On March 3, a tornado hit Nashville with less than an eight minute warning. Although Tennessee Brew Works is located in the SoBro area, an area just south of downtown that wasn’t directly affected by the tornado, Christian Spears, the brewery’s founder and president, lives in East Nashville, an area where streets of stately Victoria homes and neighborhood businesses were decimated.
“That night was pretty frightening,” Spears says. “It missed me by about a quarter of a mile, but it came really close to some of my employees, like one who lives directly next door to the Basement East, which which suffered substantial damage, and another who lives right across from BoomBozz, which was also damaged terribly.”
By the time the sun came up the next morning, Spears had already ascertained that his staff was all okay, but left it up to them as to whether they wanted to come to work over the next few days. “There were certainly lots of other considerations—you know, friends and loved ones that weren’t okay, or the staff’s ability to get anywhere. Because of the damage, that first morning, it took me two hours to get to work, and it usually takes me 10 minutes,” Spears says.
Nashville quickly swung into recovery mode, with organizations like the National Food Project and Hands On Nashville jumping into action. The Nashville food and beverage industry was pulling together to help those affected, by hiring staff temporarily or donating to local causes. “Tennessee Brew Works was donating $1 from every beer sold to the Middle Tennessee Emergency Response Fund through the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee,” Spears says, “and some of our team members were taking time to volunteer in East and North Nashville.”
It would seem that business was just getting back to normal for Tennessee Brew Works, and then came the news that the COVID-19 virus was spreading rapidly across the United States. The implementation of social distancing resulted in Nashville Mayor John Cooper limiting the seating capacity of businesses on March 15, before calling a civil state of emergency on March 18, resulting in most businesses closing to the public on March 20.
Despite Tennessee breweries being deemed an “essential business” that could provide take-out, some of the local brew pubs closed their doors. In a short period of time, Spears had to lay off employees and is now operating with a skeleton crew to offer curbside food and beer service.
“So here we are in a crisis situation, launching a new service for the first time, which usually involves all kinds of marketing and time. Social media and the local papers have really helped spread the word. Customers can now place an order on line and then when they get here, they just call and we place the food and beer in their back seat or trunk,” Spears says. “Payment is made on line with a credit card, so we are able to fully execute the transaction while keeping our social distance. We’re still able to provide people with food and beer, which the world needs.”
The cheeseboard and a few things on the Tennessee Brew Works’ menu that didn’t transfer well for delivery have been eliminated, but all-time favorites, like the five beer burger remain. And keg sales have slowed dramatically because restaurants have closed. “But pack sales are still very much moving at the distributors,” Spears says, “so much so that we’ve even had to buy more packaging for our Hippies & Cowboys IPA. It feels very strange to order supplies in this environment.”
Spears main concern is to be able to have some longevity—to survive something that could go on for months the team had to adapt quickly. “We’re trying to figure out how to do this for six months with virtually no business,” Spears says. “We’re fortunate to have a staff that is highly competent and able to spring into action for when the worm turns in our favor. And it will.”
On March 20, thanks to the lobbying efforts of the Tennessee Craft Brewers Guild, the Nashville Metro Beer Board also temporarily relaxed its regulations to allow breweries to deliver beer directly to customers, another potential revenue source. By March 23, Spears had the paperwork in place and the Tennessee Brew Works’ website updated to take the beer delivery orders.
Unfortunately, a lot of people in Nashville don’t have the luxury to just worry about COVID-19, they have to continue to worry about the tornado relief, even if it’s not getting the national attention it was before COVID-19.
“There are a lot of people around me who still don’t have a home and who are grieving the effects of the tornado,” Spears says. “Since the coronavirus, our business focus has become the safety and survival of our employees, health-wise and economically. Our action plan to provide beer and food for curbside pickup and home beer delivery are an effort to keep our staff employed despite our limited business options.”
With two disasters in such a short period of time, people in Nashville can’t help but feel on edge and worrying about what’s next. Like Spears says, “We’ve all been saying ‘what will next week bring?’ We had a weather front coming in last week and I was like ‘what now locusts?’”