Despite pandemic, Ann Arbor bars find success through reinvention

This story is part of a series about Washtenaw County businesses' response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Support for this series is provided by Ann Arbor SPARK.

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated many bars, as a state executive order has closed indoor bar service. However, some local craft cocktail and liquor enterprises have found unexpected success by reinventing their businesses.

 

"Business has actually been really good these days," says Eric Farrell, the owner of The Bar at 327 Braun Court in Ann Arbor. "We're really starting to get our feet under us."

 

The feeling of stability is a welcome change for Farrell and his staff, who rallied for financial help from the local community early in the pandemic. The bar started a crowdfunding campaign in March, which received over $11,000 in support.

 

"We've had a lot of regulars who were waiting to come back, and who have been very supportive of us every step of the way," Farrell says.

 

Farrell says he kept those regulars in mind when thinking about reopening a little over a month ago.

 

"Braun Court is a third space for many people, so I didn't want to just throw some chairs and tables out on the street and do the same old thing," he says.

 

The new offerings are far from ordinary. While in quarantine, Farrell learned to make ice cream, which features in some of the new desserts the bar offers. The bar has also reduced its food menu to mostly pizza. Farrell's chef spent a solid month in quarantine learning to make Neapolitan-style pizza. Frozen drinks were introduced in the summer and cocktails are on a preset menu, made in batches, and served on tap. Customers can now also purchase drinks packaged in retro-style stubby beer bottles.

 

"We don't have the staffing and business is not predictable enough to really have a bartender on hand right now," Farrell says. "There are just three of us on staff at any given time who are always tweaking our processes to serve our customers better."

 

Currently, Farrell is working to get some of the bar's sauces shelf-stable in jars, explaining that his team is looking at all the revenue streams they can get in place.

 

"Our plan is to try to appeal to as many people as possible, since we don't know what will happen in the fiscal year for college, or even generally with the pandemic," he says.

 

Michael Fox, sales and distribution director for Ann Arbor Distilling Company, says staff there are also uncertain about the future, but are thriving in the present moment.

 

The distillery, located at 220 Felch St. in Ann Arbor, made headlines in March when it started making and giving away free hand sanitizer to anyone who wanted it. The distillery is still giving away hand sanitizer, but it's also benefiting from sales to big companies such as Amazon and La-Z-Boy. Landscapers have also bought anywhere from 20 to 100 gallons at a time.

 

"We didn't make money on the hand sanitizer because we donated the bulk of it, but we were able to keep money coming in because of it," Fox says. "We were primarily focused on what we could do for our community."

 

Since March, Fox and his coworkers have been relentless in finding new ways to keep the distillery going. Halfway through the lockdown, they coordinated with a few other local businesses to create a virtual market. Customers could order items like cocktail kits from the distillery and products like cheeses and chocolates from partner companies.

 

"Customers enjoyed picking up their orders from the distillery. It was kind of like a little farmers market where you had to order ahead," Fox says.

 

While the virtual market is no longer available, the cocktail kits, which often sold out their weekly stock, are still available for purchase in the distillery's tasting room. Fox says they will be a permanent offering.

 

The distillery also recently purchased a canning machine and introduced canned cocktails. Customers can order them online for pickup or on the distillery's patio.

 

The distillery is continuing to think creatively about the future. Staff plan to redesign the company's entire website to be more suited for e-commerce. There are plans to transform at least half of the distillery's tasting room into a retail store, and in anticipation of colder weather staff are exploring purchasing heat lamps and fire pits.

 

"If this current model keeps up, no one is going to want to cram into a small indoor space," Fox says. "But we can work around that and perhaps even take advantage of the fact that kids and their parents will need something to do."

 

He envisions a mini-carnival where the distillery gives away s’mores kits to kids and their parents can enjoy hot drinks or cocoa.

 

"And when they're done, they can walk home with a bottle of gin under their arm," Fox says.

For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.

 

Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at jaishreeedit@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of Ann Arbor Distilling Company and The Bar at 327 Braun Court.

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