Small businesses everywhere are struggling as we all shelter in place, with bars and restaurants hit particularly hard. We were braced for the worst ourselves. Instead, a game-changing home-delivery platform launched on the fly gave us priceless insights about the intrinsic value of openness, sharing, and going with your gut in the face of incredible uncertainty.
Our company, True Respite Brewing Company in Rockville, Maryland, is a taproom, brewer, and wholesaler of beer to bottle shops and restaurants. In early March, watching what was happening in Italy, we knew it would get bad at home, too. Our friend and genius coder, Brian O’Connor, had been pitching us on a direct-to-consumer platform for pickup and delivery. We’d always hesitated because, well, in normal times it wasn’t legal in Maryland.
Now, our Biermi (“Beer Me”) platform has turned out to be a lifesaver not only for us but also for the far-flung community of craft beverage makers we opened it up to. In the first six weeks of operation, we’ve processed over $1 million in transactions for more than 100 breweries, wineries, and distilleries in more than two dozen states.
Following is the story of how our company lived to fight another day, and why we knew we had something that was too powerful not to share.
If we were going to fight, we were going to continue as long as we could
On Friday, March 13, Brian, who also works as a software engineering manager, called us and said, “It’s finally time. You have to get ready for direct to consumer,” which, at the time, Maryland’s liquor laws did not allow. After a huddle with our business partner and brewmaster, Kenny Allen, we decided to move forward in order to survive the shutdown we feared was coming—we’d rather keep selling beer, keep our staff working, and keep the revenue flowing. If we had to fight for our license once the pandemic started to subside, so be it; at least we’d have gotten to extend the fight. We told ourselves this was at least better than going out of business.
We knew we needed the courage to make a big decision even before the system the platform supported was legal.
Brian built out Biermi in a single 19-hour sprint over that weekend. By Sunday afternoon, we had a platform that could support True Respite if we needed to start doing home deliveries and curbside pickup orders.
As we worked on engineering the website through many late nights, we discussed the specific features of Biermi. How would information flow and which elements of the platform must be bigger priorities over others?
And as we were having these conversations, it became immediately clear that this tool was going to be incredibly powerful. It was also clear we couldn’t keep it to ourselves, because as far as we could tell, no other solution quite like it existed. It wouldn’t have been right not to share.
During a time of uncertainty—when bars and restaurants were likely to be closed—it would create the opportunity to continue generating revenue, to continue moving product so it doesn’t spoil, to keep staff working, to keep wages up, and continue earning tips.
We went live on March 16, the very day that Maryland governor Larry Hogan decided to close restaurants and bars across the state in response to the pandemic. Three days later, he relaxed liquor laws to allow to-go and delivery. We’d gone with our gut, and we rose from an uncertain time prepared for the moment.
Now, about 85% of our retail revenue is through Biermi. This figure will eventually balance out as taprooms reopen, but if you look at the infrastructure being put in place across the country, consumer comfort with online ordering is a strong indication that delivery is here to stay. In the most likely outcome, home deliveries remain a supplement to normal taproom operations while opening up the world of craft beer to current and future fans.
You can never go wrong giving back to the community
We wanted to go live with our own brewery first to see how the process worked. We weren’t sure how long we were going to wait before we offered it up to others, but we ended up not waiting very long at all. These closures were happening rapidly across the country.
We announced Biermi in a True Respite Facebook post and it just took off. Our normal reach is about 2,000 and within 24 hours we’d reached more than 20,000 people organically through shares, comments, and the like. We wanted to let everyone in, and just four days after launching for True Respite, we were going live with other breweries.
Ours is a community-oriented and collaborative industry. We have been helped so many times along the way—whether with advice or a bag of grain here and there—it just felt wrong to keep it to ourselves. We decided that day that when we developed this platform, we were going to make it available to whoever wanted to use it, just to give back to the industry and the community that had helped us out so many times.
We didn’t anticipate the customer support aspect of it. When we opened it up and said, “Hey, anybody can come join,” we didn’t have registration, a process to onboard people, or simple things like a password reset capability. We very quickly set up an onboarding dashboard workflow—rolling and iterating to meet demand and solve whatever issues presented themselves. Brian took the approach of “code fast and break things.” The urgency hasn’t really subsided as businesses have molded themselves to use Biermi as a primary means of driving revenue. Throughout this process, Brian has certainly coded fast—but he’s broken very little.
Customer service, even for something we’re giving away, had to be a priority. After all, small-business owners in this crisis are desperate to figure out solutions for how to keep their business open, how to keep good people employed and pay them.
Looking back at the fear, the rush of decision-making, and the exhilaration we’ve felt, we’re so grateful for all the lessons we’ve learned—about courage, about service, anticipation, and innovation.
We’re proud we built an incredible platform that has likely put countless staff back to work. We’ve also created lifelines for businesses that were afraid of the future and had no clear path to weather the storm. Nothing has been more emotionally impactful for us than the gracious and kind emails we’ve received from appreciative business owners expressing what Biermi means to them, their families, and their staff.
With companies like ours across the country quickly adjusting to delivery and pickup, and consumers making strong connections with their local businesses, we believe these solutions will endure out of strength of will and necessity.
Bailey and Brendan O’Leary are the cofounders of True Respite Brewery. Graduates of Georgia Tech, they have been home brewing as early as 2008. They are the proud parents of two children.