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Microbrewery's pandemic battle plan: 'hunker down and innovate'

Half Hitch Brewing Company "took a tumble like everybody else, but we were able to get up nice and quick," says Kyle Heier, CEO and co-founder of the family run business in Cochrane.

COCHRANE — It's said every cloud has a silver lining. So, apparently, does a pandemic and the Half Hitch Brewing Company has found it.

"Everybody knows about the bad, about (businesses) shutting the doors and we're no different in that regard," co-founder and CEO Kyle Heier said. "But there were all sorts of silver linings and successes that we were able to capitalize on."

The microbrewery was the first restaurant in Cochrane, the town of 29,000 about 20 minutes west of Calgary's city limits, to close its dining room in early March because of COVID-!9, and to close before government restrictions required it.

But it also opened two planned takeout and delivery operations — one in the city of Airdrie, north of Calgary, and another in Calgary's Kensington neighbourhood, just outside Cowtown's downtown, employing two to three people at each location.

The experience of running only takeout and delivery in Cochrane perfected the model that is used at the two new locations.

Half Hitch's four main beers — Farmer's Daughter pale ale, Papa Bear prairie ale, Fire N' Fury red ale, and Shotgun Wedding brown ale — are brewed in Cochrane and served with a menu of "high-end comfort food" including fancy poutine, pork sandwiches, and burgers.

Sales at the Cochrane location took a "deep dive" of 40 per cent when the restaurant closed and just about all of the 20-25 full- and part-time employees, including 10 staff that had been with the business since it opened in 2016, were laid off, Heier said.

"That was pretty much the only way to stay afloat, but the margins were significantly increased because when you're running strictly takeout and delivery the manpower required (one to three people) is significantly decreased as well.

"We took a tumble like everybody else, but we were able to get up nice and quick."

When you rely on operations as usual and operations as usual are banned, you have to "hunker down and innovate," he continued.

Although business was down, the beer on tap didn't spoil because of the brewery's growler program allowing people to order two-litre growler jugs filled with draft for takeout and delivery, and outside clients with draft accounts.

Half Hitch closed its restaurant before required to because, as social gathering sites, restaurants and bars are essentially a cesspool for COVID contraction, Heier noted, and on seeing people on social media reacting very negatively to businesses that vowed to keep operating (before dining-in was banned), "we just said that's not going to be us. We're going (to close early) to make sure that we take all the measures to make sure people's safety is taken care of and people really, really appreciated that right off the bat."

It's also why the business was slow to reopen its dining room at half-capacity on Friday, June 5, three weeks after the ban on dining rooms was lifted.

"There were a few places in Cochrane that went half-capacity at the beginning when it was allowable. They got lambasted on social media and we were happy not to be part of that. The community gave a very warm embrace because of the measures that we took ... and the community support after was immense."

The reopening of the restaurant follows the reopening of the upstairs and main-floor patios three weeks ago. Patrons order their food at the takeout counter and then eat it on the patio.

The business is operating with about 115 seats total or 50 per cent of pre-pandemic numbers.

The core of longtime employees that were laid off are back, along with about another half-dozen mostly full-timers. All staff wear masks and sanitize each table and chair after every use.

The pandemic's effect on Half Hitch falls between "better than expected and what we expected," Heier said, thanks in part to it being a family owned and operated business.

Older brother Chris Heier is the brewmaster; younger sister Brittney Kozloski takes care of marketing and restaurant operations; younger brother Chace Kozloski manages operations; and Kyle's wife. Mayra Heier, is the controller. Their parents Lisa (Kozloski) Heier and Michael Heier are the major shareholders and pitch in where needed.

The idea to go into business together came up during a typical Sunday family dinner four years ago. A bakery and cheese factory were rejected in favour of opening a brewery.

The name Half Hitch was chosen because it "rolled off the tongue," Heier explained, "and the half hitch knot has to be tied to something in order for it to work properly so we use that as a metaphor for family and community.

"We've tied ourselves to this community, we've been here for 20 years, and as a family we act the same way. Without the community we'd be nothing," he said.

"As a family we're very flexible in our ability to manoeuvre certain situations (like not paying themselves during the pandemic). You could have five people at any given time not drawing any pay from the company and all of a sudden you save yourself a boatload of money, whereas, if you're working with a mess of outside employees you don't have that flexibility. Our mindset is you've got to do what you've got to do.

"Right now we're still not taking any draws (pay). We're going to wait and see what happens in the month ahead of us before we start looking at that because, from what we're hearing from Alberta Health, they're not looking at any sort of full reopening for another eight months or so."

Chris Zdeb is a freelance writer and regular contributor to AlbertaPrimeTimes.com. This story was funded by the Facebook Journalism Project Supporting Local News Coverage of COVID-19 Program via the Local Media Foundation.

 





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