Distillers such as Phil Brandon did a lot of adjusting to ensure his company survived the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
Now Brandon and others are optimistic that the dark days of quarantine and social distancing may be behind the industry. So far in 2021 as vaccinations increase and people become more comfortable venturing out into public, signs are good.
“Things are going awesome,” said Brandon, founder and president of Rock Town Distillery in Little Rock.
Rock Town is the first and still largest distillery in Arkansas. It has received praise and awards for its spirits, which include whiskey, bourbon and vodka.
When the pandemic hit and business tightened, Rock Town switched a portion of its production to making hand sanitizer because the pandemic had created a significant shortage.
Crystal Ridge Distillery Inc. of Hot Springs also switched to sanitizer production. Crystal Ridge had the bad timing of opening for business just before the onslaught of the pandemic.
“It was very scary,” said Crystal Ridge owner Danny Bradley. “We converted 100% of our production over to making hand sanitizer. We made sanitizer all of last year. [The pandemic restrictions] slowed down tremendously, and we were able to convert back over to what our original business model was.”
For Crystal Ridge, a return to normal means focusing on making various moonshines. The distillery made 16 varieties.
Bradley said he is planning to release new flavors in the next six months to add to the company’s menu.
The moonshine business is good at Crystal Ridge, Bradley said, but he doesn’t have numbers to compare because the company barely knew a pre-pandemic market.
“We are actually doing very, very good,” Bradley said. “We had only had our official grand opening four days before the pandemic shut us down. We don’t have a lot of baseline to go off to compare our sales to what it previously was. Every month we are setting our personal best as far as bottles being sold.”
For businesses such as Rock Town and Crystal Ridge and the wineries that dot the map in and around Altus, walk-in business is important to their sales figures.
Tasting rooms, restaurants and tours are part of the business model. A visit to a tasting room or restaurant can lead to increased sales and brand loyalty.
In Wiederkehr Village, just outside Altus, the pandemic forced the closure and then restricted capacity at the Weinkeller Restaurant, the on-site dine-in facility for Wiederkehr Wine Cellars. The restaurant is now back to operating at full capacity, although President Dennis Wiederkehr said he hasn’t been able to hire a full staff.
“People have been out and thank God people have been loyal in coming back to see us,” Wiederkehr said. “We have been doing everything we can to take care of them right. Sometimes there may be a little more wait because we don’t have the help we want. But everybody leaves happy.”
That was the case on a Tuesday night at Black Apple Cidery in Springdale. The outdoor patio was nearly full while several inside tables had customers.
Owner Leo Orpin said Black Apple survived the pandemic thanks to its retail sales, and now customers are flocking back to establishments.
“The market blew up,” Orpin said. “We’re crushing it right now. It’s like, ‘COVID what?’ It has been insane. That has been a pleasant surprise coming out of 2020, has been the rebound of our retail location.
“As you’re seeing in bars and restaurants, our taproom is the same. I would actually say our sales have been better at the taproom even going back to 2019 pre-COVID. I don’t know if it is all the pent-up energy, maybe the brand recognition is stronger, [or] maybe it is a combination of both. It is also that time of year. This is the time of year people go out to drink.”
Wiederkehr said his winery laid off some workers at the start of the pandemic when there were so many unknowns but he hired most of them back after a few weeks; loans through the Paycheck Protection Program helped.
Rock Town has 23 employees, the most of any distillery in the state, and it operates a tasting room and holds tours of its Little Rock facility. Crystal Ridge has 15 employees and a 17,000-SF space for events including weddings and corporate outings, in addition to a bar and lounge.
“We are a tourist attraction,” Bradley said.
The biggest challenge with the return of customers has been finding employees. Brandon said he kept his employees on payroll because most of Rock Town’s business was selling through liquor stores, which remained open during the pandemic.
“Liquor store business was way up because people weren’t going out to bars,” Brandon said. “People are glad to be getting out. It’s nice to get out.”
Brandon said he hasn’t changed his expectations because business has returned strongly with the ebbing of the pandemic. He said it is hard to say that the pandemic is even over or nearing its end.
“Our business is continuing to grow, and we are working hard to do our best job every day,” Brandon said. “We are very fortunate to be able to survive the pandemic. We are excited about what the future holds.”
Orpin said the pandemic did affect the industry but most of the small-craft entrepreneurs are well versed in dealing with challenging and changing circumstances.
“My thought has always been, even with the pandemic, we are entrepreneurs,” Orpin said. “Out of everybody, we are already kings of adaptation. We are meant to pivot; we are meant to adapt. I think the pandemic was just another unique wrinkle that forced us to adapt and evolve more than what we would have done during a normal year.”
Bradley said he could use seven new employees today, adding that another problem was getting a consistent flow of supplies. He said his current headache is obtaining enough labels for his products because a six-month supply seems to last only two months, and there are delays in getting new deliveries.
“Whether it is bottles or cans or grain, there is always something that is a challenge,” Bradley said. “Right now, the bigger part of the bottleneck is not sales. The sales are there. The challenge is having the structure to support the demand.”