Business during pandemic has been 'a bit of a roller-coaster' for Jumping Bean
Mill Street closes brewery retail operation in downtown St. John's, saying 'it just simply wasn't sustainable'
As the COVID-19 pandemic coasts into its 8th month of disruption, the future remains unclear — and for businesses, it's been especially challenging.
In downtown St. John's, franchises like Starbucks and Mill Street have recently closed up shop. Local coffee roaster Jumping Bean still has its doors at the Duckworth Street location closed.
Jeff LeDrew, president of Jumping Bean, says this year has been tumultuous.
"It's been a bit of a roller-coaster," LeDrew said.
Jumping Bean's location inside Atlantic Place on Water Street has reopened with modified business hours, LeDrew said, but the situation is a lot different at the Duckworth Street location inside the TD Building, despite just a few hundred metres separating the two spots.
"You just haven't seen the return to the walking trade.… People are more working from home. The Atlantic Place is structured a lot around the courts and there is more density in that building and that building was affected, but it was somewhat returned to normal with the gym and the court system being put back in place, so we've seen decent foot traffic there," LeDrew said.
If you go downtown you can see the impact.- Wade Keller
"But Duckworth Street has always been a bit of a strange animal because it's not a dedicated thoroughfare, and just being up the street a little bit from the main corridor of Duckworth Street has created the [question of], whether we open it or don't open it, right? So we've decided to keep it closed just because we still don't believe the foot traffic to be in place to be able to support the café."
LeDrew said there are a number of factors that the company will keep watching to determine when, or if, that location reopens — like new or returning tenants to the building — "but as of now it's status quo."
As for the other St. John's locations, at Kelsey Drive and Elizabeth Avenue, LeDrew said they've been seeing a "steady return to business" with reduced capacity, while trying to compete with large chains.
"It boils down to volume in a lot of these locations — the big multinational franchisees with the drive-thrus and the access to the main thoroughfares or the main retail locations always makes it tough because food service is about convenience, and people love to hit the closest location," LeDrew said.
"That's just what we struggle with is making sure that we're top of mind when it comes to customers making a decision on where to visit to get a coffee or a pastry."
'Just simply wasn't sustainable'
Among the latest permanent closures in downtown St. John's is the Mill Street brewery retail operation on Harbour Drive.
As of Tuesday, the retail section of the Mill Street Brewpub has permanently closed.
The attached Bier Markt restaurant, operated by Recipe Unlimited, shut down in the early days of the pandemic, and announced in July it would remain closed permanently.
"Since then, Mill Street has continued to operate a small brewing and retail beer outlet. However, it wasn't a place that you could go in and sit down and have a beer or a meal since April," said Wade Keller, a spokesperson for Mill Street.
"You never like to see anything close, but … after the decision was made to close the restaurant and brewpub in April, it just simply wasn't sustainable to operate the small brewery and retail store. The model only worked if there was a pub attached to it, and over the last six months or so, that hasn't been the case. We looked at all options, and it just wasn't possible to keep it open."
The two full-time employees have been offered other positions within the company, Keller said, while three part-time workers have been let go.
For the last few months, Keller said, people could come in to purchase beers made at the brewery, but couldn't sample the small-brew beers, and the sale options were limited.
"There was no packaging operation at Mill Street, we didn't put that beer in cans or bottles. We relied on kegs — so we can deliver those kegs to other bars or restaurants, but they're also affected by COVID, so the demand there is down, as well," he said.
"And of course we weren't selling it at our own location because the pub and restaurant wasn't open, so that's really the major impact and the driving force behind this decision."
Some of the Mill Street products will continue to be sold in NLC stores, where they are already available, but the small-batch brews will no longer be produced.
'It's just not the same'
Keller said it's "a pretty fair assessment" to say the limited customer traffic due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is the base factor behind the decision.
"If you go downtown you can see the impact that the pandemic and the measures that have been taken to combat the pandemic [have] had on the restaurant and bar industry. That's not to criticize anything the government has done;it's just a fact of life, and it's made it very, very difficult for bars and restaurants," Keller said.
"I was just downtown last week and on a Thursday night, you would normally see a pretty vibrant crowd, and it's just not the same. So there's no question that the pandemic is having an impact on not only our business at the Mill Street Brewpub operation, but many bars and restaurants across the province."
The City of St. John's said it does not have a mechanism to specifically track business closures. Rather, it scans "various sources to get a sense of openings, closures, relocations etc." and relies on data from the Downtown St. John's business association.
The city's commercial taxes are blended and are not tagged to a business but a property.
LeDrew said Jumping Bean's online and grocery store sales have seen an uptick during the pandemic, with more people staying at — and working from — home.
"We've seen one side of the business improve with obviously online sales and the like and grocery stores purchases in bulk and the like for at home, so we've seen [increases] that side of the business," he said.
"I guess we're really putting a push on now to do the stuff that the other major multinationals can't do — we can do screech coffee and flavoured coffee, holiday blends and flavours that we know that nobody else really offers that we do, and try to get customers to choose Jumping Bean by choosing a local, hand-crafted product."
With files from Matt McCann