Like many businesses in the Northwest Territories, it was touch and go for the Woodyard Brewhouse and Eatery in Yellowknife when the Covid-19 pandemic first hit.
Owner Fletcher Stevens said he and his wife, co-owner Miranda, made the decision to close the doors to the popular brewery and restaurant on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day – March 16.
“It was at that point where we just made the call and said, ‘You know, it’s not worth it,’” Stevens said. “Our staff … they’re getting pretty stressed out that there’s going to be a Covid outbreak. Let’s just shut the doors down and we’ll pivot or evaluate what we’re going to do.”
The couple announced the closure on their Instagram page.
“Stay safe and shop local,” they urged.
So, what was the Stevens’ solution?
Less than three days after it closed to customers, the Woodyard was offering takeout to Yellowknife residents. People could continue ordering their favourite beers from the brewery or grab a quick bite to eat on the go.
That has been doing pretty well, or as Stevens puts it, “it’s been helping them keep the lights on.”
In fact, he was shocked at how good the market was for those services amidst a pandemic – a welcome surprise.
“Hats off to the rest of the food establishments that were able to pivot and keep business afloat, keep feeding Yellowknifers,” he said.
Relearning the business
However, moving to a takeout model wasn’t without its challenges.
“We pretty much had to relearn our business,” Stevens said. “There’s a lot of headaches and trying to sort out what takeout platforms for ordering systems are the best.”
What’s more, Woodyard’s numbers – despite being better than expected – plummeted.
After closing in March, they saw a 60 to 70 per cent decrease in sales per month. Up until that point, it seemed as though the business was on track for a record-breaking year, with February being exceptional.
Yet, because they weren’t closed and were still making money, Stevens said they didn’t qualify for any of the pandemic-related financial aid available for businesses.
“It was kind of like a double-edged sword,” he said.
“It was unfortunate,” he added. “We needed to do what we needed to do, and I stand with the takeout, but if we would have just closed entirely, we would have been able to be eligible for a lot more grants.”
The Woodyard’s 2020 Yellowknife Burger Week entry.
But staying closed would have had its own challenges. For one, Stevens said, if they stopped serving customers, they might have lost important relationships.
“The last thing we want to do is not serve our customers any more,” he said. “That’s what my wife and I got into this business for, to bring smiles to people’s faces when they bite into one of their favourite sandwiches or crack a beer of ours.
“That’s an instant reward to us, and it keeps them thinking about us.”
After nearly four months of offering takeout only, the Woodyard officially reopened for in-person service on June 19.
They were thrilled to reopen, Stevens said, but still aren’t seeing as many customers as they used to. Their busiest week this summer still wasn’t as good as their slowest week under regular circumstances.
Stevens speculated that’s largely because the restaurant has had to reduce it’s capacity to meet public health orders. If it’s a rainy day, they lose even more available seating.
Yet there are things to look forward to.
According to Stevens, staff are working on getting a canning line installed to sell their beer at liquor stores. They’ve also begun brewing seasonal beers and playing around with new dishes on their menu.
“I’m brewing again,” Stevens said. “So, I actually get my hands nice and dusty again from brewing beer. [It’s] been an adjustment, that’s for sure.
“It’s never a dull moment.”
This coverage of the NWT’s business sector during the Covid-19 pandemic is sponsored by the NWT’s Department of Industry, Tourism, and Investment. Visit Buy North for more information on businesses near you.