08.03.21

Pivoting Toward Success Amid COVID-19, Northeast Indiana Brewery Shares How

Tammy Allen, Director | Marketing & Programs, The NIIC

Many companies needed to make lightning-fast pivots to survive the pandemic. Many of these changes had to be made overnight — so quickly and significantly that they can only be described as miraculous.

Mary Corinne (MC) Lowenstein, Director of Marketing, Hop River Brewing Company, shared her story through the recent Restaurant Revitalization Speakers Series hosted by The NIIC. You can catch the replay here.

MC’s background isn’t in the restaurant industry. She has an interesting career involving many roles. Including non-profit work, specifically youth development. In every position, she thrived on providing and promoting positive interactions. “Connecting people.” She is also a founder of the Northern Indiana Brewers Association and Beer Trail Passport.

As MC looks back over the past 18 months concerning Hop River, she emphasized two themes: miracle pivots and making it work.

Her new favorite phrase is “returning forward.” She uses it to describe not only what Hop River has done to survive but what changes they will keep.

The Evolution of Hop River Brewing Company – Hop River is a relatively new brewery. “Before COVID struck, we were just toddlers,” said MC. The company celebrated its second anniversary in February of 2020, a little over a month before having to close down. Before re-opening, Hop River had to reconfigure its entire inside service model for seating, beer, and food. This was more difficult for them than it was perhaps for some other places. “Before COVID, we had these beautiful long, community tables where we just packed people in and encouraged conversations between groups.” Of course, that all changed with new restrictions.

Recalling the uncertainties of April 2020, MC described the upheavals not just at Hop River but at all local brewers. She explained, “Some of us closed completely for seven weeks and furloughed our staff. While some of us shrank our staff and continued production. I think it’s fair to say that each establishment took the next step that was right for them.”

Rapid Change – MC pointed out some of the quick pivots Hop River made, including:

  • Quickly switched from glass pints to plastic
  • Started using disinfectant “like our life depended on it!”
  • Removed all board games from shelves
  • Labeled phones for each manager

“We had no idea about this mysterious illness. We were watching science unfold in front of us.” The impact of the pandemic on employees was foremost on the minds of the management team at Hop River. As MC recalled, “Our main goal was to connect with our staff on a human level. Where was everyone mentally? What were their basic needs, and how could we help them?” Through a GoFundMe virtual tip jar, they raised over $10,000 to help furloughed staff. They also had donations from their vendors of meat and other food, something MC described as “a beautiful gift.”

Celebrating Miracles – MC said times of stress drive her to find a purpose and “just keep swimming.” Through her community connections, she helped connect a local distillery with a pharmacist. They made thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer and distributed it for free. “Talk about miracles! It was pretty amazing,” said MC.

Hop River saw its share of miraculous pivots, too. MC shared various changes that were made. “I found that making a list like this was important. I think it’s important to acknowledge all the changes and celebrate how we made it through this year with all these major pivots.”

Roles changed overnight. Owners checked on brewing beer. The kitchen staff switched to family meals for customers and staff. They held safely-distanced gatherings in driveways to try and figure out all of the unknowns.

The Hop River team’s goal throughout the whole year was meeting people where they were. “This was something we focused on before, and of course, during and now post COVID. We were trying to do that with our staff, our guests in our taproom, and our outdoor packaged beer.”

She also helped start a Facebook page called 2GoFW to share up-to-date information about local restaurants during the shutdown. The page quickly grew to over 37,000 members and remains very active today. MC remains one of the volunteer administrators and says she loves the interaction and teamwork.

What Stuck: Then and Now – “Our space looks different, and the way we serve our customers looks very different,” MC said. The long tables are gone, replaced by two, four, and six top seating with table service instead of people coming to the bar. Hop River created a hybrid service model outdoor space that the community has welcomed.

MC explained that before COVID, Hop River had two to four different events happening each week, which came to a screeching halt during the pandemic. “We value community-focused opportunities, and that was hard for me. We really had to lean into our staff’s different strengths.” So, the brewery began focusing more on food, even with a “tiny, tiny kitchen.”

The brewery also added new accounts for its packaged beer, which it began producing more than ever before. They also had time to focus on important things to staff, including adding composting and recycling to the brewery and helping with community projects.

Reality Check – MC acknowledged that not everything was miraculous. “The truth is that we are tired. We are exhausted. I think that workers in the industry now, as things start back up, are feeling the weight of the pandemic and all these changes.” She noted significant staff changes, including ownership and management, which she described as “heavy.”

To open up communication and find inspiration, the team traveled to breweries in other cities. They have an informal book club focused on management and leadership books and podcasts. “This got us thinking about what we were doing here, what did we do through COVID, how did those things shape our culture.”

Returning Forward: The Challenges and Thinking Ahead  – Right now, MC is focusing on how to increase business to reclaim their baseline, where they were before the shutdown. “We’ve seen the biggest increase we’ve ever had…I think that’s a huge testament to our staff and how they’ve been able to assume these extra responsibilities.”

As they work to return forward, Hop River’s management team has identified four focuses:

  1. Stability (in staff, business model, and culture)
  2. Capacity (inside the taproom, the patio, and distribution)
  3. Production Abilities (how to increase production for outside sales)
  4. Benchmarking (documenting goals, celebrating victories, setting expectations)

Overall, MC and the entire team at Hop River are optimistic about the future. The uncertainty and crazy challenges of the past year and a half have taught them so much. Together they’ve learned that quick pivots once thought impossible are entirely doable. And that as long as they stay positive, creative, and motivated, miracles can happen.

About Mary Corinne “MC” Lowenstein, Hop River Brewing Company. 
Lowenstein thrives on developing and marketing community engagement opportunities through experiences based on leisure activities and personal interests. She said her passion grows in providing and promoting positive interactions and connecting people through a common interest. She is also a Founder of the Northern Indiana Brewers Association and Beer Trail Passport.

This blog is based on The NIIC Restaurant Revitalization Speaker Series, focused on five key areas: Mayhem, Miracles, Marketing, Menu, and Management. This blog focuses on Miracles. Click here for a replay of the event.

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