Minneapolis’ Town Hall Brewery is a bonafide institution in the Twin Cities craft beer scene, maintaining a sterling reputation for high-quality beer with such a low-key, unassuming consistency that many of us have come to take their excellence for granted. That’s why it’s hard to comprehend just how close the 23-year-old brewpub came to shuttering its doors last year.
Now operating four Town Hall locations—the original Town Hall brewpub on the West Bank, South Minneapolis’ Town Hall Tap and Town Hall Lanes, and Edina’s Town Hall Station—owner and founder Pete Rifakes and his team have a lot more plates to keep spinning than they did when the brewery first opened its doors in 1997, and those considerations weighed heavily during the pandemic. We checked in with Rifakes about the challenges of 2020, the future of their enduringly popular Barrel-Aged Week event, Town Hall Tap’s forthcoming cocktail bar annex Sidecar, and more.
Beer Dabbler: First and foremost, 2020 was a truly challenging year for nearly everyone in the brewery business, but especially for brewpubs. How are you and your team at Town Hall holding up? How’s morale?
Pete Rifakes: I think it’s as good as it could be. It’s kind of gone up and down, I think the initial shock of the first shutdown [in March 2020] put everyone in an uneasy state, so we had some difficulties there. I think just communicating what our goals would be, and the uncertainty surrounding it. Back then, we didn’t really know if there was going to be any type of stimulus, so in our minds, the worst was definitely possible, which would be closing down. I think it weighed really heavily on my mind because I knew it was going to be a difficult time and I thought that those difficult times were behind us.
When we first opened in 1997, we struggled the first year or two years, to the point where we didn’t know if we’d make it. There certainly were times where we were week-to-week, paycheck-to-paycheck, sometimes even day-to-day, and I wasn’t really anxious to do that again. So the beginning [of the pandemic] was probably the toughest, just because of the uncertainty of not knowing how we were going to get through it. We knew that if we were shut down for a period of time…and in my mind at the time, I thought it was two months, I had no idea obviously. I think it came out kind of in a rush, without a lot of rules, but the PPP the first time around saved us and got us to basically this fall. Then we did it again, meaning we had the anxiety again because that money ran out. Now, we’re just kind of piecing things together to get us to that next stimulus, which I think is gonna come, but it’s been stressful waiting for that as well.
I love our staff. Over the course of 23 years, we’ve probably had between 500 and 1,000 people work for us. We’ve always had a great staff, and we’ve tried to be loyal to them and they’ve certainly been loyal to us. I think there’s probably some anxiety there, I think some of their stimulus packages have helped, I think they’re ready to get back to normal as well. So we’ve done as good as we could have done, and I hope everything falls in line with what’s been promised. The stimulus packages, if they roll out, I think they’ll get us to the summer and hopefully, this will be behind us.
Many breweries saw a bump in sales at liquor stores in 2020, which helped soften the blow they suffered to on-premise sales, but as a brewpub, Town Hall cannot distribute its beer to liquor stores. How has a lack of distribution affected your businesses during the pandemic? Has the ability to sell food made up for that at all?
I will say this: Obviously we don’t sell in liquor stores so we haven’t had that capability at all; however, our growler and Crowler sales have increased, so that’s helped a little bit. It hasn’t helped us enough to keep us going. Like I said earlier, without that stimulus package, we wouldn’t be around. We would have shut down, and I don’t know exactly what we would have done, but in anticipation of the stimulus package, the PPP specifically, that’s what’s helped us get there. If we didn’t think that was coming, we would have had to shut down, because we wouldn’t have been able to operate. Even with just our management staff. We’ve grown to the point where we’ve got four restaurants now, we were putting in a layer of administration that includes me, and also included Mike [Hoops] because he does some administrative work too. We have a corporate kitchen manager. We couldn’t have sustained their salaries. Being a brewpub, we function like a restaurant.
I will say that [distributing Crowlers to satellite locations] has helped us through this tough time as well. It certainly doesn’t allow you to reach the masses like being in a liquor store does, but we don’t make as much beer as some of those other places.
Back in November, you made the difficult decision to temporarily shutter Town Hall Tap and Town Hall Lanes. Can you tell us what it’s been like for you to manage Town Hall’s four locations throughout the pandemic?
