Long Beach Beer Lab Could Have Closed; Instead, They Became Essential
The story of how one small brewery and gastropub semi-pivoted on the fly and has been busier than ever.
Levi Fried barely has time to talk. "It's never a good moment," he concedes somewhat wearily. Along with his wife, Harmony Sage, the native Californian owns and operates three-year-old SoCal hotspot Long Beach Beer Lab. And despite the viral pandemic that has shuttered small businesses from coast to coast, Fried's doors are open and he is, as he puts it, "busy as all get-out." The reason? By mid-March, he and Sage saw the writing on the wall and temporarily rebranded themselves Long Beach Bodega Lab, semi-pivoting from microbrewery and gastropub to suds maker-meets-sundries store.
Thanks to a robust supply chain and some quick thinking, the duo has transformed literally overnight into a bustling enterprise that preps curbside pickup and socially distanced in-store orders of everything from growlers of sour ale to cartons of eggs and bags of rice. And they've been dutifully documenting and detailing the process in real time, down to guidance on customer etiquette, on their myriad social-media pages.
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In between fulfilling customer requests for vital items and posting prodigiously on Instagram, Fried took a few minutes over the phone to fill us in on how and why he and Sage made the switch, whether it will stick and what it's like to come home at the end of the day and consider the peculiarities of our shared cultural predicament.
Prior to the pandemic, functioning as part-grocery store was never on your radar, correct?
Right, absolutely. We were pizzas and beer, more experiential, and we had thesse items because of our kitchen and bakery and decided we could take our stock and put it out because we were seeing yeast and eggs were hard to get.
Did you realize right away you'd be fulfilling a need for scarce items?
We looked at a couple of things. One was that we're very close with our community, so we reached out to find what the needs were. I'm also close with our councilman and took it upon myself to see what items [people] were seeking above and beyond what I knew my own family needed, what was not in the stores. The other part of this was we were looking at ways we could be essential and remain that way, and one of those things was to become a grocer.
Was that out of a need to serve the community, survive as a business or a bit of both?
I think it was a little bit of both. I'm not gonna say we're 100 percent community driven, even though we have a huge community focus. But definitely, becoming essential was survival, along with community [benefits], which was really nice.
So what's business like compared to before this outbreak?
We've been doing phenomenally. I honestly like this model even better than what we were doing. We're doing on par I think. We had to shift around some people and make some changes, because we're definitely not a to-go-order kind of place, and we had to get that infrastructure built. We're not convenience-store-driven. We didn't have any of those things built out, so there was a lot of learning to be done.
How have you been able to keep items like eggs and beans and yeast in stock?
We have a great relationship with our distributor, so we're able to get things in bulk that other people are unable to get, especially when it comes to flour and milk and yeast and eggs, because we've been using them. So our distributor is rock-solid.
Is there a lesson there for all businesses about leveraging whatever relationships you have, even if it means rethinking your model?
I think there's a couple of things that work out for us. One is we're still selling beer and bread primarily as our main sellers, so we haven't really moved away from that model. We've always loved the grab-and-go model. We own a coffee shop down the street, and it's grab and go, and we've always liked that, "Here's this amazing product. Take it and have your own experience with it." It didn't work out with the brewery when we started because it takes a bit of marketing to get that going. Now we have that down, and I think we will probably continue with this [bodega] model in some capacity and incorporate the brewpub back in when things happen. So I do believe there was a pivot, but not a pivot away from where our minds are.
Do you worry about having to reintroduce yourself when this subsides, or is that effectively already happening?
It's happening right now with our Instagram posts and our social media, just the way we've embraced the community, so I believe we'll continue to move in that direction and not go back to how we were doing business, because I do believe we have the potential to do even better business, especially when we start rolling out delivery. I think we'll be OK, and we'll just start to meld the two businesses together.
Survival aside, you have engendered community gratitude, so is that a win-win considering the circumstances?
One hundred percent. I think we've only ingrained ourselves in the community dialogue more, and a lot of people are going to come out and support the fact that we stepped up and didn't close down or do whatever was routine for us. I already see that, and so I'm pretty confident we're gonna see a continued success just because of who we are and what we're doing and the new route we've taken and new embracing of the community that has happened. I'm busier than ever, and I only foresee getting busier.
But given the steep learning curve, how have you guys not panicked and froze?
[Laughs] I think it's that we've always run a very nimble business where my wife and I are the head producers, and we've had such a solid team that's been willing to work through difference scenarios. Having the producers as the owners allows us to step back and make changes. We have a crew that is gung-ho and supportive. And just good business practices from the onset, where we weren't overstaffing and didn't have a huge stock of things that were holding us back and were credit-free, debt-free, everything paid straight out. That's helped us not have to worry about SBA loans and overhead. We've really been able to reinvent ourselves in this time due to the fact that we're able to be agile as an organization and have a strong backbone where the owners aren't just sitting behind a computer, but are making the products themselves. Since then, we've been able to go to our distributors and say, "Hey, our demand is up. Can we get some goodwill discounts on bulk or start to provide terms that are more favorable for a business that is pivoting?"
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Have you had a chance to stop and be philosophical about the paradoxes of all this?
I don't get a lot of time, but every time my wife and I come home and we're beat up from the day, we'll turn around and say, "You know how many businesses closed down today? And yet we remain open and potentially even more successful." That paradox is humbling. We're very fortunate. To continue baking and continue brewing in this climate is a blessing, and our eyes are open to that.