Co-owner Bob Szuter on how this tumultuous year has shifted the brewery's priorities, and why any efforts to restrict access to voting are 'anti-American'
If you were hoping to hit Wolf’s Ridge Brewing this Tuesday to either celebrate or drown your sorrows — depending on your party affiliation and the appearance of early voting returns — you’ll need to come up with an alternative plan.
The Downtown brewery, like a handful of other local and national businesses, opted to close on Election Day in order to give its staff members every opportunity to cast a vote, which co-owner Bob Szuter described as one in a series of steps that the brewer has taken in the wake of a tumultuous 2020.
“When the protests started happening Downtown earlier this year, we started talking internally about what we could do to help better society,” Szuter said last week by phone. “Obviously there are a lot of things we can do as a business in terms of supporting different organizations, but we wanted to be as impactful as we could, and more deliberate. And so we started to talk about voting, and making sure the disenfranchised people in our country are heard.
“For our staff … we thought, ‘If there was any impediment to [voting], what could it be?’ And obviously it would be taking off work. For us, it felt like a pretty simple thing to do: Just pay the folks who were going to be working and say, ‘Go ahead and have the day off. We hope you vote, and we encourage you to.’”Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter
Szuter, who said he has participated in every election since he turned 18, has always embraced voting as a civic duty, a trait he shares with his folks, longtime election poll workers (and fellow Wolf’s Ridge co-owners).
At the same time, Szuter said that he sometimes took his vote for granted, a worldview that has been upended by the events of this year. The twin health and economic impacts of the coronavirus, as well as the rise of the new Black Lives Matter movement, have increased the business owner’s level of civic engagement and forced him to rethink the priorities that have shaped everything from previous votes to day-to-day decisions within the brewery.
“Even at the local level … I don’t know if I voted for the right people maybe eight years ago, and maybe we do really need to push the needle and get more aggressive in dealing with the issues that are really hurting our community,” said Szuter, who would like to see Election Day made a national holiday. “There’s a lot of support, especially in our local community, for equality, equity — things that should be really important to all Americans. … But to undo our racist past and to fix so many of the issues that have shown themselves this year, it’s going to take hard work. It’s going to take sacrifice. It’s going to take putting money we might have put elsewhere into different areas of the business, which might be personally difficult for me and my family. But that’s what needs to happen. I think we’re finally seeing a lot of businesses, and people in general, say, ‘It’s time we hurt a little bit to help those who need it get that leg up.’”
In most years, the decision to close for the election would have been an easy one. Prior to COVID, profit levels were such that shuttering the business for a day would have had an imperceptible impact on the bottom line. But in a year where most bars and restaurants, including Wolf’s Ridge, have seen incomes decimated by the coronavirus, every dollar is crucial to the brewer’s survival.
“It might have been a harder decision this year because every day counts,” Szuter said. “But we often weigh the risks and benefits, and, frankly, I think the risk of another four years under this administration is too great for us to not do everything we can to encourage people to vote. And if more people vote, hopefully that means we get a new administration.”
But even more important than the election result, Szuter continued, is making sure that everyone is given an equal opportunity to make their voice heard, which means pushing back against legislation and lawsuits designed to restrict access to voting and refusing to normalize scenarios where voters are forced to wait in hours-long lines to cast ballots — a de facto poll tax that places a heavier financial burden on lower-income workers. If, in that idealized scenario, the electorate opted for Donald Trump rather than Joe Biden, then so be it.
“If every American is given an equal opportunity to vote and they decide to keep the current president, well, that’s the will of the people,” said Szuter, who intends to close Wolf’s Ridge every Election Day moving forward. “At the end of it, the most important thing is that we get Americans to use their collective voice, and that we remove those inhibitors [to voting]. … If you can sit back and say, ‘Well, I don’t want to make it easy for that person to vote,’ that’s anti-American. That’s not consistent with the values of this country. If we truly want to own our constitution, and to embrace the things that are supposed to be important to us as a nation, then we need to make sure we’re making it as easy as possible for all Americans to vote.”