Carib Brewery is like a big brother to bars, especially these days.
Ever since the covid19 pandemic struck, forcing many bars to close or operate with no in-house customers, the brewery, as a 70-year elder in the beverage sector, has been helping owners, giving them advice on how to operate under the public health restrictions and on the ways to reinvent their businesses in time for when the economy fully reopens.
"It's been a rough, tumultuous ride and experience. We are reaching out to them to see how they are doing. It's personal for them. They know they are not alone, we know how they are feeling. We try to reassure them," Robin Cumberbatch, the brewery's head of sales told Business Day.
Bars have been the bobolee (whipping boy) of sorts for public health officials, who branded them as a high-risk source for the spread of covid19. And while they do not question that saving lives is priority, bar owners are in a critical state economically and some have flat-lined.
In June, about 300 bars, possibly more, shuttered, said Cumberbatch. "Some tried to stay open and pay some subsistence to employees," he said.
The 5,000-strong industry is a socio-economic mix of urban-based pubs, semi-entertainment spots, many with food menus to add to the flair of liming – the in-house bars of restaurants and hotels are part of this network – and the family-owned neighbourhood rumshops in rural but growing communities.
The Champs Fleurs-based brewery, a flagship in the Ansa McAl group, has a relationship with them all and is invested in their success and sustainability, supporting bars with no resources with materials to fulfil public health guidelines and even hospitality training.
It has been hard to see some bars go under, said Cumberbatch, as they were clients who had done business with the brewery for a long time. Some bars went down from 25 employees to four. But with sales of only six to eight bottles a day, the operating cost just did not make sense to stay open.
"The traffic just was not there." And with rent to pay and little or no revenue closing was the only option.
"A popular bar that also sells food may do better," he said.
And in many cases, bar employees were not eligible for the social relief grants Government offered for people who lost jobs since the March lockdown, Peter Hall, Ansa McAl's beverage sector head, said.
And it's not only migrant workers, he observed. "There were people who just did not qualify."
Shaping the future of the industry
There are 36,000 people employed across the bar and entertainment industry; it is unlikely bars that when business is allowed to fully reopen, operations will resume with full staff. The fallout may be as high as 60 per cent in the medium to long term, said Cumberbatch, based feedback from owners across the country.
The onset of the pandemic meant bars, like all businesses, had to adjust to public health rules and some owners did not know how to, since the nature of what they do is based on providing a space for customers to socialise.
The brewery helped by providing bars with "safe operating materials", such as plexi-glass screens, hand sanitisers and physical distancing stickers, to try to stop customers from grouping in large numbers, explained Carla Furlonge-Walker, external affairs manager for Ansa McAl's beverage sector.
One critical area of support has been hospitality training to improve the service in bars and prepare them for how the industry will look – and change – when restrictions are relaxed.
The brewery is part of an initiative spearheaded by the TT Beverage Alcohol Alliance (TTBAA) and the Trinidad Hotel Restaurant and Tourism Association (THRTA) to guide stakeholders forward. They conducted capacity building workshops via Zoom and the modules dealt with hygiene, PPE (personal protective equipment) and physical distancing protocols. An exercise was recently done on September 28.
"We have to change that conversation, that narrative. Discussions have been formal and informal. The beverage alliance is where we (Carib) would be most forceful," said Furlonge-Walker. There have even been talks with the Trade Ministry, the Health Ministry and public health officials on recommendations, which will not only apply to bars but services in restaurants and hotels.
An ecosystem of caring
For its part, Carib has marketing teams going out to bars daily to see how they are doing. As sales remain sluggish, the brewery has done beverage exchanges for when stocks do not sell, replenishing bars with fresh supplies.
While working with bars in Trinidad, Tobago has not been left out, said Cumberbatch, noting the island has been "disproportionately affected" by the downturn brought on by covid19 because of its reliance on tourism.
"They have not even been able to depend on domestic tourism." Bars on the Pigeon Point strip, for example, have been struggling and the brewery has extended its promotional support to Tobago operators but it is a bigger challenge.
The upside for the future is that being a service-oriented economy, Tobago bars are likely to adapt more quickly to new ways of operating, Cumberbatch said.
There are also distinctions between bars in rural communities than those in urban areas. A bar may fare a little better when people walk around the community and stop for a cold beer, a quick chat and head back home. Bars on the Ariapita Avenue strip may not have as much movement from walk-in customers as their traffic would usually be people out to relax for a few hours before heading home.
Therefore, part of the brewery's marketing strategy is a grab-and-go beverage mix with bags of ice that customers can pick up at bars and maintain a feeling of a lime "and enjoy in a responsible manner." Social media is also part of its campaign.
Adapting and managing expectations
The brewery itself has not been untouched by the pandemic. As a manufacturer, it remained in operation as an essential service (food/beverage producer) during the March lockdown. Many of its main clients were not that lucky and had to close (bars/restaurants). Carib, which employs an estimated 1,000 people (permanent and casual), has managed to avoid job losses. It has also continued the promotion of its own rebranding in August, with a new look logo, to celebrate its longevity and the next stage in its future.
It has been like a roller coaster, said Hall. "It varies month to month," he said on earnings. The net decrease would have been 50 per cent during lockdown but there has been some recovery as declines slowed to between 30 to 35 per cent when restrictions were partially lifted since April. And the brewery has had fairly steady sales at supermarkets. (Overall, the Ansa McAl's combined sector of manufacturing, packaging and brewing reported a six-month decline in revenue to $1.01 billion, as of June 30, from $1.23 billion for the same period in 2019).
Regionally, the brewery's subsidiaries in St Kitts and Nevis and Grenada have had an experience similar to Tobago because of those islands' dependence on tourism. Grenada had the unique feature of tourism that was also based on medical studies at St George's University, which has been affected by border and school closures. "Both markets suffered," said Hall.
The turnaround in Florida and New York, once among the hardest hit by covid19 in the United States, looks promising, said Hall.
Florida has seen moderate economic recovery where counties, including Miami-South Dade and Palm Beach, kept about 50 per cent of businesses opened.
"Florida was able to have outdoor dining, it was not as restrictive as in Trinidad," said Hall. "For the Government here it is all or nothing."
New York too is another example of how restaurants and bars now manage to operate with outdoor dining, which Hall believes will have a positive impact on the sales of Carib beverages.
As expectations remain for an announcement soon on the return to in-house dining and services, the brewery will continue with its support for bars, Hall said.
However, customers also have a role in helping the sector's recovery, Cumberbatch pointed out.
"It's not just about going to your favourite bar and watering hole. We all have to make a long overdue change," he said.