Pubs Prevail

Most brewpubs survive the pandemic  

While brewpubs in Marin and Sonoma counties have reopened after the last shutdown in January they haven’t recovered to their pre-pandemic levels.  

With Marin and Sonoma counties now in the Orange Tier of the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy, further restrictions have been removed. This allows more people to drink indoors at brewpubs. 

“We’re starting to see things open up with more and more people coming out, especially the elderly segment because they got vaccinated first,” Michael Altman, owner of Iron Springs Pub and Brewery in Fairfax said. “They’re coming out a lot more. People aren’t as hesitant to eat indoors.” 

Altman is optimistic on returning to his pre-pandemic level of customers.  

“The fall is a really busy time, September and October. I think we’ll be able to do live music, the bar is open, and people are back.” 

Pond Farm Brewing Company in San Rafael isn’t using the state’s planned reopening date of June 15 to return to normal but will go at their own pace. 

“Just because California decides that all restrictions are no longer required doesn’t mean that for us we’re not going to still continue to practice some of these and do what we feel safest,” Pond Farm Brewing Company co-owner Stephanie Martin said

Brendan Moylan, who owns Marin Brewing Company in Larkspur and Moylan’s Brewery and Restaurant in Novato, has a similar mindset.

“We’re going to prepare that there are good things that are going to happen down the road but we’re also moving forward with caution,” he said.  

It’s too early to know when things will pick up as there is a shortage of staff. As a result, Moylan’s is only open five days a week, and Marin Brewing is open seven days but closes at 7 p.m rather than midnight. 

“The number one obstacle to us being open for more hours right now is employee workforce, it is not available” Moylan said. 

It’s not just Marin Brewing and Moylan’s that are shorthanded; Iron Springs was also affected.

“We are understaffed to do all the things we are trying to do as we roll out of this year-long pandemic,” Altman said.

Unfortunately, his Iron Springs Public House in San Rafael has closed permanently. Altman described it as a “Covid casualty.”

“The size of that location was not conducive to be able to do any numbers. When they allowed it to reopen, the footprint in there is so small we’d only be able to have five people inside. Downtown San Rafael is very office driven, so it’s not like we’d be able to do a big to-go (service),” he said. 

Russian River Brewing Company has been gradually bringing back some of the 162 employees who they laid off from their Santa Rosa and Windsor brewpubs. 

“It was really difficult,” the brewery’s president and co-owner Natalie Cilurzo said. “We ended up laying off almost everybody. We kept some employees on for takeout and we were able to repurpose some employees into other positions, but for the most part we ended up laying off most of our staff unfortunately.

“When we reopened for outdoor dining we were able to invite several employees back which was really wonderful. Because indoor dining is ramping up again we were able to invite more people back and we’re now staffing up again, so it feels really good.” 

Each February 25,000 people come for the world-renowned Pliny the Younger Triple IPA. They cancelled the two-week event this year. This was the first time the beer was available in bottles. 

“We did not want to have any super-spreader events here for any kind of curbside pickup so it was only available for shipping throughout California online. We sold out I think in four minutes. We had 8,500 cases in sales.”

“Each case had four bottles of Younger in it. We won’t be offering that again, it was a one-time-only deal,” she said. 

They fared better than some, as they don’t rely solely on brewpub sales. 

“We’re very different from a traditional restaurant because we manufacture and distribute beer. We also sell directly to the consumer online and we also have our pubs, we have many different revenue streams. So what we were able to do was completely change our business model, increase our wholesale sales and direct to consumer sales. That revenue made up for the lost revenue in the pub,” Cilurzo said. 

Although Marin Brewing made slightly higher income from sales to stores, the pandemic substantially reduced their wholesale profit.

“All the bars and restaurants are closed, that’s half our business. Supermarket sales went up a bit compared to how much we lost on bars. It’s a shame to not keep that business rolling,” Moylan said.

Pond Farm Brewing’s customers’ demand for takeaway beer has been helpful, even though profits are less than sales of draft beer in the taproom.

“I think that’s something that customers and the community doesn’t fully understand. Even though it looks good, we’ve been operating a different business model where the product makes profit margins really, really different. Canning is expensive and you’re selling the beer for a lower price point. So the amount you get left over to pay the team and do everything else like pay all of our bills, it’s really thin. So we’re excited to be doing more drafts on site,” Martin said.

She is pleased that their customers supported them during that time.

“We’re super grateful for the response and it’s been wonderful that we were able to do to-go. If we couldn’t then it would have been really tough, a totally different story,” she said. 

Altman at Iron Springs expressed a similar sentiment. 

“The community has been extremely generous in tips for the staff. People were really chipping in and doing things to keep us open. The love and support we got, especially early on, was really heartwarming,” he said. 

Those having beer inside are happy to be back. Kevin Pauls of Mill Valley is a long-time customer of Marin Brewing. It was welcome news to Pauls and his friends when they heard the Larkspur brewpub was serving indoors.

“We were so excited to be in here,” Pauls said. “We were commenting how beautiful it was outside but it was so lovely to be inside drinking.”

Moylan is happy to see Marin Brewing busier and that more people are coming back. 

“You get to hang out with your pals again, connecting with other people is good for the mind. I enjoy seeing people again. It was damn scary what we went through.”

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