I think managing people was probably the most difficult thing. Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve lost some people, and they’re people that you absolutely need to have to operate. We obviously didn’t need a lot of serving staff, but we needed a lot of kitchen staff to handle rushes at various places, and when we started losing kitchen staff, then it became more difficult to keep places open. What we did was, at the beginning of the pandemic, we shut down the Tap right away. The Lanes and the Tap are only a couple of miles apart, and we felt that they were probably going to duplicate or share customers, and the Lanes had the flatbread pizzas, and we thought that would be easier to do as to-go, so that’s why we shut down the tap. Then we started having employee problems, in that we were losing people or people didn’t want to work or we couldn’t afford them, a variety of other things. So then we chose just to keep the Station and the Brewery open for takeout and shifted our labor.
When we came back with our PPP money we decided we were going to bring as many of our employees back as we could. Then during this most recent shutdown, we just thought we would lose way too much money if we tried to keep employees around and do carry-out only, so that’s why we chose to shut those two down again.
It’s crazy. You can’t imagine what the employees are going through. We’ve got great employees, and we hope they all come back. One of my concerns was that they would think that the restaurant industry is too risky of a venture, and for them to leave the restaurant industry. We’ve certainly seen that as well, we’ve had a handful of people that have decided that they’re not going to come back to the restaurant industry. I think we’ll be able to re-staff them by the time we’re 100% rolling—hopefully, this summer—but that’s gonna be difficult when we get going here and we need more employees.
Right before the pandemic, your team had almost opened Sidecar, a new cocktail bar and events space next to Town Hall Tap. Can you tell us about that space and what your vision for it was? What do you hope the future holds for that venue?
When we opened in ‘97, I was 28 years old, and I was really into beer. I had graduated from grad school at the University of Washington and Town Hall Brewery was what I wanted to open. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve liked sitting in cocktail lounges and drinking my whiskey [laughs]. So we bought Adrian’s [former restaurant space next to Town Hall Tap] about two and a half years ago, and our goal was to put a cocktail lounge there. I’ve always been a big whiskey fan, and Mike Hoops is also a big whiskey fan, so we wanted to open a neighborhood cocktail lounge, unpretentious, good service, quick service. One of the things that we’ve found in [similar] places in the city was that they generally had slow service. If you know me really well, I don’t dress up very much and I always feel kind of out of place in that atmosphere. If someone comes in [to Sidecar] all dressed up, that’s fine, but I want people to feel comfortable walking down from their house and bellying up and having a really great cocktail that they can get fast, and that they can enjoy in a great atmosphere. So that is the goal of the place.
It is small. If you remember Adrian’s, you won’t recognize the place, because it’s completely different from the Adrian’s feel. It’s got a really nice sound system, we’ve soundproofed everything inside. We bought some turntables, some reel-to-reel, and some great refurbished classic speakers. The sound in there is fantastic.
We’ll serve food, and there will be additional food from what you can get at Town Hall Tap. I like kids, but some people, when they drink, they don’t want to be around kids. So this add-on to the Tap is going to be 21 and over. We don’t want it to get overcrowded, so when it reaches a certain level, we’ll stop seating or letting people in, and they’ll be able to go over to the Tap and wait for their time.
We don’t plan on opening Sidecar during any restrictions on seating. First of all, it only seats 50 people, and it’s not 50 socially distanced at all because it’s a really small space. We really only get one chance for a first impression, and we want people to be able to walk in there to see how special it is. Hopefully, in April or May, some of these restrictions will be lifted. That being said, we can do a small event there, and we might open it up to small gatherings like the one we’re hosting for [Beer Dabbler’s] crowdfunding campaign.
What was 2020 like for Mike Hoops and your brewhouse team? Did the switch to a takeout-only model affect which recipes Hoops and team developed and brewed?
I don’t know the exact numbers, but they certainly dropped beers. We were brewing three to five times a week, down to one to two times a week [during the pandemic]. It made the accounting a lot easier, which is what I end up doing, so there’s your glass-half-full look at it [laughs].
I was really impressed with how they were able to still put out a lot of beers, but do stuff that aged well. Changing how they hop things so that the hops don’t go stale, like when they added them and how long that they could sit. I can’t get any more technical than that, but at the beginning of this, I remember having a conversation with Mike about how he’s going to change the addition of hops so that the beers will age and then when they’re served, we could get the hops right. He made some heavier beers that he could age throughout the year to get us to the fall and the winter. I know we had some Wee Heavy on last week, and that’s just fantastic.
Town Hall Brewery has created several enduringly popular events, including Barrel-Aged Week and the Blessing of the Maibock ceremony. What are the prospects for those events in 2021?
