A Homebrew Shop Hops BackCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | Bitter & Esters, a homebrew supply shop in Brooklyn, returns to community-focused operations. Published: October 19, 2021
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Before the pandemic ground brick and mortar retail to a halt, Bitter & Esters, New York City’s only homebrew supply shop, was a destination for DIY craft beer enthusiasts across the five boroughs and beyond. Named Homebrew Shop of the Year by the American Homebrewers Association in 2019, the Prospect Heights storefront was a testament to the unparalleled value of IRL community: a place where you could go for expert brewing advice, but also to participate in group classes and beer swaps and to make friends with other beer lovers. Of course, that all had to change in March 2020. Though John LaPolla and Douglas Amport, the shop’s co-owners, managed to scrape by on ecommerce sales for over a year, they jumped at the chance to return to a version of their original business model as soon as they could. Keep reading for my conversation with John.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did Bitter & Esters come to be?
I met my business partner, Douglas, through filmmaking. One day, over beers, we said, “Why don't we open a homebrew shop?” We've been in business since 2011. Currently, we are the only homebrew supply shop in New York City. There were other homebrew supply shops when we opened, and each one slowly closed because it's a difficult business as far as profit margin, and a lot of the competition is online. What we emphasize is service. When we give you our business card, you get our personal phone numbers and you can call or text us any time, with any question, because homebrewing raises a lot of questions. People are very passionate about the hobby and they want to make the best beer possible.
What did the spring 2020 lockdown mean for your business?
I’ve got to praise Doug for this, because he was the one who was like, “We have to continue as a business.” I wasn't thinking that way; I was just thinking, Ahh! Luckily, about two years earlier, we were talking about expanding the business, and I said, “Why don’t we put money into a web store [instead of opening another space]?” So by the time the pandemic hit, our web store was fully functional — and it was a saving grace for us. We had curbside pickup or UPS delivery, and we would come in every morning and just fulfill orders for people. The store became a fulfillment center; it looked terrible, because we had all our stock upstairs.
Obviously, the biggest downside was that people were sick; it never eluded us that there was a freaking pandemic happening. Also, before we closed down, you could come and brew beer at the store, and we had a big array of classes that we taught on premises. Both of those were pretty important revenue streams for us, and both of them were cut off right away. Immediately, we revamped the classes for Zoom. They were nowhere near as successful as the in-store classes because everybody was Zoomed out, but we tried. And we got rid of the brew on premises [business], which was a good decision for us, actually. Although it was a revenue stream, it wasn't keeping us open. It was way too much work.
Who's on your staff and how did they fare over the pandemic?
When we made the decision to close the doors, my manager, Jack, was living up near Columbia on the Upper West Side. He said, "I can't do the commute." We were like, “Yeah, you're not riding the subway every day during a pandemic.” He took a leave, and that was very difficult. We had two part-time employees who also both said, “We can't do this.” We understood. My girlfriend, Carla, lost her work — she was doing catering — so she came to help out part time with us. It was me, Doug, and Carla doing all the orders for months. Jack came back six, seven months later, before we reopened the store. He moved to Brooklyn, so it was a lot easier for him to come in. It’s fantastic [to have him back]. Now it's the four of us. That's it.
Did you receive any emergency grants or loans?
We did. One of the reasons we could bring Jack back was because we got the PPP grant, which was really helpful. Even though we were busy, we definitely lost revenue by losing the classes and the brew on premises. But people have been extremely supportive and lots of new people have learned how to brew during lockdown. At the time, I joked with customers, “You ran out of puzzles, so now you're brewing beer!” Also, people ran out of beer. One customer said, “I had two kegs when the lockdown happened, so I figured that would last the summer. It lasted two weeks."
How long were you closed for in-store shopping?
Nobody came in for 15 months.
Wow. How did you decide to reopen, and what did it take to do so?
Places were starting to reopen and we were seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, so we set a date: July 1st. We wanted to have in-person classes, and people were itching to talk to us in person. But like I said, the place was a fulfillment center. It was a mess. A week before we opened, we said, “We should probably do something about this.” We did all this construction: painted the ceiling, put up new pegboards, moved the cash wrap back, made more room for people to move. We worked really hard and fast to make the place better. When people came in, they were like, “Oh my God, this is wonderful.”
Douglas, left, and John, right, renovating the space to reopen / Photography via Bitter & Esters
What did it feel like to be back?
The first month was a little bit of a transition in terms of actually talking to people again for periods of time.
Can you elaborate on that?
There's a difference between Zoom chatting or chatting through the door. [Speaking in the store] is more social. It was weird getting my brain to adjust to seeing people after being isolated for 15 months. I didn’t recognize some [regulars] with masks on — we’re still being extremely careful and asking people to wear masks. A month or two into it, it finally got a bit easier. People are getting used to the classes. At first, they were a little nervous about it, but we've been adamant about vaccination, so they feel safer. We were able to bring back one of our instructors because [attendance] picked up.
You're on a very commercial stretch of Washington Avenue; how have you and neighboring businesses leaned on each other over the past year and a half?
We struck up stronger relationships with our neighbors, not that we weren’t friendly before. I found myself deliberately buying takeout and tipping larger to help support fellow businesses. We saw a couple of businesses close. The one that made me feel the worst was The Way Station, which was a great club right across the street from us. That was terrible. I have a friend who owns Tooker Alley, which is [on Washington Avenue] right around the corner from my house. Almost every day on my way home, I would stop to talk to him, maybe have a drink. He's still going, and he fought hard for that. He's a survivor.
How is business right now?
We're doing well. I'm in charge of ordering things, so I look at diagnostics from earlier times ... but all that shit’s off the table. 2020 is not something I can take information from; maybe some, but not a lot. And then everything was completely different in 2019. I have to rely more on instinct now. We've been doing a lot more promotional work. I see [sales] picking up every week. I think we'll end the year down from our projections, but I don't think it will be terrible.
That's a funny question. You used to have this idea of what you were going to do next, and then the pandemic made you realize that you don't know what's coming next. Hopefully not another pandemic — that would suck. We just want to stay open and keep serving the community. The idea of expansion is always in the mind of a business owner, but we don't know how we would expand at this point. Right now, we want to get through the year, see how it works out and if we have to adjust the business. Maybe we won't have to do anything and we can just keep chugging along. It's both mine and my business partner's only source of income, so keeping it going is great for keeping food on the table. But yeah, what's next is a little fuzzy.
How to help:
- Visit the store at 700 Washington Ave, Brooklyn, NY (open daily from noon - 6 p.m.)
- Shop online
- Book a class
- Follow on IG
Until next time,