What’s happening in Fort Wayne’s food and drink scene during COVID-19? We ask 6 area breweries

Entrepreneurs are often praised for “pivoting” in seasons of change and disruption. But for local restaurant and brewery owners across the U.S. in 2021, the question for many has become: How much pivoting can one small business be expected to make?

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, many restaurants and breweries were forced to close abruptly and furlough staff. When they were able to reopen, they had to create new business models centered on carry out, deliveries, and socially distant dining, managing unclear regulations with fewer resources.

As restrictions have fluctuated over the last several months, local brewery owners feel they have been largely left to their own devices to navigate the chaos and secure funding lifelines available to them.

During the pandemic, many local breweries are offering robust carryout services, like Hop River Brewing Company.

Despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, six Fort Wayne breweries and cideries came together on Zoom in early January to provide an update on the state of the city’s food and drink scene from their perspectives. Their members included: Hop River Brewing Company, Summit City Brewerks, 2Toms Brewing Company, Kekionga Craft Company, Mad Anthony Brewing Company, and Chapman’s Brewing Company.

On Saturday, this group and others are launching a special Winterval Beer Trail as a part of the Parks & Recreation Department's socially distant Winterval Festival. The Beer Trail will feature 12 regional breweries and cideries and culminate on March 6 with a limited-seating trivia night at Hop River based on the TV series “Parks & Recreation” to support Fort Wayne’s Parks Department, which is also hurting during the pandemic.

Mary Corinne “MC” Lowenstein of Hop River is one of the leaders behind the Winterval Beer Passport. She says the goal is to have some fun during a chaotic time and to buoy local breweries reeling from the loss of their typical holiday sales during COVID-19.

“This is about the only good thing going on right now,” Lowenstein says.

Mary Corinne "MC" Lowenstein is Director of Marketing for Hop River Brewing Company.

While regional breweries in Northern Indiana are usually a highly collaborative bunch, there wasn’t an easy way to communicate or commiserate in 2020.

“Doing more with less has been the theme of last year and this year,” says Micah Soltz, of Chapman’s Brewing Company, which owns four locations across the region.

As president of the Northern Indiana Beer Trail, Soltz says it’s been challenging to make progress on any regional goals or even share solutions with other breweries during the pandemic.

“There’s always a bigger fire to put out in your own house,” he says. “That’s been one of the isolating effects. Nobody has time, and if we do come together, we risk getting each other sick and having to shut down.”

Chapman's Brewing Company started in Angola, and now has four locations across Northeast Indiana.

Along with surviving the pandemic in isolation of their peers, another challenge Indiana brewers have faced in the past year is the loss of a statewide resource and advocate in the Brewers of Indiana Guild, says Josh Volz, Director of Marketing and Design at Mad Anthony Brewing Company and Shigs In Pit BBQ.

Since the early 2000s, Indiana’s craft beer scene has grown to a $1 billion industry with more than 170 craft breweries and brewpubs across the state supporting 8,000 full-time jobs. The Brewers Guild has emerged as a nonprofit association supporting the industry with advertising, resources, and a unified voiceBut in March 2020, the pandemic and subsequent cancellation of festivals caused the Guild to terminate its lease and furlough its employees. With it, went many Indiana brewers’ access to legal advice and unified responses to federal guidelines.

“One of the more frustrating parts of the regulations and constant changes is that businesses are left to decipher what a lot of those mean for themselves,” Volz says. “There's not clear guidance, so when the governor or mayor gives a speech, we’re all scrambling through websites and news stories, trying to figure out what it means for us. It’s confusing to us, and it’s confusing to our guests.”

A handcrafted Red Cream Soda at Mad Anthony Brewing Company.

The loss of the Brewers Guild has been particularly challenging as individual breweries try to navigate not only COVID-19 restrictions, but also funding opportunities, says Soltz. For instance, breweries like Chapman’s, which operates more like a restaurant, are technically eligible for additional support set aside for restaurants in the most recent stimulus package. But to qualify for it, they must be coded in their taxes as restaurants—not breweries.

This creates another legal hurdle for small businesses to clear, so they can receive critical support.

“We’ve been talking to our accountants and bankers extensively,” Soltz says.
2Toms Brewing Company is a local craft brewery focusing on imaginative flavors and big aromas.

Paris McFarthing, Co-Owner of Hop River, says he feels lucky that his business partner is a former lawyer who has no trouble sifting through thousands of pages of legal documents and bills to help their team survive. But not every small business is so lucky to have a resource like that on staff. This disparity—coupled with a lack of leadership to fill the gap—has disadvantaged many small businesses in Fort Wayne’s food and drink scene during the pandemic.

“Those little things add a layer of complexity to the situation, and not every brewery is going to be able to survive this pandemic because of that,” McFarthing says. “That’s the sad reality, and that’s why I think strong leadership in our city, state, and federal government is important right now. It allows us to conserve our resources as business owners to weather the storm rather than to put our time and money into figuring all this out. It takes one more burden off our plates.”

Paris McFarthing is Co-Owner of Hop River Brewing Company.

Yet, at the onset of the pandemic, McFarthing and Soltz say local government bodies were largely silent on COVID-19 regulations for restaurants and breweries, so they were left taking cues from the state, which were still difficult to decipher.

