When Working Draft Brewery opened their taproom in 2018, the business model was to serve their craft brews exclusively onsite; fast-forward to today and all of their sales are through packaged products. As a young business Working Draft is no stranger to pivots, but in the last three months, they have had to get creative and resourceful just to stay afloat. One of the resources they turned to was the Business & Entrepreneurship (B&E) Clinic.
Traditionally there has been two main channels for brewery sales, on-premise where the beer is consumed in the same establishment it was purchased and off-premise, where a retailer sells beer for consumption somewhere other than where it was purchased. Working Draft’s idea was to see the people enjoy the beer that they make, and on-premise sales allows them to craft the whole consumption experience and environment for their guests. CEO and Owner Ryan Browne says, “when you sell off-premise, you miss that connection with the people and product. As a brewery that was started by home brewers, the best part of brewing is sharing it with people. We see beer as the catalyst for community cultivation.”
On March 15, Working Draft closed their doors ceasing all taproom and kitchen operations immediately in response to the COVID19 pandemic. Information for business owners and the public was changing rapidly and Ryan and the team was growing uncomfortable being a gathering space. Wanting to prioritize the health and safety of their employees and guests, the team had to make some hard decisions, fast. Ultimately, the leadership team made the gut-wrenching decision to layoff the majority of the Working Draft staff in mid-March in an effort to provide access to unemployment benefits and to give the brewery a fighting chance at making it through the pandemic with jobs for their employees to come back to.
Gathering all of the financial information for the brewery, the team worked to get a handle on the cash flow for the business and tried to halt as many other expenses as possible. Working with lenders to defer payments and cancel unnecessary expenses for the taproom, like cable and music subscriptions, they were able to assess what business operations might be possible to help Working Draft Survive. Ryan’s team turned to Mike Williams, director of the B&E Clinic to review the new budget for 2020 as well as daily sales and expenses projections. Thanks to the prior relationship between Working Draft and the B&E Clinic, Mike was able to look for blind spots and anomalies as he triaged the emergency budget. As they worked together to reassess the business model, they were able to see what was possible and work to eliminate surprises. “Mike has been a huge supporter and advocate of the brewery and we have benefited greatly from the relationship with the B&E Clinic,” says Ryan.
At the same time, the Working Draft team was staying informed about government initiatives for small businesses. While the details were uncertain, they gathered information so that when funding was available Working Draft would be ready to apply. Fortunately, Working Draft was among the first wave of businesses to be approved as a part of the Paycheck Protection Program from the Small Business Association.
With the financial position better understood and with resources available to hire back some of the team, Working Draft decided to offer to-go beer sales to generate revenue and jump start their operations. Prior to shutting down, they sold only a very low volume of their beer packaged in 32 oz crowlers. These oversized containers can be filled from the tap line, then capped and sealed with a special machine. Thanks to the crowlers and a mobile canning option, Working Draft was able to offer packaged product to their customers.
“We were totally blown away by the response to our to-go sales,” Ryan said. Working Draft would open reservations for 50 people per day to book pickup appointments, and they would sell out within minutes. Packaged sales for Working Draft are three to four times packaged sales pre-shutdown. The quick transition to online sales and in-store pickup was not without hiccups, but Ryan said customers and Working Draft employees were instrumental in refining the process. The team had to design an e-commerce site in days, follow restrictions for online alcohol sales, and plan a no-contact pickup system.
Working Draft has changed their reservation allocation to a lottery from a first-come system. Customers can enter the lottery anytime and winners are drawn at 5:00 p.m. on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. If selected, customers receive a link to reserve their appointment and pickup to-go cans and crowlers. Appointments help prevent groups from congregating and allows staff to pre-fill orders for quick, touch-free pickup. The new system has been well received by customers, offering a little fun to break up the monotony of staying at home.
This hybrid channel of packaged sales through taprooms is exploding at breweries around the country and Ryan says, while they had always considered doing bottled sales, it’s now firmly a part of their business model. There are many unknowns for Working Draft as they look to the future, but the team will continue to bootstrap and work together to navigate the uncertainties. When it is responsible for Working Draft to reopen safely, you can bet Ryan and his team will welcome you over a pint. “Community is the engine of our business,” Ryan says.