Stone In the Time of COVID

There are times when you just want to do the right things.

We need to recount to no one the tumultuousity since early March 2020. That’s not a word you say? I will argue that 2020 has proven it definitely is. I might be willing to fight over that, but truth is I’d rather just give everyone a hug. Can’t though. At least not right now. Soon, I hope.

When things found themselves shoved suddenly into shutdown mode, it caught us…well, everyone…flat footed (intending no derision to those of the flat foot persuasion). Our hospitality team went from gearing up for Spring, to winding down with such lightening speed we were all left with our stomachs in our throats and quite a bit bewildered. It caught everyone off guard, and as a result of it being quite literally everyone, no one was unawares.

On March 17, our entire hospitality department shut down. Five Stone Tap Rooms. The sweeping Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens locations in both Escondido and in Liberty Station. And our smaller Stone Brewing restaurant in Napa. A total hospitality team of 400 hardworking and talented people.

Along with the industry, we pivoted as quickly as humanly possible to a delivery and curbside To Go model. Our hospitality business dropped by, well…all of it.  We were clearly not alone, as our On Premise business (measured by the beer we sell to bars, restaurants, hotels & public venues) in SoCal literally caved in with a 99.7% drop. The hurt was being felt everywhere. All at once.

When our Federal Government began talking about support to businesses and employees, the devastated hospitality and travel industries were at the front of the conversation. Few other industries were hit as hard or as swiftly. We were hopeful some of it might apply to us, and more specifically and importantly, to our employees.

Then the PPP guidelines were officially announced. We scoured the documentation, read the reports, followed the news, and talked to industry advocacy groups, hungrily consuming information with one question in mind: Could we use the PPP to support our team in our mutual hour of need?

We could not.

Due to a loophole in the PPP guidelines, Stone did not qualify. We were unable to apply. Holding out on the hope on the rumor that the loophole was to be closed, we waited. And waited. From March 17 – April 6, a total of 21 days, we continued to pay our hospitality team in full for the lost hours due to the stay-at-home orders.

As it became clear that no PPP loans were going to ever be available for our company to use to support our team, we were faced with the inevitable decision that running our company out of money to pay people not to work would serve no one. The idea of a temporary closing took primacy over a permanent one. Thus, on April 6, weeks after most bars and restaurants had furloughed or laid off their teams, we held a group informational phone call and gave everyone the news.  We were laying off our team. Most were surprised and grateful that we’d held on that long. We made arrangements for people to come in for their final paycheck.

What’s that? Come again…come IN? Yep. In person. During a lockdown pandemic. I admit to questioning our HR and legal folks multiple times “Why do people have to come in person during a pandemic…can’t we just mail them their checks, or do it electronically?” Nope, California law dictates that we were required to give them their final checks in person. So, gloves and masks on, and schedules arranged. In person it was. Juggling concern over potential exposure, childcare with all schools and daycare closed, and just trying to navigate a tumultuous new world order, some of our team were not very happy about this. I didn’t blame them one single bit.

At least no one had to fight traffic. Because pandemics we learned, make for light traffic.

And like that, we laid off 346 of our team members. Even though we KNEW that they were going to be getting unemployment checks…and with the enhanced COVID unemployment bonus for some of our team it was even more than we’d been paying them…it fucking hurt. 

It still hurts.

We knew that many of our team were struggling in a myriad of ways. Some of them had spouses who were also unable to work, and maybe they weren’t able to get unemployment. Maybe they’re struggling with kids. Or just the reality of stuff that life throws at you.

So, in April I decided to reinstate my salary for 2020.  I’d suspended it more than a year earlier. It hadn’t been the first time. I’ve done it whenever the company is having a tough time. 2020 had already started off as a bit-less-than-awesome year. Then COVID came, and it became very apparent that our people were in even greater need. Seems like a helluva time to reinstate my salary when things are getting tough for everyone, no? Yes, but I did it so I could turn around and give it to folks that had been laid off and were in need. Others on our team pledged to kick in too.

