Craft breweries often have a strong presence in a community as both a place to drink and socialize. A pair in DeKalb County have been hit hard by the pandemic on both counts.
One of the biggest consequences of the coronavirus outbreak for businesses has been closures due to social distancing and quarantine requirements. Byers Brewing Company is based in downtown DeKalb, and before the pandemic, it got most of its sales from an indoor taproom. Owner Steve Byers said COVID-19 changed that.
“Our only method of sales was kind of taken away without being able to have people there, so any chance of income or sales just was gone.”
Also hit hard was the Forge Brewhouse, which moved its brewing operation to downtown DeKalb from Sycamore in 2018. Owner JD Heinrich said he’s faced the same situation as Byers.
“It completely closed us down. We’ve been losing money every day since the start of this.”
Without on-site customers, Byers and Heinrich reached out to each other, along with another business, Jonamac Orchard, and formed a partnership. It’s called the DeKalb County Craft Brewers Alliance. Heinrich said it draws on the strengths of each -- for instance Jonamac’s Jenna Spychal, whose family runs the orchard.
“It’s been a good thing. Jonamac. Jenna is especially good and proactive at thinking outside of the box, what can we try and do. Byers has been great. He’s doing all the deliveries for us, and I just try and keep focused on producing beer.”
Byers says the partnership has given a bump to all three businesses, particularly since each one’s website features products from its fellows. Byers is selling growlers and howlers, the Forge sells cans, and Jonamac has bottles of cider.
“Many customers get something from everybody, which is really nice to see, that people are really trying to support local businesses and they’re just getting one thing from each of us.”
Byers is selling growlers and howlers, while the Forge is selling some of its be
But Byers said it hasn’t been a replacement for on-site customers. He said when this partnership was first unveiled, he was getting 7-9 delivery orders per day. That’s dropped to around one per day.
“Consumers are just, I think being more frugal with their money. They’re not really spending money on craft beer because everybody’s kind of broke, I think, or being careful with their money and really saving it for necessary purchases.”
Another option that’s been touted by state government during Phase 3 reopening is outdoor dining. But these breweries don’t have nearly enough of the space they would need to match their previous capacity. Byers said, with permission from the City of DeKalb, he was able to set some tables in front of his business.
“At this moment we can have like six people. So our indoor seating area can hold 155, so it’s not quite the same, but it does help a little bit.”
But Heinrich said that option, along with low capacity indoor dining, doesn’t come close to meeting expenses.
“The idea that 'Oh you can have curbside service, you can have 11 tables' doesn’t make us any money, doesn’t pay the bills. It’s the same cost to pay for that building if we’ve got 26 tables or 11 tables, it doesn’t matter.”
Byers said despite all this, the relationships he’s developed with consumers have been helpful in getting the word out about his brewery’s situation.
“Definitely here in DeKalb we’ve felt a lot of love and it helps. Even if people can’t spend their money, just showing their support in other ways has been really great and we’re fortunate to have such a great community.”
But even with this support, there is lingering frustration, especially from Heinrich, about state restrictions on openings. He said when looking at neighboring states, the Illinois restrictions seem arbitrary.
“You cross the imaginary line to Wisconsin and you can sit down and have a beer and a burger. What? Does the disease not work up there? Just here?” said Heinrich.
He also criticized the lack of support from the City.
“We hope people are wise enough to see through this nonsense and start standing up and voicing how wrong it is. That’s what I’d like to have. But it doesn’t seem like it’s that way. When local government doesn’t fight for us, they just say 'We gotta comply with the governor.'”
Both Byers Brewing and the Forge Brewhouse continue to track their bottom line. And if the business climate doesn’t improve, the owners say, they may have to close up shop.