This East Village Bar Now Sells YogurtCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | How ABC Beer Co. is diversifying to survive. Published: April 21, 2020
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I keep reading that this pandemic is great for introverts, but as one myself, I have to disagree. Yes, I’m more than happy not to speak to a soul for days on end, but that doesn’t mean I should. And even though I’m an introvert, being around people buoys me up at least a little bit, whether it’s an impromptu exchange with a barista or a brief check-in with a coworker. We all need that — introvert, extrovert, whatever-vert.
One of the things I miss most from pre-pandemic life is going out for a drink, with friends or alone. (Brief aside on the latter: for an introvert, it’s the ultimate instance of having your cake and eating it, too — you are at once part of the social fabric and safe in your own head.) IMHO, one of the coziest spots in Manhattan to drink alone — or with others, if you’re into that kind of thing — is ABC Beer Co. Started in 2012 by Zach Mack and David Hitchner, two roommates turned friends turned business partners, it’s an all-day craft beer bar with food, coffee, WiFi, and weekly B-Y-O-Vinyl nights. Since the pandemic, it has pivoted to a full-on beer and grocery store, replete with fresh-baked bread, pantry staples, and of course, local brews. Read on for my conversation with Mack on staying open in a ghost town, Zoom record parties, and the joys of delivery pizza.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
What has business looked like over the last few weeks?
We were lucky in that we already had a retail side of the business that we could turn to, whereas the other bars in the neighborhood don't have the ability to do that. Since day one, we've served cheese plates, sandwiches, and pretzels to stay, and then some snacks and grocery products to go. But since [COVID-19], we’ve expanded our groceries quite a bit, adding things like avocados, tomatoes, milk, and yogurt, just so people have an option not to make five stops on their way home. As a place that’s allowed to be open, we want to make sure we’re serving people as best as possible.
Now that the local breweries don't have as much business coming through, we're seeing a huge influx of pretty rare beer, stuff that we usually can’t get our hands on. We’re able to sell more coveted beer, so people from the neighborhood are getting to try new stuff. Even people who are pretty straight and narrow with what they usually buy pick up one or two new things.
Did your website need updating to facilitate more online orders?
Luckily, a couple of weeks before the pandemic hit, we launched a website that facilitates national delivery and local delivery and pickup. It happened to be perfect timing. It’s driving a good chunk of our inventory.
How have you been maintaining contact with your community?
Instagram and Twitter have been huge beacons for us to get out that we are doing deliveries and adding new products. As soon as we post information about a newly available beer, people DM us with questions. We also use email, but I feel like the interactions we have through our social media have been much more meaningful and effective.
A bunch of my regulars have started up a Zoom party on Wednesday nights to recreate our weekly bring-your-own-vinyl night. For the last four Wednesdays, we’ve had 10, 15 people show up over the course of the night. And we just spin records. One of the coolest things that's come out of this experience is the fact that I can take a party that I deeply miss every week and still participate in it.
Have you been able to keep your staff on?
We're very lucky that we haven't had to lay off a single person. We're not staffing like we normally would because we don't need three people behind the bar on a Saturday night, but we're open from noon to seven every day. And they are getting paid. People are coming in and tipping on retail, which is fantastic. It’s the best thing I could ask for. In the days leading up to this, what kept me up at night was the idea that we weren’t going to be able to keep the staff on.
You've been rooted in the East Village community for years — what’s it like to be in operation while so many of your neighbors aren’t?
It's heartbreaking. These are our friends, and we've spent a lot of time with them. I just went on a walk to pick up a meat order nearby, and I had to stop and take a couple of pictures. Everything is closed: the place I get my burritos, where I like to go for ramen, my favorite local bar.
It's a strange reckoning moment every time I leave [the shop]. When I was picking up that order earlier today, I walked by 7B, the bar on 7th Street and Avenue B, and I saw it has a to-go drink window, and I was like, “I need to go and support these guys, even though it's the afternoon.” So I got a drink. They gave me a bag of chips with it. I tipped the bartender the way that I wished I could have been able to do for the last few weeks.
How do you feel about returning to normal once this is over?
I don't know what normal looks like after this. From what the experts are saying, this doesn't look like the sort of thing where May 15th hits and all of a sudden the lights just turn back on and business resumes as normal. We're looking at a very long period of enforced social distancing to make sure this doesn't come back. We're looking at separate waves of this where we have to go back into this shelter-at-home lifestyle.
Going forward, people will think more about diversifying their business, so when this comes up again, they have a different stream of income to fall back on. We're going to need support from the government all the way down to our landlords and everyone in between to make sure that we can stay open. It's something that we're all in together.
How are your retail sales doing?
Our margins aren't as good on retail as they are on bar sales, that's just the nature of the industry. So our sales are still good, but it's not the same amount of money coming in at the end. The fact that we're able to keep any money coming in makes me feel incredibly fortunate, but the cash flow shift is something that we're still reckoning with. This isn’t something that will keep us viable long-term. We're lucky that people are this interested right now, but this has a shelf life. People can only support so many places.
The fact that we've diversified in what we offer has been a huge boon for us, and we get thanked by people every 10 minutes. And that makes me happy, but in all honesty, we're watching places who seem like they're doing well, starting to realize that they can't make it. My butcher can't get the meat that they need to sustain staying open, so they're telling me that they're going to be closed for the next two, three, four weeks. And that's going to happen more and more as this starts to shake the entire supply chain. So who knows?
We're lucky that our distributors are still running relatively full steam, so I can still get my beer products in. But who's to say that we don't see a shortage of truck drivers, and then we start getting our supply affected? It's out of our control and that's something that I still worry about.
How has your role in the community evolved in the wake of the pandemic?
Our role is to make sure that we’re doing business safely for our customers and our employees. And to provide an altered version of normalcy, so that people can bring something into their homes that takes their minds off everything that's going on. They can explore something that they haven't tried before. They get access to stuff that's thoughtfully curated to help unwind from this craziness. I know at the end of the day, that's what I need. I order my pizza from a local business, sit down with a bottle of wine, and try to forget for 45 minutes that there's a pandemic going on. I enjoy myself and the food and it feels a little bit like a normal night.
I order my pizza from a local business, sit down with a bottle of wine, and try to forget for 45 minutes that there's a pandemic going on. I enjoy myself and the food and it feels a little bit like a normal night.
On that note, what are you drinking right now?
I'm using this as an excuse to dip into some of the new stuff that's come through. We just got a really nice drop from Hudson Valley Brewery that I absolutely love. Other Half has sent us a ton of stuff that we haven't had in a while, like Forever Simcoe — that’s one of the best beers I've had in probably a year. Also, my girlfriend is a spirits expert and we've been making a lot of cocktails at home. Last night we made Paper Planes.
What’s a Paper Plane?
It's bourbon, Aperol, lemon juice, and Amaro. It's a really nice tart, sour cocktail. We’ve also been making each other gin martinis, Vespers. Dipping into the home bar, having fun with it, and then going out on the balcony with a drink to clap at seven o'clock every night. We make the most of it.
How to help ABC Beer Co:
Until next time,