We set about researching how to disperse the funds to the affected team members, and it turned out to be inordinately complicated to do such a seemingly simple thing. Steve had the fortuitous idea to contact the San Diego Foundation, and they agreed to help administrate.  It took a lot of work and more than a month to get all the ducks in a row…much later than we’d hoped, but perhaps perfect timing for some folks in their time of need…and in June we were able to issue $1000 each to nearly 250 of our laid off team members.

It wasn’t enough, but it was some. And some is better than nothing. And if you’ve found yourself, through no fault of your own, on the thin line, it can be one helluva a lot better than nothing.

Also in June we started opening our restaurants back up. Sorta. Outdoor dining, while always a very desirable thing in our opinion, became the new thing. After fits and starts due to the shifting sands of our state and local governments trying to get their sea legs we seem to have gotten the hang of it. Extra careful at first, then more extra careful as we’ve continued.

June was for us to prove to ourselves as Americans that “We got this. We can wrangle the muster. We can do the things. And we can get this country opened back up.” Yeah, no. Instead we argued. In our gummit. On TV. In social media. And a little tiny bit in person…which managed to then show up on TV and in social media. Easier than doing the work to come together as society I guess. But enough of that. I’m going to go back to just sticking to our facts and our story.

Truth is, I’m super proud of our team and what we’ve been able to accomplish. The teams at our bistro and tap rooms have pivoted, sanitized (they always did, but more now), and figured out how to ensure their health and safety, and yours. We’ve distanced the tables, changed the ordering procedure, delivering the incredible food and tasty beers as quick (or quicker) than ever, and made it so our guests can hang out in our beautiful spaces together…but nice and separated from everyone else. Our brewing and packaging teams have been working the long hours, making the incredibly tasty beers, and putting them into bottles, cans and…much less so these days…kegs. Our sales and distribution team has been tirelessly wearing the masks, washing the hands, and visiting the stores to deliver and stock all the beer. Our administrative teams have been video meeting until they’re blue in the face and cross eyed, breaking for a quick lunch, then coming back at it for more.  Fortunately we can all enjoy a beer at the end of our shifts. Because, the after work “shifters” together in person may have paused, but the take home beer privileges most certainly have not. This is craft beer after all.

And now we find ourselves in late September. It’s now crystal clear that it’s gonna be this way for a while. Probably a long while. The government assistance to the populace, which includes our team, has waned and the political will is, well, I don’t know what the fuck they’re doing honestly.  So it’s time for us to step up again for our team members who we haven’t been able to bring back on the job. 

We’re going to do another round of the Team Stone Relief Fund. We might not be able to make it as big as the previous round, but once again, we know that doing something…anything…is better than nothing. Many of our team members (we call ourselves Team Stone by the way) have been asking “Are we doing another round for those that were laid off? Can I contribute?”  We decided the answer to both those questions should be Yes.

This is of course with absolutely fucking zero pressure on anyone.  Everyone has their own situation, and those situations are different. Some may not be in the position to contribute. Some may. If you’d like to and you’re in the position, we invite you to join. Everything will funnel through the San Diego Foundation like before, because they’re a 501(c)3 charitable foundation that’s experienced at administering such things. I hope you’re able to join us in contributing…again, if you’d like and you’re in the position. The phrase “Every bit helps” can sound a little trite, until we find ourselves in times like this when we realize how very true it is.

Donate to the Team Stone Relief Fund

 

Words worth sharing from Team Stone Relief Fund Recipients:

“This generous gesture solidifies my unwavering support of Team Stone and I can say that I am damn proud to have been a part of it.”

“This is the kind of company that I am glad to say I worked for.”

“This is a difficult time for everyone, and your thoughtfulness is beyond expectation.”

