On Dec. 9, Kevin Varner was frustrated. The owner of Hunter-Gatherer Brewery was trying to explain his reasoning for temporarily closing down the Main Street location of his Columbia brewery to focus solely on his second location.
The pandemic played a role, as did diminished business at that indoor-centric downtown location. That all made sense. What didn’t was how to react in the face of the virus' continued spread — and it still irked him. Varner ran through various scenarios.
Would it be safer if the windows were open? What are the percentile chances of people getting sick? How does that shift based on a 3,000-square-foot restaurant? What if it’s 5,000 square feet?
“I sure would like to have that information,” he said. “It would sure help me know whether to know I’m being irresponsible.”
This much Varner does know. By closing Main Street — Hunter-Gatherer's initial location, which celebrated 25 years in business earlier this year —the brewery’s location at the Curtiss-Wright Hangar in Rosewood can move to being open seven days a week and begin serving brunch on Saturdays and Sundays. It’s a bigger space with ample outdoor space, so he felt it would be safer. If the business is there, he believed he could keep all of his employees' working, too.
Varner planned to modify the space as well.
Tables will be moved 10 feet apart, with a side table for drinks and food to be delivered too (the server won’t hand the food to customers), and the customer space will be divided in half with an insulated curtain, one indoor with heating/cooling and another space with open doors, to accommodate additional groups, including those uncomfortable dining inside.
He further hoped to be able to institute a team-based system for his kitchen staff, so if one person did get sick, another group of kitchen workers will be able to maintain the operation. However, he admitted that’s difficult to work out.
“You know we’re trying to give people as much confidence as we can that if you’re going to go out that the Hangar is the safest place to go,” he explained.
New COVID-19 cases in South Carolina topped 2,000 for six days between Dec. 2 and 7, and the seven-day average broke the previous record.
As far as Brook Bristow, executive director of the South Carolina Craft Brewers Guild, knows, Hunter-Gatherer’s temporary closure is the first for a brewery location in both Columbia and the state at large since breweries returned to business after the first wave of COVID-19 mandates were lifted.
Is the move a harbinger of things to come in the industry? It’s tough to say, he explained.
“Obviously the numbers are high and people do want to be careful, so yeah I don’t know,” he said. “We’re going to have to watch that carefully. I feel like maybe it won’t be as high as last time on closures, because a lot of people have been getting ready for winter time anyway.”
So far, the state’s craft brewing industry has persevered through the challenging business environment well, Bristow posited. Not one of the state’s 113 have closed, can and distribution sales have stayed steady and taproom sales have rebounded as well.
He hedged that statement by indicating that most breweries are still experiencing 10 to 20 percent drops in sales over last year.
That’s certainly the case for Varner’s Main Street location. He said that lately, it has struggled to fill more than a handful of tables each night.
“(With) winter weather and with the number of cases in SC going up, you know, I have to assume that business at Main Street was going to get worse before it gets better,” Varner shared.
Like most hospitality-oriented businesses, the changing season, colder temperatures and quicker sunsets have hurt. It's something numerous Columbia restaurant owners have cited as either a damning reality or impending fear.
Bristow expected winter to be tougher than usual for the brewery industry, too.
“Winter is usually awful and, especially right now, when a lot of places lose outdoor seating and (there’s the) issue of what does consumer confidence look like?” he elaborated. “My suspicion is that it will be worse than usual.”
Varner said whether or not other breweries should be mirroring his move wasn’t something he could weigh in on.
“Like I said I don’t think any of us are fully informed on what the risk factors are," he reasoned. "(There will) be some customers that feel okay about going under these circumstances, and some don’t.
“I don’t think it's my place to put judgements on what other people are doing.”