By LAINIE ALFARO
The pandemic has created setbacks for local breweries, distilleries, and bars — even for those who stayed open by moving outdoors or offering to to-go service. Due to safety regulations and being in more stringent tiers, most alcohol-service businesses have been closed the whole year.
“We were open just a month/month and a half the whole time,” said Victor Tellez, part-owner of Alibi Bar, located at 5286 Baltimore Dive in La Mesa. “The uncertainty of ‘you can open again’ and then ‘close down again’ — we just figured ‘when is it going to end?’”
However, on April 7 San Diego transitioned into the orange tier due to the 14-day rolling average percentage of positive cases at 2.2%.
With reopenings in the orange tier, local brewery Little Miss Brewing, which operates a tasting room at 5208 Jackson Drive in La Mesa, is set to open a new location in San Diego. This opening was postponed eight months ago in July when the State of California ordered for the second time the closure of indoor activities for bars and restaurants.
“I actually thought the formal lockdown thing was not going to happen again,” said Greg Malkin, operations manager of Little Miss Brewing. “I thought that after we got out of the first one it didn’t make a whole lot of logical sense to do it again. Now, we’re actually able to open, but it was a lot about timing.”
The timing of reopening in the orange tier marked an opportunity for breweries, distilleries, and bars to regain a sense of normalcy. Bars serving food can now seat customers indoors at 25% capacity while establishments not serving food remain outdoors. However, the transition into the orange tier was not soon enough for some businesses according to Tellez.
“We are one of the lucky ones. There are many people, many businesses that did not survive and closed their doors forever. We were put in that position. If we were to close again, it would be for good,” he said.
Malkin also explained how the transition into orange tier wasn’t the easiest. “It was a little bit weird. It was sort of like going from zero to sixty in the last month,” he said. “The amount of requests for various different things has gone up drastically. Everyone who has been having ideas in the pandemic about events and all kinds of stuff has been contacting us.”
Despite welcomed business and an influx of customers, only recently have businesses rebounded and become profitable.
“Our revenues are down by 60 to 70 percent. We weren’t able to have outside service, so we had to close down a great portion of it. You’re only allowed x amount of people, so it’s going to take a long time to recover,” Tellez said.
For Little Miss Brewing, January was the first month they became profitable again.
“The business is rough, but it was doable,” Malkin said. “The first two months were not sustainable when it was to-go only. But ever since we were allowed some variation inside, we were able to at least break even. And since then, it’s been getting better.”
Though facing financial difficulties, unlike Alibi, La Mesa’s Little Miss Brewing remained open the entire year. “The brewers were considered essential. Brewers kept brewing. I know a lot of brewers who because they didn’t know what was going to happen, laid off a bunch of their brewers the first month, and then they had to bring everyone back,” Malkin said.
The biggest problem businesses like Little Miss Brewing and Alibi faced was the feeling of uncertainty.
“There’s no clarity. Nobody knows what’s going on. One day it’s one set of rules, the next day it’s another set of rules. You’ve got different agencies trying to enforce laws that there’s no precedence on. Nobody knows what they’re doing,” Tellez said.
Malkin also said that the confusion revolved around the lack of consensus among enforcers of the restrictions. “The real frustrating thing was that depending on who you asked, you got different answers. So, the health department would tell you one thing and then ABC might tell you something different. The police department might tell you something completely different.”
Malkin shared some of the questions Little Miss Brewing grappled with: “Are we allowed to be open are we not allowed to be open? Are we allowed to be inside or is it partial inside? What are the rules on the food? Do they [customers] have to have the food in front of them?”
Despite the questions and lack of communication, Malkin and Tellez actually found a sense of comradery in the brewing industry and bar scene through sharing common losses.
“I really feel heartfelt for those who lost their businesses due to COVID-19. I appreciate local support from the ones who did make it so we can get out from this mess. We’re trying to get through all of this together,” Tellez said.
“I am friends with maybe 15 business owners and three of them are out of business,” Malkin said. “Most of them have had to cut back drastically, some of them are breweries. If we need a bag of hops, if we need contacts, we’ve regularly helped out Pibb. Saint Archer has been super nice to us. Breweries work together, instead of getting at each other’s throats.”
Now in the orange tier and with greater vaccine availability, Malkin and Tellez are hopeful this shift will encourage La Mesans to get out into the bar scene and support local businesses again.
“It’s good for local businesses to get local support,” Tellez said. “We’ve been spending money on getting rid of glassware. Everything is disposable. [We’ve been] keeping the place stocked with handsantizer, gloves, etc. Making sure everybody is following the rules, taking temperatures. I am just hoping we can get back to as normal as possible, if ever.”
Likewise, Malkin is added, “Seek out the local restaurants and bars and breweries and shop there. If there’s ever a time to support those businesses, it’s been this past year and now. Plus, that money stays here. If you spend money in San Diego, the likelihood of that money staying in San Diego is much greater, which goes back to employees.”
— Elaine Alfaro is an editorial intern for San Diego Community Newspaper Group.