INDIANAPOLIS — It’s no secret that the pandemic has not been kind to local bars and restaurants. The area has seen some of Indy’s favorite grub spots and watering holes close for good. On Friday afternoon, local hospitality leaders met to discuss the future of their industry during a summit at HiFi in Fountain Square.
“Anytime there’s a chance to talk to other peers in the industry, we try to take advantage of it,” details Eddie Sahm, Director of Operation and Owner of Sahm’s Food Service Companies, “I don’t think there’s a way to get people to have a different risk aversion. You have to work with what your community wants to do, and what they are comfortable with.”
No question may be harder than the obvious, which is how do bars and restaurants survive? Given every business is different, they are hoping to learn from each other, and allow others to gain perspective. For instance, at Sun King Brewery, canned beer used to make up 60% of their business, but during the pandemic it now makes up 95%.
“Draft business has dried up. The cost of cans is more, so really every single dynamic of our business flipped,” tells Clay Robinson, Co-owner of Sun King.
One word that was heard a lot during the discussion was “pivot.” Most of these businesses have had to shift their brand models all together to accommodate changes in customer habits. Growing Places Indy has been promoting urban farming and agriculture with a portion of their produce heading to local restaurants. During the pandemic they began catering to the needs of the community instead.
“Everything that we grew, we actually donated to food pantries and the community, so we grew nearly 10,000 pounds of food, and we donated 30% of that,” explains Growing Places Indy Executive Director Victoria Beaty.
Sahm and his family’s local food empire followed a similar path. They began working with local homeless organizations to utilize their kitchens and food services to feed people caught in the pandemic.
“We have served over 400,000 meals,” says Sahm.
What can be lost at times, is the relationships between the food and beverage industry. These entities can cater to each other’s success. If you remove one piece, the whole business model can crumble for a company.
“One of the big struggles for a young company is getting people to try our products, so that way they are more likely to buy it on the shelf. Without good bar and restaurant partners we couldn’t do that,” details Blake Jones, Co-Founder and President of West Fork Whiskey Company, “People weren’t feeling safe no matter what coming out. We had to create a whole product line, and business line, so we could actually reach into people’s living rooms, and have more of an approachable craft whiskey experience and cocktail experience in their houses. We actually released non-alcoholic craft cocktail mixers, and we had no reason to ever do that before.”
Later in the meeting, the discussions shifted to how restaurants operate. Esteemed Patachou owner Martha Hoover says the restaurant business model was broken well before COVID hit. She used phrases often heard during the pandemic, saying this past year has only shown the vulnerabilities and co-morbidities within the hospitality industry.