“This relief is incredibly generous and helpful! We are truly grateful. I enjoyed working for Stone Brewing very much. I hope that there may be an opportunity for me to rejoin the team in the future.”

“Thank you. This is definitely a relief; your generosity is much appreciated.”

“Yaaaaay I’m so happy. Thank you.”

*In their responses, many of our generous team members graciously passed on accepting funds to help sweeten the deal for those in the most need. We tip our hats to them.

We also gave deep discounts to our team for To Go meals from our restaurants, and as well as discounts for our fans as part of the “we’re all in this together” mentality. We also seized on the opportunity to donate many hundreds of meals to firefighters who were under quarantine, first responders, medical staff and even the Napa Unified School District meal program.

Team Stone donating hundreds of meals to firefighters who were under quarantine, first responders, medical staff and even the Napa Unified School District meal program.

 

What else? We’ll there’s a lot else.

We started our very first advertising campaign. Like, ever. Billboards (not a lot), those big bus stop posters (a few more), and digital ads (of the type that hopefully elicit a response of ‘cool!’ rather than irritation). We called it the Leave No Stone Unturned campaign, and it accompanied turning the labels of our bottles and cans upside down. Get it? Simple, with just a modest-but-not-too-much dose of clever. We started by releasing random bottles of Stone IPA with upside down labels into the market in the second half of June, and let people discover them. As you might imagine, the reactions ranged from lots of “Look at this! Did I get a collector’s item with an accidental upside down label? Did I win a prize?” to a few of the “Look at those #%*! stupid idiots at Stone. I remember when they used to be good, but that was a long time ago, like when I was 12.”

Gotta love those heartwarming social media comments. People need to be heard. We of course pretty much ignored and / or chuckled-at-and-then-ignored the latter types.

Our first post of upside-down bottles, showing that we’d “made a huge mistake.”

 

Then, in early July we revealed the campaign itself, and more upside down labels began hitting the marketplace. Fun stuff honestly. It was kinda exciting for us to flip everything and watch the reactions. It’s important to note, and I don’t want this to possibly get missed here as I’m not sure everyone realized the level of detail we put into this, but the beer itself in the bottle and cans and even kegs is upside down too.  In fact, in a video call with our brewing team I asked and they looked me straight in my digitized eyes and confirmed with totally straight faces that they turned all the malt and the hops upside down. “What about the water? Can you even do that?” I asked. A very clear “We can do that for you Greg.” I of course let them know that it wasn’t ‘me’ that they were doing it for, but for all the people that enjoy our beer. They indicated they completely understood and that it would be done. Strangely, as I type this now, I don’t recall us specifically talking about the yeast. I’m sure they did. They’re not ones to take short cuts after all.

Through all this, we began to hear talk about shortages of aluminum cans. Not just at Stone. Not just in craft beer. Not just in beer. But in all beverage categories in these most United of States. Well, united in can shortages anyway. All the way from cee to cee…Chile to Canada…actually.  It seemed to die down, a little. Then a few weeks later the hammer fell.  We were going to be shorted some from what we needed.  Then a month later, the hammer fell again. Hard. We got notice we were going to be shorted a LOT.  Wonderful.

Our minds quickly went to “What are we running an advertising campaign for then? A campaign that has the specific goal of helping us to sell more beer…when we might not actually have more beer to sell?”  Ugh. PAUSE button!  So, for the meantime, “Buy A Bottle, Save A Can” is our new slogan.  Fortunately, just like cans are awesome, bottles are awesome too. If you’ve been buying cans primarily recently, give a six-pack of Stone IPA  bottles a revisit!

At the beginning of August, Dominic Engels our CEO of nearly four years resigned. Then, in a magic, meant-to-be, alignment of the stars (three things I do not personally believe in, but the phrases still work) we found and publicly announced our new CEO Maria Stipp on September 1. It’s putting it mildly to say we’re really stoked to have Maria, and know she’s going to help lead Stone to more great things. More on her, and her accomplishments with all of us at Stone…coming soon. You can bet on that. Please join us in welcoming her back into the world if independent craft beer!

