and kegged most of its beers. But as time went on, they realized consumers had an interest in cans too, especially for specialty beers like their Carolina Cobbler series. So, they made the switch and started canning 20-30% of their beer. With COVID, there was even more of a need to offer canned options, so they’ve shifted their production plans through the rest of the summer to offer even more products in cans.
As we near the halfway point of 2020, the world looks much different than people were expecting. But the brewing industry has found ways to be innovative, flexible and responsive to consumer needs. As Gavin puts it, “It is neat to be a part of the change and the movement.”
His advice to other brewers? “Be willing to make adjustments and just keep going.”