Agritourism takes a hit, looks for ways to keep going amid pandemic

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Breitenbach Wine Cellars in Dover, Ohio.
With the stay-at-home orders continuing during the COVID-19 pandemic, wineries, like Breitenbach Wine Cellars, breweries and other agritourism destinations are facing new challenges. (Submitted photo)

A month ago, Birdfish Brewing Co. had two locations in Columbiana, Ohio. Now, it’s down to one.

The up-top location, on Main Street, was a casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic and the current stay-at-home orders, said Josh Dunn, one of the owners.

Right now, agritourism-related businesses aren’t able to offer the on-site experience that they normally try to give customers. Instead, it’s carry-out, delivery and retail, while states remain shut down. Events, like live music and wine tastings, have been canceled or postponed.

Closed

That’s why Birdfish closed its Main Street location. Under the stay-at-home order, they can’t serve beer on-site. The Main Street location didn’t can beer, and the other one does, so they are handling all carry-out orders there.

They decided to close the Main Street location permanently at the end of March.

“We had to make the decision to either keep paying rent and not know how long, or focus on our other location,” Dunn said. “If we had some sort of flexibility with our landlord for a couple of months, we probably would have still tried to keep it open.”

Retail

Some are counting on retail sales to cover the lost on-site service income.

“Business, naturally, is down dramatically,” said Breitenbach Wine Cellars president Dalton Bixler, of Dover, Ohio. “Retailers are carrying our business right now.”

Tony Debevc, of Debonne Vineyards, said he’s not sure if wine consumption has gone up overall, but wine retail sales have certainly gone up. This could stem partly from restaurant closures.

“This has been a big change for us,” Debevc said.

Many wineries and breweries are offering carry-out in addition to leaning on retail sales. Dunn said Birdfish has been busy on weekends with curb-side sales, but it’s hard to make up for the lost in-house sales that they relied on.

Richard Kauffman, of Kauffman’s Bakery, in Millersburg, Ohio, said while his bakery has been able to stay open, business has taken a hit.

“Local business is good in the mornings, but I have no tourist business,” Kauffman said. “Our business is probably 70-75% tourists, so you can imagine how that is affecting us.”

The hotels and restaurants his bakery normally sells to have canceled orders. Grocery stores and mini-markets are still buying, and some of the locals are still ordering cakes and other baked goods. But Kauffman has had to reduce hours and cut staff by about half.

Far from normal

Even as Ohio approaches the scheduled end of its stay-at-home order, May 1, business owners believe that things are a long way from going back to normal.

Even if businesses do start re-opening May 1, Dunn assumes breweries will be some of the last to reopen. The Main Street location was a place where people gathered in groups. It relied heavily on some of the large events Columbiana held on Main Street.

Debevc is expecting some social distancing guidelines to continue.

“I would anticipate that they would have to use some kind of guideline,” he said. “I think we’re going to be scrambling for ideas on how we can make money as a service industry.”

Breitenbach had to cancel its Dandelion Festival for this year, which Bixler said usually kicks off the tourist season in his area of Amish Country at the beginning of May. The winery has some dedicated local customers, but if the tourist season is slower this year, that could make things challenging.

“Being in the tourist business, we are very dependent on that new customer coming in,” Bixler said.

Federal aid?

Kauffman applied for the Paycheck Protection Program, a loan program to help small businesses keep their workers employed during the pandemic, on the second day applications were open. It was a six-hour-long process. On April 15, he was told that his application was held up because of a few minor mistakes, which he then fixed.

Then, on April 17, Kauffman heard the program was out of money. His bank said he was approved, but he isn’t sure if he got the funding.

“We were kind of counting on the funding from the [Paycheck Protection Program],” Kauffman said. “I can go maybe a month yet, and then I probably can’t make it … or I’m gonna have to furlough a lot of workers and cut it back even more.”

Long term

At 80 years old, Bixler said he has never seen anything like this. No matter what the outcome of the pandemic, he expects changes.

“I’m still concerned that people take this pandemic as … a glitch in the process,” he said. “They’re saying ‘it’ll come back; everything’s gonna be fine and dandy.’ And I’m an optimist, and I believe that things will be fine and dandy, however, we’re gonna have to do it differently.”

Debevc is already having meetings with consultants and others in the industry to come up with a game plan going forward. He’s been in the business for almost 50 years, and his wineries are financially stable right now. But he expects tough times ahead for the industry.

Social distancing constraints, if they continue, could make it hard to host events or afford live music, Debevc said. But it’s hard to say what things will look like down the road.

If the state or federal government does keep some social distancing rules in place, or limit how many people can be in a business at once, Dunn says, he may need to hire more staff to help ensure compliance.

“We think about it every day, but … no one knows what’s going to happen,” Dunn said.

Bixler and his family, who are involved with the business, have been discussing ways to keep the winery going. These ideas include a drive-thru and local deliveries.

“We do plan on existing on for many generations,” Bixler said. “There’s too many generations of family dependent on this business, and I’m determined that it’s going to survive.”’

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