Sarasota-Manatee breweries look to reopen

One Sarasota brewery owner warned that if establishments like his aren’t allowed to reopen, he will have to close permanently.

Over the past few months, while restaurants have been allowed to gradually reopen and serve food and drinks, Jeremy Joerger has had to sit by and watch his business go into the tank.

Like basically every other bar and brewery in Florida, Joerger’s company, Sarasota-based JDub’s Brewing Co., has had a rough go of it since the beginning of the pandemic. Since bars were ordered closed in mid-March, the JDub’s taproom, which happens to be the source of most of the brewery’s business, has only been open for two weeks.

Things got so bad that the brewery filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April. Funds from the federal Paycheck Protection Program and the Emergency Injury Disaster Loan program have helped the company’s balance sheet since then, according to court documents.

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It’s especially frustrating, Joerger said, because he has personally seen bands playing for audiences and people congregating at other establishments as they had before the pandemic. The only difference now is some customers wear face masks.

“As I’ve witnessed this and watch my business literally be devastated as more money than I’ll disclose has been lost as a result of being forced to close, I could only wonder, ‘Why?’” Joerger wrote in a July 28 Facebook post.

While he said he doesn’t believe any business should have to close — including the ones that are currently allowed to operate — Joerger said he thinks it’s time to figure out a way to balance the public health risks with policies that will help businesses, such as the one he owns, recover.

Discussions on how to reopen bars and breweries that don’t serve food were scheduled to begin Friday. Halsey Beshears, secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, was to have meetings with local brewery and bar owners in Jacksonville, Chris Kingry, a spokesman for the agency said.

Arrangements for similar meetings in Pensacola, Tallahassee and Tampa-St. Petersburg are planned through Monday, Kingry said. “Additional meeting locations also are under consideration for next week and may be dependent on the final storm path forecast for” Hurricane Isaias.

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Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered bars closed for 30 days on March 17, the same day he ordered restaurants to move to 50% occupancy. (Restaurant dining rooms were shut March 20). The order closing bars lifted in most of the state on June 5, but then the on-site consumption ban was reinstated just three weeks later with a tweet from Beshears.

On July 20, the Florida Brewers Guild, which represents the state’s craft breweries, wrote a letter to Beshears and DeSantis explaining the dire situation breweries are in and asking for help.

According to the letter, some breweries in Florida are permitted to operate their taprooms at half capacity because they have a food license.

During the first shutdown, breweries without food licenses were given exemptions that allowed them to operate their taprooms if they partnered with an on-site food truck. But that exemption was not included in the second ordered closing.

The bottom line is, most breweries in Florida have been closed in 2020 for more days than they have been open, according to the letter.

“The entire Florida craft brewing industry is now in jeopardy. For the first time in recent history, the number of active breweries has actually decreased in number, and it is our fear that this trend will rapidly accelerate if we do not find a way to balance the health of our community with the economics of our industry,” the letter said.

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Internal polling from the guild found that the industry is likely to lose more than 100 breweries permanently if this continues for more than two weeks, which means nearly a third of the 10,000 jobs the craft brewing industry supports could soon be eliminated.

“The health of our community is paramount, but it cannot be at the life savings of hundreds of entrepreneurs, the livelihood of thousands of families and the majority of an entire industry,” the letter read.

Victor Falck, the co-owner of Calusa Brewing just north of Clark Road in Sarasota, said that the shutdown has caused a myriad of issues for his business. Labor costs have risen as the brewery continues to pay its bar staff what they’re used to making in the absence of tips. The closing of Calusa’s taproom has led to revenue losses, which in turn have caused dips in profit. And the cost of packaging supplies has gone up, as suppliers deal with pandemic-related closures.

Luckily, the brewery can still sell to retailers and restaurants. And while Falck said he’s grateful for that, he added that brewers feel a bit targeted since they’re specifically not allowed to operate unless they sell food, which his brewery just isn’t equipped to handle.

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“It seems arbitrary that our industry is being pointed at,” he said. “I think for the most part the industry has been on the same page. Everyone has been trying to abide by the rules and put the safety of patrons at the forefront of everything. I think the guild is looking for equity as it relates to closures or openings.”

The one upside, Falck said, is that the downtime allows Calusa to invest for a post-COVID future. The brewery started an online ordering system that Falck said he thinks will change the way people order beer. It makes things a bit easier on the labor side because they know what they’re up against each morning when they come in.

There will also be a separate area where people can pick up pre-orders, which will be outside of the normal bar atmosphere. The brewery has also emphasized credit card payments to eliminate handling cash.

In his Facebook post about JDub’s, Joerger outlined his ideas for a statewide brewery reopening strategy. The same social distancing requirements should be available to bars as they are to restaurants, he said. He said he’s also okay with patrons being required to wear masks inside the taproom, but he thinks whether or not they want to wear them outside should be up to each individual patron.

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He also proposed eliminating large-scale events, such as JDub’s monthly food truck rallies, and he said that his local distributor, Gold Coast Eagle, will soon be allowing JDub’s bar and restaurant customers the opportunity to participate in a discount program starting Aug. 3.

“If things don’t change, JDub’s will close permanently,” he said. “I’m literally fighting for the survival of my company and children’s future. If you do not agree to open businesses remaining open within a framework aimed to protect citizens to the best degree possible, stay home. We’ll try to get our beer to ya somehow.”

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