In October, Mike and I went down to Kentucky to get more barrels, and the discussion was, “Well, we don’t know what this pandemic is going to do, but should we just plan that we’re going to do Barrel-Aged Week?” and the answer was “Yes!” So, we will have Barrel-Aged Week, it’s turning in to Barrel-Aged Month, and that’s going to start February 1. We’re gonna do everything in Crowlers, and we’re not going to do our traditional barrel-aged dinner, but kind of like we did for our Anniversary, you can come in for dine-in and get it or you can take it home with you and finish it in the oven. We’re currently working on that, and then we’re going to have a little barrel-aged package as well. That gets you four barrel-aged beers plus some other goodies in the package.
The beers are fantastic, they’re doing the last taste of the Strawberry Stave today, it’s going to be as good as it’s ever been and we’re excited about that. I’m sure there’s a trip that we’re going to go on shortly to pick up more barrels for next year [laughs].
We want 2021 to be as close to normal as possible, and I think February would be a nice hit for us for that to come out, and for us to have a few more people than we’ve had for the past months come on in.
For 2020, the Blessing of the Maibock was all virtual. We still had the blessing but obviously, we didn’t have a full house. Our hope is that by May we’re able to do that. I’ll knock on wood!
Town Hall was known for its growler and mini-growler service in the years leading up to the Crowler boom. What has the shift to the Crowler era been like for Town Hall?
I think internally, it’s been a very welcome change. They’re easier to fill if you have the right equipment, which we do. It’s a lot better of a container for the beer, so we’re excited about that. It’s a smaller container, so you don’t need four people to finish it [laughs], or two people, some people drink more than others. As a customer, I like it a lot better, I’d rather take two of the cans with me than a full growler, for the reasons I just stated. We’ve really gotten into it now. We still do growlers, but I think we’re done with mini-growlers now. So all of the barrel-aged stuff will be coming out in Crowlers.
We’ve got a fair amount of our regulars that like the growlers. Typically, they drink with a bunch of people, so once they open it, they drink it. Those people come in and specifically ask for them. We’ve changed how we fill those, I think our bar staff does most of the growler filling now. Especially during the pandemic, it’s been easy to keep up with that, but we’ll once things open up how that changes. Our hope is that someday we will not do growlers anymore. It’s just the evolution of the container. People have this opinion that [growlers] are the best thing out there, and it’s just not.
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We’ve started with a generic wrap for our cans, which we all like. In the pandemic, our cash flow has been hurting, but eventually, Masala Mama will have its own wrap, all the barrel-aged beers will have their own wraps. The ones that we know we can go through at least one pallet of cans quickly will get their own wraps. So I think there’s a lot to look forward to, and it’s significantly easier on the brew staff in filling those things. It’s more efficient, it’s better for the consumer, they’re more portable, it’s better for the environment, man you can go on and on.
Town Hall has a dedicated and faithful following in the Twin Cities. How have your customers shown you support throughout the pandemic?
It’s been fantastic. I’ve had two phone calls from people that frequent different [locations], both of them basically saying the same thing: “We want Town Hall and all of their stores to re-open, and if that’s not gonna happen, we wanna know about it so we can help make it happen.” It’s really humbling, and it makes me kind of emotional just thinking about it.
I’ve never been one to ask for handouts, and I’m certainly not trying to take a handout from our customers. I’m trying to take one from the government, which is also something that I haven’t been accustomed to doing. When you know that you have people that care about you and your staff, and the other customers. It’s been a meeting place for so many people for so long, and they want to have a place to go back to. I can’t say enough.
During the first shutdown, we gave 80% of all the tips for our to-go business to employees that were furloughed, and we had common tips that were $100 bucks, and a couple of $200–$500 tips. You can’t say enough about that kind of stuff. We’ve had people from the Tap who called up when the Tap was closed to get orders of beer. They would go around their whole neighborhood taking orders so they could buy $1,000 worth of beer. That’s happened a few times. We’ve had little gatherings, probably illegal gatherings over by the Station where every Friday they would meet in a shop behind the Station and drink beer and have appetizers from Town Hall, and then they’d take group orders home to their families. That bill was enormous, and it was every Friday. I’m sure other restaurants get the same thing, but I wouldn’t trade our customers for anyone.
Miss the Town Hall experience? Head over to Beer Dabbler’s Indiegogo campaign where you can claim the last private beer dinner hosted by Town Hall’s Brewmaster Mike Hoops at Town Hall Tap’s new private events space The Sidecar at the Tap for you and up to eight friends. Dinner will be a multi-course meal featuring exclusive beer and cocktail pairings curated by Hoops, Chef Mike Hanson, and Town Hall’s hospitality team. But don’t delay, the campaign closes on January 15 at 11:59 pm.