What does it mean to be a 'community' space? Hop River Brewing shares what 2020 is teaching them

When Hop River Brewing Company opened its doors in February 2018, two of its core values were “community” and “inclusivity.”

From its board games to its long tables and its friendly staff, every aspect of the brewery was intentionally designed to create a comfortable, communal environment.

But if you ask Mary Corinne Lowenstein, Director of Marketing for Hop River, she’ll tell you that the brewery didn’t really know what it meant to be an inclusive, community space until the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement hit Fort Wayne in 2020.

“This year, we have stretched ourselves in ways we never imagined, and we’re continuing to do that,” she says.

In a pre-COVID picture, MC, right front, and her staff play games at Hop River when it first opened in February 2018.

It’s mid-July, and Lowenstein, fondly known as MC by her staff, is taking a much-needed vacation to decompress with family after the emotional rollercoaster of the pandemic and its toll on Fort Wayne’s restaurant scene this spring.

Like the rest of the U.S., the Summit City’s food and drink scene has been hit hard by the pandemic, which has caused the permanent closure of nearly 16,000 restaurants nationwide, according to Yelp. A Local Economic Impact Report shows that 60 percent of restaurants that closed temporarily during the pandemic are now shuttered for good. But located near the developing riverfront in downtown Fort Wayne, Hop RIver has found a way to beat the odds, and MC largely credits this accomplishment to the brewery’s strong ties within the local community.

Before the pandemic hit Fort Wayne in mid-March, Hop River and MC were already immersed in Northeast Indiana’s food and drink culture, heading up the Northern Indiana Beer Trail, which features 22 breweries in seven counties across the region.

Leaders from the local craft beer scene in Northeast Indiana pre-COVID-19.

When the pandemic began, Hop River quickly became part of a Facebook group to help area restaurant workers and suppliers navigate the evolving situation. This led to the creation of the popular #2GoFw Facebook group, igniting a movement to support the city’s food scene with carry out orders and updates.

But soon, the young brewery’s desire to serve others in a time of crisis turned into the struggle to survive themselves. On March 22, Hop River closed its doors and furloughed its 9 of its 11 employees—not sure what the future would hold for them. MC recalls the emotional experience of stacking empty benches on tables, posting messages to social media, and watching their carefully curated staff suddenly facing unemployment. But closing the brewery was all the management team could do to keep the business alive for the future.

“Had we not shut down, we would have bled dry,” she says.

On March 22, 2020, Hop River shared with customers that it was closed until further notice due to COVID-19.

At the same time, it was in this season of heartache and uncertainty that Hop River and its community began to realize the power of their bonds, the strength of their networks, and the spirit of trust that’s inherent in their culture.

Not losing any time, the brewery’s Co-Founders Ben Jackson and Paris McFarthing moved quickly to redirect resources to make packaged meals for furloughed staff every week that first month of the pandemic. They also started a GoFundMe campaign for their team, and during this season of need, Hop River’s long-practiced generosity in the Fort Wayne community came back to them.

“We've been blown away by the support our staff, management, owners, local businesses, and regulars have given to each other,” MC says.

Reservations are strongly recommended for seating on the patio and in the taproom.

Hop River’s GoFundMe earned $10,000 in grassroots support in a matter of weeks, and businesses like Headwaters Lifestyle Co. contributed additional funds from the sale of their Fort Wayne Together t-shirts to support area businesses.

Other local food establishments stepped in to feed Hop River’s team, too. Wood Farms and Zinnia's Bakehouse provided five weeks of free meat and bread drop-offs for the brewery’s staff.

Wood Farms and Zinnia's Bakehouse provided Hop River staff with weekly meat and bread deliveries during COVID-19.

About a month and a half later on May 7, Hop River was able to reopen for carry out beer only, which grew into offering beer and food and eventually reopening its patio space and taproom this summer.

By mid-July, it was at 50 percent capacity, and the entire staff was re-employed with the addition of a full-time cook and unpaid brew intern who started in August, MC says.

She believes the robust retention of Hop River’s staff speaks volumes to their culture. The generous support of Fort Wayne-area customers and businesses has been vital to keeping the brewery’s doors open, too.

Although most of Hop River's staff was furloughed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, they are all now back to work.

When Hop River posted on social media in early May that it had run out of carry out growlers and its next shipment was back ordered until mid-June, it started a “Growler Library,” asking community members to donate growlers from any brewery to be sanitized, refilled, and resold with Hop River beer. The community showed up again—and went above and beyond anyone’s expectations, MC says.

To aid the effort, Becky's Die Cutting, Inc. donated 100 stainless steel growlers to the stockpile.

When the federal and state financial aid packages fell short of meeting Hop River’s needs, Fort Wayne businesses like M&N Customs stepped up to raise funds by selling 20 custom flight boards and donating all of the proceeds to the brewery.

“All of the money we’ve earned from these efforts has gone directly to keeping the brewery alive,” MC says.

M&N Customs sold flight boards for local businesses like Hop River to support them during COVID-19.

It’s acts of kindness and generosity from the Fort Wayne community like these that have moved Hop River’s Taproom Manager Amanda Wendt to tears throughout the pandemic.

“The community really came through for us during this,” she says. “It was truly incredible to see and be a part of. It still gets me teary-eyed.”

Wendt credits her bar staff with their team's success during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Along with the generosity of local people doing what they can with what they have, MC says another factor that’s helped Hop River stay alive is its knowledgeable and highly invested staff. She points to Wendt, who has been with the team from day one and was vital to helping them adapt quickly to new carry out service and socially distant dining procedures.