Later this month of September we’re celebrating our Stone 24th Anniversary Celebration.  We’re having a (highly) modified ‘event’ (with all the distancing, and all the protocols) at our two Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens locations. While we’ve been celebrating our anniversaries in August for most of the past 24 years, we actually had our Stone 4th Anniversary Celebration on September 23, 2000, and I’ve attached a pic of it for your enjoyment. Our olde skool Stone fans will recall that we used to be located in San Marcos, the current home of our friends at the Lost Abbey brewery. Note the pic of my partner Steve Wagner and his young son Walter.  We’d planned to celebrate his 21st birthday in grand style at the Stone 24th Anniversary Celebration & Invitational Beer Festival in August of this year, but we all know what happened when this quaint little thing called ‘plans’ met 2020. Yeah…poof.  So, we’ll plan for the Stone 25th Anniversary Celebration to be a big doozy next year because for three main reasons: 1) 25 years is a big number worth recognizing, 2) cheers to Walter Wagner on his 21st birthday…a year late, and 3) it won’t be fucking 2020 any more (I’m personally going to be getting an early start on that part of the celebration).

20 YEARS AGO: The Stone 4th Anniversary Celebration and Steve Wagner attending with his young son, Walter.

 

Until (and past) when the vaccine is ready, we’re going to employ the age old adage “Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst.” I suggest turning off the news. Pretty much permanently. It’s well-known that consuming the news and being informed are two different things. There’s real work to be done. Yes, I’m going to vote. And everyone on our team is going to vote too. At least I hope so. We’re giving them the entire day OFF as a paid vacation day, just to vote. And many will make the pro move and will have voted by mail already, thus reserving the day for positive civic action. Like staying off the road and enjoying a tasty beverage in the comfort of their home. You can do the same.

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Comments

Reg's picture

You missed one Greg! It's HOP for the best and prepare for the WORT! Enjoy reading you every time. No BS just facts. I'll go drink a Stone now to support. Best of luck to us all.

Clayton E White's picture

Thanks for the information about how the pandemic has changed your company and the effect on the greatest business model to date. Stone has always been about people, employees and customers alike, and we all look forward to the rise back to financial prosperity for this company.
We want several more decades of your continually evolving products and the support you give the community and Stone employees.
I can't get enough Buenaveza Salt and Lime Lager, and I truly hope that product is here to stay!
Thanks Again!
Clay White

Bryce's picture

Great post. Glad to hear that the Stone family is getting taken care of. That's the spirit of beer (and all food) is togetherness around the table and taking care of each other (buying a round).
Bummer about the can shortages; I've been enjoying the $5 Buenaveza and Arrogant Bastard bombers most bottle shops I go to. My local aldi has a good price on the Tiki IPA mix pack bottles, but I had forgotten how good the stone IPA is until I bought that in can format!
Cool to see Maria join the fold. Huge respect for what she did at Lagunitas.
She's joining during challenging times of both sales and branding. A chance to shine for sure.

Will Wixom's picture

Thank you so very much for your updates, Greg. Very appreciated and so very grateful for all that you do for Stone and what your wonderful staff does as well. Team Stone for life!!!

Jessika's picture

And this is why I love Stone for life! You guys are amazing- nothing I can say will match your awesomeness and what your doing. We love Stone and will keep buying and supporting- like you we can’t wait for a better time to come. Thank you for keeping it real and having a heart.

Aldo's picture

Greg, as you said 2020 sucks, and all stone fans are specting a 25th aniversary with a lot of passion, your brewery helped me a lot in the past years, i used to be brand Ambassador in México and the people here have a very big love to your beers, Trust un mexican market and dont forget them.
Keep fighting against this pandemic, we want stone for ever in our glasses, cheers !!

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