Consumption in the time of coronavirus

How will customers react to COVID-related restrictions?

Asher Brewing Co. uses social media posts to inform guests about new COVID related rules

Twisted Pine Brewing Company is open for business. So is Wild Provisions Beer Project, Uhl’s Brewing Co., Liquid Mechanics Brewing Company, Redgarden Restaurant and Brewery, Ska Street Brewsitllery, Cellar West Artisan Ales, Crystal Springs Brewing Company, Left Hand Brewing Company, Wibby Brewing…

Well, technically, they’ve all been open in some capacity for a while, but now their doors are open, and you’re welcome to swing by, grab a beer — a little dinner if the mood suits you — sit down at a table and enjoy it as we used to in the before times. Well, kind of. There are rules: Customers must wear masks when entering, exiting and using the facilities. Tables are spaced six feet apart. Parties are capped at eight. No getting cozy with your neighbors, and so on.

You know the drill by now. You might even know where the rules are laxer than other places. If you spent any time out and about, you know there is an uneven divide among consumers out there. Some wear masks; some don’t. Some follow the directional decals plastered to the floors; some don’t. Some allow for the proper socially distanced amount of space, and some are like Jewish grandmothers at graduation.

But that’s if you’re heading out in the first place. The state has capped dine-in seating to 50% capacity (or 50 patrons, whichever’s less), which seems like a good measurement of who wants to come out and who wants to stay in. Those of you out there are out and damn proud of it. Those who aren’t probably won’t be coming out until a vaccine rolls around.

Here’s the rub: Consumer spending accounts for 70% of U.S. economic activity (according to The Bureau of Economic Analysis). And if 70% seems high, here’s another stat to go with: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 71% of all non-farm payroll employees work in the service sector.

That’s the elephant in the room: America is a consumer-driven market hinging on “the customer’s always right” motto. A visit to the taproom circa June 2019 meant you could sit wherever you liked, stay as long as you wanted and talk to whoever would listen. If you couldn’t decide between a pint of pale, stout or sour, you could try all three before money was involved. And if the beer wasn’t to your liking, chances are they would pour you another one at no charge. The drinkers were in control.

Those luxuries are in the past, but not the attitudes. And on top of all these rules, breweries are running with reduced staff (possibly at reduced wages). And they have to clean. Constantly.

Nothing about this pandemic has been easy. Nor will getting out of it. Paying more for less isn’t what American consumers are used to, but it’s going to be a fact of life for the foreseeable future.

What’s the answer? Be kind and be patient when you head out there. Everyone is trying to do the best they can with the hand they’ve been dealt.   

To enforce or not to enforce?

What leverage will breweries have if a customer decides to ignore the rules? The Brewers Association’s June 5 industry communiqué, “Encouraging Staff and Customer Social Distancing Compliance,” boils down to head the problems off at the pass. Establish clear communication on what is and what is not acceptable behavior before customers even sit down.                                                   

For a good example, head to Twisted Pine. They check you in at the host stand, scan your temperature, explain how to get to the bathrooms, how to order, hand you a bottle of hand sanitizer, and then escort you to your table. It’s effective and clear — which will be crucial over the next couple of months because the inverse could get ugly. As Dave Query of the Big Red F restaurant group put it in an email from May 18: “Telling an adult to ‘put your mask on’ is a different game. A Target employee had his arm broken last week by a customer for uttering those exact words. Lots of confrontations on the trails and sidewalks and supermarket aisles from the wearers and the non-wearers of masks. Put those opposing viewpoints in a more confined restaurant dining room, and you have the potential of all sorts of issues arising. Add alcohol, and it’s a mask party of the wrong kind.”   

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