Corona and the Specialty Beer Café

In the last article I wrote about how the corona crisis affected the breweries. Today I want turn your attention to how it is affecting the Specialty Beer Cafés. It might be slightly different in other bars but because I have always considered these to be one of the engines of the Dutch Beer Revolution they deserve special attention.

When corona hit

The government’s decision to close all bars and restaurants meant that the doors had to close and personnel sent home. For the bars with personnel on the payroll there are ways of keeping them on the payroll with the 90% funding, but that still means different costs for vacationtime for example. And let’s not forget the rent and utilities, even though they will not have spent much on electricity.

Some bar owners only have employees with so-called 0-hour contracts. You work for the number of hours assigned to you that week and that is. There are fewer attachments to an employer for example. If you are sick for two days you don’t get paid for those two days. This is one difference with the full contract workers. If you have a bar and also a number of full contract workers you are in a bigger bind. Most owners can run the bar themselves for now, especially because many of the specialty beer bars are not huge places and there will only be a maximum number of guests.

Two weeks ago there was some good news. Restaurants and bars can now open again but with only 30 people max and with social distancing of 1,5 meters, or 5 feet. This is great news of course but it does mean some changes and new ways to do this.

Making money while shut

The closure has led many an owner to come with some inventive ways to still generate some income. The most often seen wat was to sell beer packages. Bring the beers a guest cannot have in the bar to the guest at home. Sometimes including bar nuts and a deck of cards like De Koffer in Groningen has been doing. The owner and maybe one or two employees could be seen driving all over the city to deliver these packages.

In some cases they could still make around 20% of the usual income, but it also meant still paying employees in some cases and having them be busy with a delivery for parts of the day. But it did keep them busy, in contact with other people in the business and it kept the name alive. This last fact could be a very important one down the line.

The near future: 30 people max

I spoke to Rob Alphenaar for some general insight, about what he will do in the near future and how he sees the role of Specialty Beer Cafes in this. Why Rob? Well, apart from being the owner of Haarlem beer bar Het Lokaal (and before that the fairly legendary Café Briljant) and owner of gypsy brewery Briljant he is also the chairman of the ABT (the alliance of beer serving bars), a group of Specialty Beer Café’s all over the country. Being a part of this means a certain standard of excellence and knowledge. 

Bar owners can only reopen when they can be sure that opening will be more beneficial than staying home and use the money that the government can give you. So things need to be done to be sure that opening the bar for the day or night makes the most sense.

Bars can only have a maximum of 30 people in the establishment at once. These 30 people have to sit at least 1,5 meters away from each other, apart from people who live in the same household. So meeting a friend in a beer bar? Sure, but he better sit 1,5 meters away from you.

The government has also decided that you can only enter when you make a reservation. Rob is thinking of having sessions. Guests can book a table and in some cases will get a tasting menu. This way he knows there is guaranteed income. One guest taking 2,5 hours to finish an Imperial Stout is all fine and well, but won’t pay the bills. A reservation, maybe partly prepaid, could solve part of that. Another advantage of this that you can thoroughly clean the place between shifts. It also takes care of too much movement in front of the cafés.

Then screens need to be put up. Plastic screens between people and maybe at the bar as well. If there are no screens you need to figure out what 1,5 meters exactly is and cordon certain areas off.

Many of the specialty beer bars are often small tiny and can only fit 30 people while full anyway. For them it’s going to be harder. Bars will have to offer something special. Not just drinking a few beers but an experience of beer. This is something Rob says the ABT café’s can really offer. Every ABT café has the knowledge, and the beers, to make sure guests will have a pleasant evening with great beer and stories about that beer. They are not the type of bar where people try and break the world record for drinking lager in one hour. In face, whenever I ask owners if they have to throw drunk people out the answer is almost always: hardly ever.

Safety

Are the people working in the bars safe? That remains a question because for them it is impossible to keep to the 1,5 meters and will have to come close to the guests.

The national group of bar and restaurants have some guidelines but they are confusing at times. Not everyone I have talked to is completely certain what to do so they will have to do the best they can. But Rob sees this crisis having some positive side effects, like showing the customer what extra things a specialty beer bar can offer.

So when you are thinking of visiting a bar again, let the specialty beer café personnel give you 2 or 2,5 hours that will be unforgettable.

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