For This Springfield Business, Better Times Are on Tap
From the beginning of the pandemic, Ray Berry’s White Lion Brewery was deemed an essential business by the state’s governor.
That means it was allowed to remain open when many others had to close amid efforts to flatten the curve and relieve the tension on the region’s healthcare system.
But as any other venture on that large list can attest, ‘essential’ does not mean free of challenges, headaches, anxiety, and uncertainty about what might come next.
Indeed, there’s been plenty of all of those things for this Springfield-based company that was looking toward 2020 as a watershed year, and still is in at least some respects.
Especially with plans for a much-anticipated taproom and accompanying restaurant in Tower Square — specifically the former Spaghetti Freddy’s site — now moving forward again after a halt to most forms of construction during the spring.
“Pre-COVID, we were really ramping up and starting to fire on all cylinders relative to sales and construction — we were about to onboard another salesperson and were also looking to obtain another vehicle and perhaps another part-time person to deliver our product,” he told BusinessWest. “And then … the pandemic hit.”
And it hit hard, impacting the company from “front to back,” as Berry put it.
“Pre-COVID, we were really ramping up and starting to fire on all cylinders relative to sales and construction — we were about to onboard another salesperson and were also looking to obtain another vehicle and perhaps another part-time person to deliver our product. And then … the pandemic hit.”
By that he meant virtually every aspect of the business, from the closure of the hundreds of bars and restaurants (as well as MGM Springfield) that sold White Lion to a halting of construction work on the brewery; from the canceling of high-profile events where the brand had a presence, such as the Holyoke Road Race, to the suspension of the beer gardens the company has hosted in downtown Springfield and Westfield during the summer and fall months.
“It was just like a crash — it all happened at once within a 48-hour period when the state and federal governments stepped in and put restrictions in place,” he noted, adding that, as sales plummeted (only liquor stores, also deemed essential, remained as a distribution point), the company had to lay off some of its employees in stages and figure out how to manage with those who remained.
White Lion has been helped by assistance programs on a number of levels, from the federal Paycheck Protection Program to the local Prime the Pump initiative created by the Development Department in Springfield, said Berry, adding that this help, coupled with the remaining business from liquor stores, enabled the company to stay on its feet during those brutal spring months.
And as the state continues to reopen businesses, the outlook for White Lion continues to brighten. Restaurants have reopened across the region, and the state’s casinos have been given the green light to open their doors, although MGM Springfield has not given a specific date when it might do so. And work has resumed on the project in Tower Square, and Berry is projecting that his crew can be in and brewing beer by the end of this month.
“The taproom component is under construction now,” he went on, “and we hope that by mid-August, the taproom piece, as well the kitchen piece, will be complete, and that by the end of August or early September we can start welcoming people into the space.”
Meanwhile, White Lion has recalled most of its seven employees and expects to be “whole” in that regard by late July, he said.
Projecting beyond the next few months is difficult, but Berry believes the company will be able to open its beer gardens in late August or early September, noting that these ventures will be part of phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan.
Looking back — and ahead — Berry, echoing countless other business owners across every sector of the economy, said the pandemic has provided a stern test, one he believes his team is passing through determination and imagination.
“It’s been a challenge in every way you can imagine,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s just a predicament that we’re in, and we have to pivot and continue to find ways to remain resourceful and efficient for the benefit of the sustainability of the company.
“I always said that we’re all resilient as people,” he went on. “And there’s always going to be a light at the end of the tunnel. We don’t know how long that tunnel may be, but there will be a light, and we’re starting to see some of that that now.”