Rebuilding America: Area restaurants and breweries finding a way to push through in midst of pandemic

Otto's employees have taken extra precautions when serving customers wearing gloves and masks.

When two new brewpubs within blocks of each other in Pittsburg opened their doors for the first time within days of each other last fall, they couldn’t have predicted that a few months later they would be doing so again — this time reopening for in-restaurant dining for the first time in weeks following the statewide coronavirus shutdown.

Though they were still open for curbside service during that time, both businesses — the Jolly Fox Brewery and Drop the H Brewing Company — took a serious hit from the restrictions put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“From week two to week three in March we suffered I think a 76 percent decline in revenue and it got worse from there,” says Mark McClain, co-owner of Drop the H. “So that was pretty tough.”

Joel Stewart, CEO and head brewmaster at the Jolly Fox, said in an interview earlier this month that business was still slower than usual even as he was allowed to re-open for in-restaurant dining.

“It’s not that much better yet,” Stewart said. “I don’t see it letting up for at least a week or two longer after, from this weekend. So probably about the end of May people will start kind of loosening up and you know, they’ve been pretty afraid, so we haven’t seen any sales translate greater than what we were during the shutdown so far.”

With Gov. Laura Kelly extending restrictions under her “Ad Astra” plan to a “Phase 1.5? this week, just when businesses such as bars that don’t serve food were thinking they would be able to reopen next week, it seems likely that the restaurant business will continue to be slow.

“As soon as we could be, we opened,” McClain said. “I want the community to be able to return to a sense of community, and being together, whether it’s breaking of bread or whatever you want to call it, that’s part of civil society. So I want that to return as quickly as possible.”

At the same time, he said, Drop the H is doing everything it can to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — although it was already meeting many of the state’s new requirements before they were put in place.

“In the food service industry, we’ve always been required to make sure that everyone knows not to come to work if they’re not feeling well, so that’s already been done,” McClain said. As far as enhanced cleaning and sanitation, Drop the H had already begun taking a proactive approach to those concerns before it had to close its doors.

“So that hasn’t changed,” McClain said. “We’re still doing the same thing.”

At the Jolly Fox, some changes have been made as the brewpub reopens.

“We’re taking every precaution we can,” Stewart said. “We took a lot of our indoor furniture and put it outside under our canopy that we have outside, and we took the furniture that we have that was under the canopy and put it out in the place where we had to play cornhole, so we technically really didn’t lose that many seats. We’ve got a huge setup outside where people can come out and have a beer, and I think you’re actually about 8 feet away or 10 feet away from everyone if you’re sitting out there, you know, for the social distancing.”

Other restaurants that have recently reopened have had to make major adjustments in response to COVID-19 as well.

“The first week everybody kind of didn’t really know what was going on, and I mean, we didn’t really know what to do,” said Blaise Main, general manager and co-owner of The Pitt.

“We tried our best and we did the curbside carryout and delivery, and it grew every week and, you know, by about the third week in we had our full kitchen staff back, our food sales were back to normal, the only thing we really missed out on was all the liquor sales — and of course seeing all of our customers. That was kind of weird for us, not seeing the faces that we were used to seeing every week.”

Carryout orders probably made up about 10 percent of The Pitt’s food sales before the coronavirus pandemic, Main said, but are now closer to 25 or 30 percent.

“Eventually I think that will change, but I do think there are also some people that may not eat out as much anymore. You know, they’ll just continue with the carryout — and that’s fine, you can still support your local businesses by doing, you know, the online sales or the carryout style.”

At Otto’s Cafe, meanwhile, curbside service has been “extremely hit and miss” said Nathen Goff, current owner of the restaurant, which has been a Pittsburgh institution going back to 1945.

“There’s some days where the phone rang for three hours straight and we just kept it going, and there are other days where it rang like maybe six times,” Goff said.

Business has been picking up again since in-restaurant dining has been allowed to resume, he said, but Otto’s can currently only seat 40 people compared to its full capacity of 135, staffing has been reduced from seven people to three, and hours have been cut from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. to 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.

For Goff, the health of his customers — many of whom are older regulars who have been coming to the restaurant for years — is a major concern. Another major group of customers at the cafe are travelers passing through Pittsburg.

“You have travelers and then you have older people, and between the two, you just don’t want to cross the streams,” Goff said.

Because of those concerns, Otto’s has been taking precautions that go above and beyond what is required by the state — wearing masks and gloves, and keeping packets of sugar, salt and other condiments that would usually be at each table behind the counter. 

“It’s just common sense for the most part,” Goff says.

“I wear gloves even when I wash dirty dishes, and then I go change them and wash my hands and then put on new gloves when I go handle my clean dishes, and then vice versa, constantly changing gloves.”

Even if state restrictions are loosened, Goff says, Otto’s will continue to take as many precautions as possible to protect the safety of customers.

With Gov. Kelly’s announcement of “Phase 1.5” of her reopening plan this week, it seems clear that in any case, restaurant owners, like everyone else, should stay prepared to expect the unexpected.

“It’s been a wild month and a half, two months,” says Main.

