Co-owner Bob Szuter discusses the difficult ethical and financial decisions with which the brewery has been forced to contend amid the still-unfolding coronavirus crisis

Among other things, operating a business in the middle of a global pandemic requires a heightened focus on health.

Wolf’s Ridge Brewing co-owner Bob Szuter said the Downtown brewery and restaurant has adjusted processes and scheduling to maintain social distancing requirements and minimize the potential for viral spread. Beer deliveries are contactless and completed by lone drivers, and kitchen staffers are now working reduced hours (for full pay) and in the same three-person teams, reducing the number of people with whom each is in contact while on the job. In addition, work stations are taped out on the kitchen floors, ensuring a minimum distance of six feet between employees. 

Yet even these precautions haven’t fully assuaged the guilt Szuter has felt in moving forward under the essential business guidelines set forth in DeWine’s “stay at home” order, particularly as he has limited his own movements due to his wife’s underlying health condition, which leaves her more at risk to the coronavirus.

“Other than crucial visits to the grocery store, I haven’t left, and it’s really hard. I mean, we continue to … tell [our employees], ‘If you don’t want to come in you don’t have to. We’ll do everything we can here to make sure there’s something for you to come back to.’ But that has been and still is a struggle,” Szuter said. “It’s putting everybody in a weird position. … We’ve had staff come out and say, ‘This is bullshit. We’re not an essential business.’ And I don’t necessarily disagree, but this is the environment we’re in, and we’re just trying every single day to balance all of that and take the right path.”

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Part of the required balance is the brewery’s desire to meet current financial obligations so that the business can survive this upheaval, which meant working out deferments with some vendors while meeting the demands of others. The brewery’s landlord, for instance, rejected any deferment on April’s rent, and Szuter remained unsure how the company would address May’s payment in light of DeWine’s nonbinding executive order asking landlords and lenders to suspend small business rental and mortgage payments for 90 days.

“At the end of the day, if we don’t pay rent we risk default on our lease, and there’s no clarity coming from anyone saying that you’ll be protected from a situation where you’ll get booted out of the building [if you don’t pay],” said Szuter, adding that the business has a good relationship with its landlord. “We don’t want to be in that situation, so we’re doing everything we can to pay rent while also knowing these other bills are going to come due. We’re trying not to get too behind on any of it. … Generally, and I'd say overwhelmingly, really, everybody understands ... that we’re all in this together. … So we have to keep operating under the understanding that we’ll still have a business when this is over.”

Ideally, financial support will arrive via the CARES Act, economic stimulus legislation passed by the federal government that includes forgivable loans for qualifying small businesses impacted by COVID-19. On Friday, the brewery submitted its initial loan application with Heartland Bank, which was subsequently rejected as requirements shifted. “I got an email [later that day] that basically said, ‘Scratch that and do it all over again. Here’s a new application,’” said Szuter, who had spent much of the previous week working through details of the legislation with the brewery’s accountants, trying to make sure the paperwork was in proper order. The business filed an amended version on Saturday, and at the time of our interview Szuter was still awaiting word on its status.

In the immediate aftermath of DeWine’s March order closing bars and restaurants, Wolf’s Ridge laid off its staff of 77 employees, bringing back 15 to 20 percent of that number to assist with its new beer delivery operation, as well as the carry-out service at its Downtown restaurant. In the three weeks since, Szuter estimates that sales are down 80 percent, a revenue loss that would be inopportune at any time, but is particularly jarring as the brewery finds itself in the midst of an expansion project for which it has taken on additional debt, having expanded into the 25,000-square-foot former site of Four String Brewing on Hague Avenue.

“And we’re going to have to start paying on that debt on top of our existing debt, and it’s going to be hard to figure out how we do that without significantly scaling back our business or staff,” said Szuter, noting that ability to produce cans in the new facility has been a needed boon to the brewery’s bottom line.

While the CARES Act should provide some relief, Szuter said many small businesses nationwide could require additional assistance as “stay at home” orders continue to extend.

“With the uncertainties alone, it’s enough for me to say that we’re going to need something else,” Szuter said. “We [applied for a CARES loan] assuming we’re going to take on additional debt, and that we’re not going to have 100 percent of the loan forgiven. But we’re also working on a baseline that there’s probably something else coming down the pipeline, so it was like, ‘Let’s take advantage of what we have right now and hope additional support will come.’ If it doesn’t, hopefully we’ve put ourselves in an OK enough position to bring most of our staff back and have some kind of business. But this is a colossal [event]. It’s something that we’ve never seen, and we’re still in the thick of it, so it’s really hard to say what things are going to look like on the other side.”