For years, Oklahoma City’s craft brewery scene has surged with little to no sign of slowing down. A burgeoning market with plenty of demand, it seemed a safe route for those with brew-dreams to take a chance, instead, it was a road full of challenges and uncertainty as the COVID-19 pandemic spread last year.
Sitting in a conference room a few doors down from his taproom in northwest Oklahoma City, Charn Langford, CEO of Broke Brewing Co., recalled how he was just about to open his brewery when he started hearing about the virus.
In early January 2020, Langford said he and some friends were drinking beer at the brewery and as he pulled out a Corona, one of his friends made a joke about the beer and the virus. He said the joke didn’t make much sense because at that time he hadn’t heard of the virus that had already spread from Asia to Europe.
Looking into it, Langford said he didn’t think it would amount to much. “It’s not going to come here, and if it does, I’m sure it won’t be any big deal, it’ll be like swine flu or something. It will be all on the news for 2 months and then it will be over,” Langford said of this reaction to hearing about the virus over a year ago. “(We) joked around about it and proceeded to move on to the next topic. Little did we know that it was going to take up an entire year of everybody’s life and collective consciousness would just only be about that.”
After years of hard work to realize his dream, the brewery opened its doors to the public on Feb. 29, 2020, only to be forced to close for in- person service 17 days later as the city required all bars to close response to the growing number of Covid cases.
“That whole time period, it was a lot of shock, disbelief. That washes over you and you’re left with ‘what now? We’re too far into it,’” Langford said of how he felt during the roughly two-month shutdown. “At that point we were two years in from when we started talking about doing a brewery and then making plans and purchasing equipment, finding a space, build out, everything. I mean, we’re too invested, we’re not stopping. That was something that was never really a question.”
Pushing any notion of closing down shop, Langford said he quickly started thinking of how they were going to shift plans and work on simply surviving. A canning operation, that was originally planned for months down the road, quickly became a main focus and a learning experience as the company dealt with supply shortages, including the cans themselves, due to the pandemic.
Selling their canned beer helped to bring in a little revenue, which kept the lights on and allowed for the purchase of more grain to brew more beer, but the doors needed to be open for any kind of sustainability for such a new business.
On May 15, 2020, the bar closure order was lifted, and Broke Brewing was allowed to pour again. Langford said unlike more established brewers in the state that he said had the luxury of waiting to see when they wanted to re- open, he had to go forward and get the beer flowing.
“It was like, ‘oh, we’re allowed to open? Okay, we’re doing it.’ It felt risky even at the time, it’s like, ‘how bad is it?’ Even then, there were still more questions than answers about Covid. Now, on the other side of it, we know so much more,” he said.
Following all recommended guidelines of space and cleanliness, Langford
said people started trickling in, many
from nearby neighbors that were more
than likely getting a bit stir-crazy from
quarantining from home. In the follow-
ing months, those neighborhood customers became taproom regulars, and a tight bond was formed.
“The people that we had coming in every week were locals that live in these neighborhoods around. We figured out where our collective comfort level was and what precautions needed to be in place. If we noticed that our custom- ers were uncomfortable about this or that, then we would change things. We kind of grew to be in each other’s bubble,” he said.
During the summer, Langford said he started seeing new faces coming around, what he dubbed “COVID tourists.” As restrictions continued to tighten across the country, Langford re- called guests from neigh- boring states and from as far away as California coming to enjoy the level of freedom Oklahoma City.
Business continued steadily into the fall and winter, but a freak ice storm in late October led to widespread power outages around the city and those early patrons the brewery had depended on and befriended were soon depending on the brewery.
Without power for only about a day, Langford said their taproom soon became a haven for their neighbors needing a warm place to hang out, an outlet to charge their phone and a tasty beer to help forget about the dark and cold of their homes.
As things continue to normalize in the city and around the country, Langford said business is good and sales are trending upward. Despite the rough launch, he’s still able to focus in on the positives in a sea of negative.
“Now, things are opening up, we get tons of fresh faces. At the beginning, we had our people that came in, and it was just those people. It’s been kind of neat, we have a really great relationship with all of those people. They still come in all the time. Some of the reminisce about the times when they were like, ‘it was like my private little bar,’” he said.
“It was really fun. Those parts of it.”
We got a Couple of Days in
Located off of Film Row in Oklahoma City, Core4 Brewing Company is another among the city’s latest brewery taproom concepts. Like Broke Brewing
Co., the concept for Core4 had been kicking around for a couple of years before they were able to open their doors, said co-founder Amy Simon.
“We signed our lease on this in October of 2018. It was until I think the next summer, June, our building permit finally got approved to start build up,” she said.
Leading up to their 2020 opening, Simon held a similar belief that COVID-19 would have little impact on Oklahoma.
“After the first of the year. I think kind of like everybody, we’re like ‘it’s an Asian issue’ kind of like some of the diseases before and we shouldn’t have to worry about it, it’s not going to get here,” Simon said.
“By the week before opening we started to get really nervous, because that’s when they start saying ‘well, there’s a couple of cases in Oklahoma and this is spreading in other cities, we’re starting to shut down.’ So, we knew that something bad was probably coming,” she said.
With a grand opening of March 14, 2020, customers had precious few days to sample the brewery’s beer before the city shut down.