A Green Country brewer has released a seasonal beer named after Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees.

Marshall Brewing Company (MBC) has released the seasonal ’Grand Lake Light Ale’ to the local area. While launching a new product during a pandemic may seem out of the ordinary, the brewmasters of this Green Country ale say it did change their approach but not their overall goal. And, if all goes as planned, despite the aftermath of COVID-19, they are hoping for success. 

“While we knew that Grand Lake Light Ale would be successful, given the current COVID-19 crisis, we have a scaled approach for the beer,” said Wes 'The Godfather' Alexander, who is in charge of sales and 'other fun things' at MBC. “That being said, we expect Grand Lake Light Ale to be widely available across Oklahoma by next week.”

Meaning that around May 25, all Oklahomans will be able to have a sip of the Grand Lake Life via the new ale.  

The Grand Lake Light Ale has 5% alcohol by volume with a smooth malt flavor with a hint of sweetness and only 158 calories per can. The ale is a Kölsch-style beer, meaning it is fermented warm with a top-fermenting yeast, then conditioned at cold temperatures, much like a lager.

“Grand Lake is one of the greatest natural resources in Oklahoma, many of us grew up spending summers on the lake. I still spend summers on the lake with my family. In mid 2019, we were approached by a group representing Grand Lake led by Donnie Crain at the Grove Area Chamber of Commerce with the idea of brewing a beer to celebrate Grand Lake. The idea was appealing to Marshall for two reasons. First, we wanted celebrate the wonderful natural resource that is Grand Lake. Second, we felt like we had an opportunity to spread the word amongst craft beer drinkers and all Oklahomans about Grand Lake,” said Alexander.

According to Crain, the idea for the ale had been in the works since 2017.

“The idea for a Grand Lake beer originated on the Dr. Doug Cox's dock in Woodard Hollow on Labor Day Weekend,” said Crain. “The thought was a unique, Grand Lake-inspired beer that folks could enjoy not only at the lake but also drink back home, for our visitors, that is, to reminisce about lake and their great memories of Grand.   And from that idea, we started trying to find that partner who loved and appreciated Grand Lake like we do - and that's when we found Marshall Brewing. Based in Tulsa, like many of those who visit here or have moved here, they know, love and appreciate Grand Lake and set out to create a beer that captured the very essence of Grand Lake Life, and they did!   We knew they were the right partners as soon as we all met.”

As for the flavor of the ale, that was easy for MBC’s brewmaster.

“Marshall Brewing Founder and Brewmaster, Eric Marshall studied brewing and apprenticed in Germany. During his time there he developed a passion for traditional European ales and lagers. These beer styles have been refined over the centuries and developed for social enjoyment. In particular, the city of Cologne situated on the Rhine river was the inspiration for Grand Lake Light Ale. Cologne has a wonderful lighter style ale known as a Kölsch that Eric felt like was an excellent match for the relaxing social climate that is Grand Lake. Grand Lake Light Ale is light in color, offering smooth malt flavor and a touch of sweetness,” said Alexander.

Crain says the product speaks for itself upon taste and says that it shows MBC’s talent and dedication to the project.

“I love it! It truly captures the feelings that makes Grand Lake so special. It's light in color, offering smooth malt flavor and a touch of sweetness. The Grand Lake-inspired packaging is absolutely stunning and it's just the beer you can picture yourself enjoying with friends, old and new, at the lake, having a fun time and making great memories,” said Crain.

For those who are interested, but still wary of trying a new beer, both Alexander and Crain agree that the ale is worth the risk.

“In the age of craft beer, ‘normal’ has been greatly diluted. Craft beer is inspired by traditional ales and lagers of Europe, some of which have morphed over the years into what we think of as macro-brewed American Light Lager. Our approach with Grand Lake Light Ale was to brew a beer that was respectful of history while offering the easy drinking appeal of mass produced lager. The result is a slightly more flavorful beer with smooth characteristics that appeal to most beer drinkers. Further, drinking Grand Lake Light Ale supports local businesses,” said Alexander.

“Anyone who loves Grand Lake owes it to themselves to give the Grand Lake Light Ale a try. It truly captures the essence of Grand Lake and what makes the whole Grand Lake experience special. It tastes great and more importantly it brings to mind great memories and promises of more fun and good times in the future. Normal beers can't do that!   Plus it builds great pride in the lake and our area and supports our local businesses who sell it to our visitors and residents alike,” said Crain.

About Marshall Brewing Company

Marshall Brewing Company’s goal is to bring the art, quality, and enjoyment of craft brewing to Oklahoma. MBC does this by operating with a highly trained and educated staff that possesses a passion for top quality brewing and will settle for nothing less. Founded by fourth-generation Tulsa Eric Marshall, MBC was founded and opened in 2008 as Tulsa’s first production craft microbrewery. Marshall has a degree in International Business and German Language from the University of Tulsa. Marshall studied the art of brewing in Munich, Germany, apprenticing in multiple breweries in Germany and earning even more hands on experience as a brewer at Victory Brewing Company in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.

Rebuilding America:What will restaurants be like soon?

Grand Lake Light Ale.