Before Hop River, Wendt worked for a handful of other downtown Fort Wayne hot spots, including The Dash-In, The Deck at Hall’s Gas House, and the Brass Rail, which helped her learn the restaurant industry from the bottom up and gain the confidence needed to lead effectively, she says. Wendt encourages local food leaders to not be bashful about enforcing safety standards during COVID-19.

She also credits her staff with her team’s resilience during the pandemic.

“I think the best part about managing at Hop River is my bar staff,” Wendt says. “They work so hard to execute and maintain and give their best. They make me look good. I am the best manager I can be because of them.”

While she was furloughed with her staff from March 22-May 1, she feels that she personally had it pretty easy, overall, and she’s thankful that her team trusted her enough to stick with Hop River and come back to work.

“They have really put their faith in me to guide them and keep them as safe as possible through this,” Wendt says. “I am so grateful for them.”

Now that Hop River is back on its feet, it's leaning into the support of its fellow food and drink entrepreneurs around the city, as well, sharing successes, stresses, and advice to help the local food scene weather the storm as a family.

“About a month ago, we invited all the local breweries to Hop River to hang out and commiserate with each other,” MC says. “From that, we realized, we’re all in the same boat together, and we need to have a common message and language that we can implement across the board.”

For example, when thinking about how to handle the ongoing safety precautions of COVID-19, it’s helpful for area restaurants to share best practices.

Wendt encourages food service leaders to stay patient and understanding with the public, but also to stand their ground on company decisions about public health.

“Don't be afraid to make the hard choices,” she says. “Especially when it comes to the safety of others and your staff.”

Hop River is reopened and practicing social distancing in its taproom.

It’s advice like this that makes it important for local restaurant leaders to be in consistent communication with one another during trying times, MC says. Just getting a beer with other people who understand the situation has been helpful to her in staying positive and planning for what the future might entail.

”Those small moments of community are really important,” she says.

After all, while Fort Wayne’s local restaurants and breweries might consider themselves as competitors from time to time, they ultimately have many of the same goals and interests, explains Hop River’s Vice President and Co-Founder Paris McFarthing.

To beat the odds of surviving the pandemic, it’s important for the local food scene to band together.

“No one wants to see the restaurant community we’ve built in Fort Wayne fail,” McFarthing says. “Our idea is that restaurants are underpinning a lot of the things that people say make Fort Wayne great, so we have to make sure that we have a strong network of support to create a safety net for restaurants during this time. We’re all connected, whether we admit it or not.”

Hop River Vice President and Co-Founder Paris McFarthing raises a glass to craft beer and community in Fort Wayne.

While the pandemic was the first major trial restaurants faced together in 2020, it wasn’t the only one. When protests following the murder of George Floyd rocked the streets of downtown Fort Wayne and cities across the U.S. in late-May, Hop River found itself at a crossroads once again.

Since McFarthing is Black and his Co-Founder is white, the two took the opportunity to close Hop River’s doors for a day to process the Black Lives Matter movement as a team and decide how they could take more responsibility for racial justice within their own four walls, MC says.

After allowing time for each team member to share their feelings related to the protests, Hop River initiated a series of Bias Trainings for its staff with an Inclusive and Diversity facilitator. Even though much of its staff was still furloughed and not on payroll at the time, everyone showed up for these trainings, MC notes.

“That just goes to show that it is truly important to our staff,” she says.

Hop River is back to hosting socially distant events, like a YLNI Diversity and Inclusion panel.
As Hop River continues to assess how it can become more welcoming and inclusive, one of the things it's looking at is how it can challenge the cliches of craft beer culture.

"As a staff, one thing we're being really intentional about right now is looking at how systematically and relationally we are being welcoming to people of color, or women, or anyone who might not be your stereotypical craft beer drinker," MC says. 

McFarthing says that like the effort to support others during COVID-19, the effort to be more inclusive and respectful of people often starts with taking personal responsibility for what you can control and making a difference in your own life, one small change at a time.

“With everything that ‘s going on, it's so easy to feel small and overwhelmed,” he says. “You go to bed with chaos, and you wake up with chaos. Sometimes, it’s not malicious chaos, but there’s so much uncertainty happening at such a rapid pace, sometimes you just have to focus in.”

Hop River is serving up beer in a socially distant setting during COVID-19.

When it comes to weathering the ongoing storm of the pandemic, focusing on what can be controlled is what has carried Hop River through. It’s all about local people working within their resources, asking themselves what they can provide here and now, and stepping up to the plate to make it happen.

While the future of the local food scene and the COVID-19 pandemic hangs in the balance and changes are still happening week by week, McFarthing says Hop River will continue to take things one day—one challenge, one opportunity—at a time.

Because when it comes to issues like a global pandemic or racial injustice, the weight can feel overwhelming, but it’s all about breaking it down into smaller, more manageable steps.

“I hear myself and others asking: What can I control?” he says. “Sometimes, it's as simple as smiling at someone. You never know what affect that can have. For me, it’s about using something that could be negative, and making it positive, and then us building from there. If I can have a positive interaction, my attitude is changed, and I can impact people around me, and they can impact others. Sometimes, you have to make it smaller and focus on that, because if you don’t, it can get overwhelming really quickly.”

Visit Hop River during COVID-19

Hop River is now open six days a week.

Tuesday-Thursday: 5-9 p.m.
Friday: 5-10 p.m.
Saturday: Noon-10 p.m.
Sunday: Noon-6 p.m.

Reservations are strongly recommended for Patio & Taproom seating.

Hop River is also hosting socially distant events, like weekly Trivia nights, pop-up shops, and live music. Follow @hopriverbrewing on Instagram and Facebook for updates.

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.
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