“Got a couple of days in,” Simon said. “Probably the most dramatic week I’ve probably had in my entire life. As far as highs, ‘everything is great, we opened our business and we’re so excited’ to ‘oh my gosh, what’s happening to the world?’ It was scary.”
Like Langford, Simon said shutting down the new business was off the table and they remained open, selling 32 oz. growlers out the door until restrictions were eased in May 2020.
Opening back up wasn’t a choice either, as they had no reserve money and were “just barely getting by,” Simon said. So, they took all necessary precautions, spacing out tables and requiring all those inside their space wear a mask, and the customers started showing up. Made up of a mix of people they had already known, service industry workers and craft beer enthusiasts, Simon said they did fairly well after opening back up.
By June, they started having live music and events as they catered to those going longing for a sense of normalcy after having to shelter in place. At the time, the number of new COIVD- 19 cases had remained steady for the state and Gov. Kevin Stitt had just announced the state would be entering Phase 3 of the “Open Up and Recover Safely plan.”
“In Oklahoma, it wasn’t a crazy out- break, the hospitals weren’t overloaded, and I think at that point there were still a lot of people that weren’t too concerned,” Simon said. “It seemed like it took a long time in Oklahoma before it really blew up as bad.”
Business waned for Core4 in the winter, which Simon said is somewhat typical for businesses and restaurants, but a sharp rise in the number of COVID-19 cases also likely played a contributing role.
After a dreary few months, peppered with ice and snowstorms, business picked up substantially once spring arrived.
“Once March hit again, people were ready to get out, the weather was warming up. We had our anniversary party. There were people that came out we hadn’t seen in a year, they hadn’t been here, they’d barely been out of their house. It was kind of like of a reunion,” she said.
Hopeful for things going forward, Simon said she’s excited for the summer travel season and the out-of-state visitors that will be walking the streets of downtown Oklahoma City, but while the state seems to be operating almost at pre-pandemic status, there are still lasting effects.
“We’re just really anxious for true business travel to pick back up, which I think it’s going to take a while because we kind of shifted how we do things a little bit,” Simon said.
For Adrienne Jaskula, it has been a nearly 12-year journey with her husband, Reed Jaskula, to open their own brewery. The couple met in college, and both had a passion for craft beer, a passion which soon became a career.
“I kind of focused a little bit more on the sales, distribution, logistics, tap- room-focused side of owning a brewery. He focused on kind of working his way up the ladder in brewing,” Adrienne Jaskula said. “We both worked in Cleveland for a brewery called Platform and we opened probably four locations for them before we got the opportunity to move to Oklahoma. Reed opened Prairie OKC here and that’s kind of what brought us to town and I opened Stonecloud. It’s been in the works for a long, long time.”
Originally, their brewery, Fair- Weather Friend, was on schedule to open between late summer and early fall of 2020, with construction beginning in February 2020.
“We were absolutely crushed by the pandemic. We were supposed to open in August to October of last year. We started construction a month before shutdown. So, our timeline on construction just absolutely drug on and hurt us in all kinds of ways. Cost of construction materials went up dramatically, freight went up dramatically,” Adrienne Jaskula said.
More than a year later, she said it’s still difficult to get some materials they need, referencing an 8-week wait for a single part.
“We were delayed by 8-10 months and with the same amount of money on the line and no way to get things wrapped up and open and no even partial opportunity for revenue. It was a huge challenge,” she said.
When asked about government loans to help offset costs, Adrienne Jaskula said they qualified for one round of the Paycheck Protection Program, which would cover paying her husband, but weren’t eligible for any other assistance programs.
“We didn’t qualify for anything else because we didn’t have a loss in gross revenue because we didn’t have gross revenue,” she said.
Opening up to the public on May 16, Adrienne Jaskula said they now qualify for another government assistance program that they’re hopeful for.
“We do, in fact, qualify this time for the restaurant revitalization fund and I tell you I pray all day, every day that we get some help from that, because we absolutely could use it,” she said.
Now open, she said she wants the brewery to be a space that’s family- friendly and lends itself to lounging rather than a quick drink and run.
“In Cleveland, where we’re from, it’s very much like a family thing to go to a brewery for a day. It was kind of sad for us when we first moved here to see children were not allowed in taprooms, they weren’t necessarily family friendly when they could,” she said.
In the space she and her husband have developed, Adrienne Jaskula said she hopes to see a taproom frequented by a diverse group of people, and their wood-fired pizza oven is a key ingredient.
“Having food, which is kind of really important to us, some people want to sit and hang out, they can bring their kids and have something to eat,” she said.
The reception so far has been very positive since their opening in mid-May, even despite not having a traditional grand opening, which Adrienne Jaskula said is fairly vital to beginning success for a new business but chose not to host one due to the continuing pandemic.
She said some people are still a bit apprehensive to come out, but their large patio has been busy as many choose to spread out outdoors when the weather cooperates.
“I think we’ll be fine, I think we’ll do well. It’s just getting going after the hurdles of getting the brewery open at a time where we had the pandemic and we had snowpocalypse, and we had the ice storm from hell and we had every possible crazy random thing thrown at us,” she said.
“It’s been a crazy journey for sure. But we’re there.”