As if dealing with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t enough, last month Oregon experienced some of the worst wildfires in the state’s history. Although some rain and changing winds helped get most of the fires contained, entire communities have burned, and over half a million people were forced to flee their homes.
For Xicha Brewing, the first Latinx-owned brewpub in Salem, the closest fire was only seven miles east. Still, nobody anticipated that the smoke was going to have such an impact. “If you’re familiar with Blade Runner, that’s what entered my brain,” says Ben Mendoza, Xicha’s business manager. “The sky was red and orange for three days. The snowing ash was probably the most shocking. The air quality index scale stops at 500, and we were in the 595 range.”
Xicha had a couple employees who were put on level 2 (get ready to evacuate) and others whose family members lost their homes. The brewery closed its doors for an entire week. At Xicha, which is named after the ancient fermented drink from Latin America, 90% of its ownership and staff identify as Hispanic or Latino.
“We need to recognize, first of all, what a terrible situation this is for these communities,” Mendoza says. ”We’re a business trying to make it work, but these are people’s homes on top of dealing with the foundational layer of COVID. It comes back to the question of ‘how much can a population take?’”
In the wake of the wildfires, the brewpub decided to spring into action and started making food to help the impacted communities, especially Hispanic and Latino ones. The team also donated over 200 burritos for the EMTs and firefighters.
On September 18, a big rainstorm blew through and took most of the smoke away. Xicha was able to open its doors again the next day and reopen its patio. “People love our patio and look to us for that in the summer. With COVID, customers had just started feeling comfortable coming out. We can never get to the same revenue that we were doing, but we had just started to feel comfortable with the operational level that we were at, like, ‘OK, this is the new normal,’” Mendoza says.
The brewery, which opened in 2017, had high hopes going into its third year. “I think we lucked out in the first year, just with the business model and the products that we offer not being your stereotypical brewery in Oregon,” says Mendoza. With hopes for a successful 2020, the team was optimistic about opening a second location the following year. This plan, of course, has been put on hold.
At the start of the pandemic in March, Xicha completely closed its doors for over two weeks, before it moved to the online takeout-only menu. When the state started to loosen restrictions, the service model was revamped from table service to counter service, behind plexi-glass. Inside dining was closed and operations leaned heavily on its outdoor patio space.
Because Xicha was in the slow season before COVID-19, it was flush with product, especially kegs. Most of the beer wasn’t packaged, and Xicha’s brewer, Matt Dakopolos, took the opportunity to start churning the beer out in packaged goods. This has resulted in greater distribution and more recognition of their brand, which helped when the fires hit.
With a goal of sharing Latinx culture through food and drinks—the brewery's slogan is “cerveza, comida, cultura”—via beers like Chula, a Mexican-style lager, Cinco de Mayo through the end of summer is Xicha’s high season. In Salem, due to cooler, wetter weather, by October 1, the market starts to drop. “The fires basically started the slow season a month early. It’s like a double whammy,” Mendoza says.
If nothing else, COVID has reset Xicha’s expectations on what a brewery can and can’t do. Before the fires, it was already anticipating the slow season. Thanks to COVID, it had tried to save as much money as possible and had completely stopped spending. Like many breweries, Xicha shifted its 2020 business plan from one that centered on savings to one that was all about survival. Having this model in place will help Xicha ride out the wildfires.
“Pre-COVID, we were at a level that was pretty much normal. We weren’t cash heavy, but we were anticipating some kind of an influx,” Mendoza says. “Now it’s the opposite, you keep whatever you can, because that’s the only thing that’s really going to get you through. If you’ve got cash on hand, then at least you can hold and ride it out for a little bit. So it certainly changed our concept. We’re of the mind that COVID isn’t going to go away any time soon.”
Unfortunately, with climate change, hotter days and a drier climate in Oregon are also likely to become the new norm. Communities are starting to recognize that wildfires will become regular occurrences for them, just like their California neighbors to the south. This summer, Oregon was already experiencing a heat wave and drought, before a low humidity episode combined with an anomalous wind pattern swept in to set up the disastrous wildfire circumstances.
Now that the fires have subsided somewhat, Xicha’s business has slowly picked back up. “Our goal is just to try to make the current situation sustainable. We’re one of the lucky ones who has continued to be supported by the community and can make it work, and so our goal for the next year is to try and sustain that,” Mendoza says. “If we can, we’ll take a look at 2022 to see if a second opening might be possible.”