For a couple of hours Wednesday evening, during a week of unprecedented upheavals for the restaurant and bar industry, Tyler Brown was again doing what he loves to do.
Serving food to customers.
Which is not to suggest the situation at Barley Brown’s Brew Pub in Baker City was anything like normal.
Indeed Brown uses the adjective “eerie” to describe the experience of working at his pub on the second day of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s order that allows only takeout and delivery service from restaurants, one of a myriad of measures designed to curb the spread of coronavirus.
Instead of the usual scene — people sitting shoulder to shoulder in booths and at tables, a cacophony of laughter and conversation — Brown saw customers standing outside, at arm’s length or more, waiting for their food to arrive in boxes rather than on plates.
But amid circumstances that Brown calls “devastating” to the restaurant and bar business, he said there was a moment of levity after he and other employees served to-go meals from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.
“The best thing was that at the end of the night, everybody was happy again,” said Brown, whose family also owns the Sumpter Junction restaurant in Baker City. “This was kind of fun. We’d rather be busy than sit around with food rotting in the cooler.”
Brown, who said both the Sumpter Junction and Barley Brown’s Tap House, across Church Street from the pub, are closed, emphasized that the takeout service in no way makes up for the losses due to the statewide order.
“We’re a social environment,” Brown said. “Our whole business is built on people being social and going out to eat and visit with friends. We can’t just become a takeout restaurant. We’re not designed for that.”
He is offering the takeout service — as are many restaurants in Baker City and elsewhere — for a couple of reasons.
First, Brown is supplying free meals to people who have lost their job due to the restaurant and bar restrictions.
Brown said about 32% of the meals prepared Wednesday were donated to people who have been laid off.
He also gave people 21 and older a free growler of beer, although starting Thursday he had a small charge for that.
Second, he’s using the money collected from paying customers to create a “Pay It Forward Fund” that will help his own and other employees affected by the pandemic.
“We feel for this whole industry,” Brown said. “We’re trying to stay positive. But it’s out of our hands.”
Brown said customers have been supportive and gracious.
“People have been tipping outrageously,” he said. “I think they’re just happy that we’re trying to do something.”
According to the Oregon Employment Department, “food service and drinking establishments” employ about 500 people in Baker County — about 11% of all private jobs in the county.
Brown said adding a temporary takeout service at Sumpter Junction wasn’t feasible, mainly because there are several fast food restaurants nearby that already have drive-throughs.
He said employees brought food from Sumpter Junction to Barley Brown’s for preparation in takeout meals. He also donated some of the food to employees from both restaurants who have been laid off. Total employment among his family’s establishments has dropped from 45 to about 10, Brown said.
He said cooks at the pub are being creative in tailoring the takeout menu items based on the food that needs to be used — meat and fresh produce from Sumpter Junction, for instance.
Although Baker County’s visitor industry peaks during the summer, Brown said March is typically his busiest month of the spring due in part to spring vacation.
As a result, both the pub and Sumpter Junction had relatively large amounts of food stocked in anticipation.
Had the governor given even a few days of advance notice before imposing the restrictions on restaurants and bars, Brown said he could have cut back on his orders.
On the brewing side — Barley Brown’s has won more than 80 awards for its beers since opening 22 years ago — Brown said he has temporarily suspended brewing. Workers are focusing on deferred maintenance such as pumps and hoses, along with managing the beer that’s already been brewed.
The issue is simple.
With bars mainly shut down statewide, Brown’s concerned about whether he’ll even be able to sell the beer that’s fermenting or has already been transferred to kegs — about 800 kegs in total at the brewery, which is in the same building as the Tap Room.
About 70% of Barley Brown’s beer goes to Portland — an average of about 150 kegs per week, Brown said.
Unlike many craft breweries, Barley Brown’s beer is available on draft only — it’s not bottled for sale in grocery and convenience stores.
That has been advantageous to Barley Brown’s as its beers — in particular its Pallet Jack IPA — have gained a reputation across Oregon and beyond the state’s borders.
“We’ve carved out a really good niche that way,” Brown said.
But that niche is no help now because customers have very limited access to Barley Brown’s beer.
Brown is also worried about the length of the restaurant and bar restrictions because beer is perishable.
Although some stouts can last for two or three years if stored properly, Barley Brown’s most popular and highest-volume beers, including Pallet Jack, generally are good for 90 to 110 days.
“If this lasts for 90 days, most of the beer in stock will be out of date,” Brown said. “That’s what we’re up against.”
Conversely, brewers can’t rapidly respond to a sudden resurgence in demand.
It takes 21 days to produce a batch of Pallet Jack that’s ready to serve, Brown said.
“We can’t just turn the volume up,” he said.
He’s concerned that even when the governor lifts the restrictions, demand for beer won’t rise quickly because some bars won’t survive the closure.
“I think that’s the biggest concern,” Brown said.
He’s not sure whether the pub will continue to offer a limited takeout menu after the current food stocks are depleted. The decision will depend in part on whether employees are comfortable continuing the service.
The situation is inherently unpredictable because there’s nothing to compare it to, Brown said.
“Nobody had a plan for a pandemic,” he said. “The only comparable thing probably is Prohibition.”