As Burlington Beer Works Brewery and Restaurant wrapped up a highly successful first year in downtown Burlington last March, its immediate future looked far less certain. The global pandemic was shutting down businesses – especially restaurants and bars – across the nation. As the March 30 anniversary of the Beer Works’ first year approached, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper ordered restaurants to close for inside dining and drinking.
And no one could even begin to guess when things might reopen.
It put restaurant owners and managers in a precarious position. They had to find new revenue streams and ways to slash costs in order to survive. Staffs were cut. Takeout and delivery took the forefront. Tracy Schmidt, general manager of Burlington Beer Works Brewery and Restaurant, was a leader in making changes geared toward keeping the business open and a skeleton staff employed as the COVID-19 coronavirus kept people indoors, masked and physically distant.
But a potentially dark moment revealed some rewarding light.
“The thing I have to say is that the community really did rally around us and we definitely felt the love and support. That’s why we could make it through COVID,” Schmidt said. “My team acknowledges that and they acknowledge it very consistently. They felt how much they were supported during COVID. The amount of takeout we did was outstanding between March and June.”
Today Burlington Beer Works heads into its third year of operation after surviving lean and scary months during the height and assorted spikes in the pandemic. Last year for March and April the building on Front Street was almost deserted save for a handful of staff members preparing takeout. Contrast that to last Saturday (March 27), which, was the busiest brunch service in the restaurant’s history – even with the restaurant only able to seat 75 percent indoors, Schmidt said. Friday March 26, Beer Works recorded its busiest Friday dinner service.
With thousands being vaccinated daily and better weather, it seems that the slow turn toward normal – and we’re far from normal yet – is at least starting.
“That is the beauty of the vaccinations and people following those guidelines. People are ready to get out,” Schmidt said.
For Schmidt and the Beer Works staff brighter days couldn’t get here soon enough. They were challenged by survival during the full shutdown and moving to all takeout. When things did reopen a bit, the customers who refused to follow guidelines for masks or physical distancing made a tough situation even more exhausting.
“Honestly the mental endurance was a bit more challenging than I originally anticipated,” Schmidt said. “Obviously we’re all a little nervous. We’re all a little scared of spreading COVID. We wanted to provide a safe environment for our team and extend that to our guests. But regardless of what side we were on you have to look after the greater good and move forward. That was our biggest challenge.”
When dining inside reopened with limited capacity in June was when some conflict arose. Looking back, Schmidt said it was difficult to wrap her mind around some of the criticism and complaints from those who refused to wear a mask.
“Our team was excited to come back. They embraced the guidelines we put in place and the guidelines by the state. Our team fully embraced it and adhered to the standards. We want you to always feel safe here and know what to expect,” Schmidt said. “The anti-maskers who viewed it as a political message more than a health concern made things a little difficult. They want to do what they want to do. But to come in and present that challenge to my team was difficult. Once we got through the first couple of months it became easier.”
On the plus side, avenues to more outdoor dining spaces became available because Schmidt took her plea to Burlington City Council, which set up guidelines citywide. Council also allowed for the closure during weekends of the section of Main Street beside the Beer Works so more outdoor seating could be added beyond the patio.
“We also started seeing more people who had never been here before. They heard we were adhering to the state guidelines. They kept coming back because they knew they could trust he environment,” Schmidt said.
As year three begins for the co-op and its more than 2,000 “community owners,” Schmidt is optimistic. The state is reopening little by little and the COVID case numbers seem to be leveling off. The rooftop space, only accessible indoors, will open for regular use once restaurants can be at full capacity again. Vaccinations and improved treatments for those who are infected have lifted a bit of weight from the community. Downtown Burlington is beginning to open up again and new businesses are starting. Schmidt will be co-owner with Holly Treadwell of Tanner’s Wine Bar, across the street from Burlington Beer Works. There are signs of hope.
“I anticipate continued growth. Everyone wants to plan an event right now,” Schmidt said. “It’s an exciting time for us. Since restaurants have eased up, the number of guests we see on a weekly basis continues to increase. I’m ready to start having owners socials again. I want to bring them back in and have social interaction.”
And Schmidt said the past year has galvanized her team. They are stronger and more cohesive. She noticed it on Saturday during the busy brunch service.
“We’re having the busiest Saturday brunch that we’ve ever had and I walk upstairs to the kitchen and they have turned up the music and they’re busting it out singing,” Schmidt said. “Normally if the kitchen is busy there’s a lot of yelling. So this was nice. It was refreshing.”