Dearborn-based Downey Brewing Company has made it through the COVID-19 pandemic so far with relatively little business loss – thanks to growlers, cans, and a roomy taproom.
The Dearborn brewery closed its doors the day before St. Patrick's Day, missing one of its biggest days of the year, in keeping with state orders. But Dean Downey says he and his sons/brewery co-founders Daniel and John Downey made a "quick turn in our business plan" that helped them survive the pandemic. They immediately started advertising growler sales, not just for curbside pickup but for delivery. Dean Downey says that if customers got their orders in by 5 p.m., he'd deliver to them personally the same day. He drove as far as Wyandotte to make some deliveries.
"There were times when I would leave here about 6:30 or 7:00 and have about 80 miles of delivery of different things," Downey says. "I'd have several cases of beer."
Although March was difficult for the business, Downey says delivery and carryout orders replaced all his normal business for April.
"People had nothing to do, so they would order the beer," he says. "They thought that was the greatest thing."
From the time the brewery opened in 2016 up to the start of the pandemic, Downey estimates that he'd sold less than 300 growlers. But he ended up buying at least 1,500 growlers to meet his customers' demand since the pandemic hit.
"It just really, really exploded," he says.
The growlers were so popular, in fact, that the brewery encountered a shortage of them.
"At one point, we couldn't get any amber-colored growlers," Downey says. "No one had them in the United States."
That prompted the Downeys to purchase a canning machine and begin canning their brews for the first time. They ran into a shortage there, as well. Standard 12-ounce beer cans weren't available, a problem brewers nationwide have encountered during the pandemic. But the Downeys opted to package their product in 16-ounce cans instead.
Downey says growler and can sales have slowed back down when bars and restaurants were allowed to reopen the indoor business. Now that Michigan's epidemic order has out a three-week pause on indoor service, he'll be returning back to those to get him through.
But while business was open, Downey says it was either on par with or slightly below last year's. He attributes that relative resilience both to the brewery's patio, which was popular with customers during the warmer months, and its taproom's large, 15,000-square-foot, indoor warehouse space that can accommodate people with ample social distancing)
"My place is so large that I can handle quite a few people," Downey says. "We have eight to 10 feet between tables. As long as we stay within that 50% [capacity] margin, we're fine."
Downey thinks the large space has helped reassure some customers who might feel uncomfortable drinking in other, more cramped indoor spaces. Even with the slowdown in growler and can sales, he says he's not too worried about making it through the winter.
"But I'm still noticing that it's not quite as busy as it would normally be," he adds. "I'm not sure if it's going to take the vaccine to get that going or what."