A little more than a year ago I sat across a table from Tracy Schmidt for the first time. It was also my first time inside Burlington Beer Works Brewery and Restaurant, which was preparing to open after years of planning, fundraising and preperation. Schmidt had just returned from Raleigh with the state license to sell alcohol. Next up would be an event as part of the city’s St. Patrick’s Day festival followed by the official opening on March 30, 2019.
While there was a training session for new staff on the first floor, we moved to the second floor for a discussion about one of the most anticipated businesses to open in Burlington’s downtown in a few years. Many of the co-op’s “owners” had invested their portion four or five years prior to seeing the vision realized. Schmidt, hired as general manager in September of 2018 from 21C Hotel in downtown Durham, was keenly aware of how interested people were in the emerging brewpub and restaurant.
As the restaurant and brewery prepared to open, Schmidt wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. No one is when a new business officially gets started. Training a staff, building a kitchen, creating a culture, adjusting menus, altering hours, managing expectations and developing events are just a fraction of the challenges new restaurants and bars face. Then new and unexpected issues arise like changing chefs, which occurred twice.
So Schmidt entered year one with multiple questions and addressed nearly all of them. Ironically, as the Beer Works enters year two today (March 30, 2020) Schmidt is dealing with its most daunting problem to date — survival during the COVID-19 pandemic that has closed dining areas and bars statewide and across the nation. Schmidt responded quickly by creating a takeout and delivery plan even before the official decree by Gov. Roy Cooper to shutter inside eating and drinking. Other downtown establishments like Smitty’s, Valerio’s, Danny’s Cafe and Zack’s did the same.
“Our owners and the community have been incredibly supportive. Yesterday we actually did our normal Thursday (revenue) volume. It was all carry out,” Schmidt said via telephone on Friday (March 27). That new normal kept us from sitting across the table as we did the year before. Asked what the most popular food item is right now, Schmidt laughed and said, “We sold a ton of smashburgers. The burger is still our most popular item.”
In its first year Burlington Beer Works has developed a loyal following of people who enjoy the great food, excellent beer (thanks to brewer Jeremy Hunt), quality drinks and quiet but friendly, engaging atmosphere. There is no loud music or sports on TV. It’s a go-to place for folks who enjoy conversation and friendly engagement with friends and acquaintances. That’s attributed to the “culture of hospitality” that Schmidt had hoped to create. It has hosted private parties, wedding receptions, the reception for the first downtown mural and dozens of other special gatherings. Today it would ordinarily host a first anniversary party, but circumstances dictate otherwise.
Still, there are things to note and quietly celebrate.
“There are a couple of things I’m incredibly proud of,” Schmidt says. “The fact that we have been able to put this team together. Staffing has been our biggest challenge from day one. Hiring people for a company they are unaware of to begin with and then creating the right culture is a challenge. I’m really proud of how far this team has come.”
The popularity of the restaurant and brewery altered the original staffing plan. Schmidt thought 24 to 30 employees would be sufficient but during the busy season the Beer Works employed 48 people — “49 including myself,” Schmidt added and also noted that the restaurant paid out $672,000 in payroll over the first nine months of operation, which indicates its economic impact. On very busy nights it’s not unusual to see Beer Works board members Sharon Dent and Eric Henry pitching in to help.
It’s that kind of place. Part of creating a culture for the Beer Works is also building a community. The restaurant is committed to sourcing locally whenever possible but also keeping the cost of menu items affordable when compared to other downtown options. “We want people to understand why it might cost a little more. It’s because we do source locally and it does come at a cost,” Schmidt said.
One goal for the first year was creating experiences for visitors not only at the Beer Works but in all of Burlington’s developing downtown. Events have included a popular monthly comedy night, Brew HaHa — one included a partnership between the restaurant and the Paramount Theater across the street. Schmidt worked with other business owners to create a monthly Art Walk that carries the summertime Fourth Friday events year-round. During the first Art Walk in February, Beer Works patrons were treated to a walk-through by a jazz combo playing “Playing When the Saints go Marching In.” Note that I am in the video below (Thanks Sara Beth Hardy!).
“We need to continue to create something and provide an avenue for people to have experiences downtown,” Schmidt said. “My biggest hope is that what Casey and Emily Lewis are doing with Owl and Rabbit Gallery will spark more interest in downtown. Until Casey and Emily stepped up we were just waiting. We need to get people to see there is a value in spending a weekend night in downtown Burlington rather than going to Greensboro.” Schmidt is referring to the Lewises recent purchase of three downtown buildings, one would greatly expand their Owl and Rabbit art gallery. To read more about those plans go here.
It’s important for downtown to continue to grow and add new businesses, particularly restaurants. “I’m ready for another restaurant to come here. The more options we have for people who can’t wait the better,” Schmidt said. “We take on so many large groups on Friday, Saturday and Sunday without reservations. It would be a lot more seamless if people would just make a reservation so we can plan accordingly for the evening. We want to accommodate everybody and sometimes it’s a little difficult.”
One thing that caught Schmidt by surprise this first year is the number of people who don’t realize the brewery is also a restaurant — and a good one. “When we’re doing community outreach events like the Cheers for Chocolate Festival or the Spring Home Show we meet a high number of people who still don’t know that we do food. The name of our place is Burlington Beer Works Brewery and Restaurant. Restaurant is in our name but they can’t get past the beer to our food. We are a brewery first but we have a wonderful restaurant that I need to figure out how to market better,” Schmidt said.
The most difficult thing for Schmidt to overcome this past year was the unexpected death in November of Bob Hykes at age 74 from a heart issue. He had his hand in nearly every aspect of creating Burlington Beer Works along with his wife Kathy Hykes. They are the owners of the building on Front Street, one of the oldest in Burlington and he played a major role in the renovations and in developing what the Beer Works would become. “There was so much of a partnership between him and I. That is what I’m missing most right now. Bob was in the building with me five days out of seven unless he was out of town,” Schmidt said. “I feel like Burlington Beer Works is just like an extension of who I am and I was gifted that opportunity by Bob and Kathy and our board. I can’t express properly how grateful I am for all of them.”
Schmidt wants to continue building relationships with other downtown businesses, an effort that was part of her first-year strategy that she wants to further and grow as part of driving momentum downtown. “Everybody wants to feel like they’re part of something. By connecting with other business owners we know we’re all in this together. We motivate each other,” Schmidt said.
Looking ahead to year two isn’t easy at the moment. Navigating the next few weeks of stay-at-home orders, quarantines and possible health issues related to COVID-19 will be a brutal time for people in the restaurant and other service industries. Because the dining area and bar are closed to the public with only takeout or delivery service available, Schmidt had to trim her staff to around 14 people.
“In the future the thing I’m most excited about is reuniting our team. I’m ready for everybody to be back together,” Schmidt said. “We’re working very hard right now but we miss getting the interaction with guests we usually get. But we got to put our head down and work through it.”
Schmidt had planned to open the rooftop area in April after proper lighting and furnishing are added. But that is on hold for now. No one knows how long the virus threat will linger and halt normal life here and elsewhere.
Schmidt hopes it’s soon.
“I’m ready for the patio season,” she said.