“At every level, I feel like there has been a lack of leadership,” Soltz says. “I don’t mean to pick on anybody, but as we reflect on the legacy of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. this month, it strikes me that no one has really taken hold of this leadership vacuum for us at the federal, state, or local level.”

Chapman's signage in historic downtown Wabash.

It’s this void of leadership that local brewery owners see sending Fort Wayne’s food and drink scene into a frenzy each time a local, state, or national public figure makes a public speech about COVID-19.

“Whenever someone gets up on a podium, we plan on losing an entire weekend or week of sales,” McFarthing says. “We have to remind people it’s a constant balance because, yes, you do have to do what’s best for you and your family right now. But it’s also important that the cure isn’t so devastating to our local food and drink scene that we have nothing left when this is over. The local food industry provides jobs for a lot of local people, and if we go under, that’s more people on unemployment and more people losing health insurance.”

Speaking of employment, while the service industry across the U.S. furloughed workers during the pandemic, food and drink businesses in Fort Wayne are having a hard time recruiting workers to fill open positions during the pandemic, too, Soltz says.

“People in our industry tend to enjoy working in kitchens and bars because of the atmospheres where they’re around lots of people,” he explains. “But when you take all of the fun out of these jobs, what’s left?”

Summit City Brewerk's owners Will Long and David Tomaszewski.

As a result, local brewery leaders, like David Tomaszewski of Summit City Brewerks, say one of the biggest stressors on their minds is making sure their staff stays safe and healthy at all costs.

“Your revenues get cut deep, but you’re trying to keep your staff healthy and make sure they understand they’re the most important part of your business,” Tomaszewski says. “Without them, literally we’re nothing, so we’re doing everything we can to retain our staff.”

A staff photo at Summit City Brewerks during the pandemic.

As the pandemic drags on in 2021, another big concern for local breweries is that the early push to “buy local” will wane as shoppers settle into their typical purchasing patterns or have less money to spend period. That’s why promotions, like the Winterval Beer Trail, and shop local movements, like the 2GoFW Facebook group, are so important, Lowenstein says. They’re keeping local businesses and their products top-of-mind for consumers.

“Fort Wayne people have a lot of spending power, and the question is, where are they going to put that power, and what types of businesses are they going to support?” Lowenstein asks.

To boost sales, breweries like Hop River have been focusing on deepening relationships with their customers through special weekly menu features. Crystal Higgs of 2Toms Brewing Company says her team has been promoting the value of buying local beer, in general, compared to national brands, too.

“Fresh is better,” Higgs says. “The beer in liquor stores is often six to 12 months old, but if you go to a local brewery, that beer is only days old, and it really impacts the taste.”

2Toms Brewing Company makes craft beer with imaginative flavors and big aromas.

Buying local supports the Fort Wayne economy beyond breweries, too. A 2018 study commissioned by American Express found that for every dollar you spend at a small business, 67 cents stays in the local community. As such, the goal for many Fort Wayne brewers in 2021 has been making their products more accessible to consumers seeking carryout-only options. Higgs says her team at 2Toms has increased their canning capacity, as has Tyler Butcher’s team at Kekionga Craft Company, which sells hard cider.

“We’ve made new stuff to draw more people in, and we’ve been canning more cider than we ever planned on canning before,” Butcher says. “That’s about the only positive I can take out of this situation: We’re innovating.”

Kekionga Craft Company has been canning more of its hard cider during the pandemic.

Overall, local breweries say they’re glad they’re still open to serve the public, and they’re thankful to customers for their patience and persistence throughout this experience.

“Your favorite restaurant or brewery might not look packed right now, but they’re probably working at severely reduced capacity, which is contributing to wait times,” Soltz says.  

“We’re thankful for all the support we can get,” Higgs says. “These times are hard, but they’ve shown us how much people believe in us, and just know, we’re super grateful."

Get your passport to the Winterval Beer Trail

The Beer Trail highlights 12 local breweries/cider companies and their seasonal beverages. Download a passport or pick one up at any Winterval event, travel to each of the listed breweries, try a featured beverage, collect a stamp, and turn in your completed passport at the Community Center by March 5 or during "Parks & Recreation" Trivia at Hop River Brewing (purchase tickets this spring) on March 6 at 2 p.m. Your passport will be entered into a prize drawing.

Small ways you can make a big difference for local restaurants and breweries

-Post about small businesses on social media. The next time you dine-in or order carryout from a local establishment, post a photo of your purchase on social media, tagging the small business where you bought it. If you aren’t able to buy something, simply liking, sharing, or reposting a local business’s post goes a long way, too.

-Report any complaints directly to staff, not on social media. If you are unhappy with your service at a local business, instead of blasting them on social media, send them a direct message or contact them by phone or in-person. Local businesses want to hear your concerns, but a public negative post on social media can be excruciating to small businesses right now.

-Consider where you are shopping, and what you want to last. Before you plan your next meal or beverage purchase, consider what Fort Wayne would look like without your favorite restaurants, breweries, or shops. Then support what you want to be here when the pandemic is over, and encourage your friends and family to do the same. Remember that every local purchase makes a difference.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.