One year ago today… I went to Sam’s Club to get some store supplies. I had just finished talking to my brother, Nick, to wish him a happy birthday. I remembered as I was hanging up the phone and getting ready to get out of the car the large number of people at Sam’s that day, it only being a Thursday. I also noticed something else remarkable… the large amounts toilet paper in people’s carts. Now, for the previous two weeks, there had been lots of chatter about COVID-19 and the impending impact it might have on our country, if we didn’t do anything to “stop the spread.” That day, the office of the POTUS issued it’s 15 Days to Stop the Spread document, with the assertion that if we did these things, COVID-19 would disappear. Not so much. Unfortunately hoarding toilet paper was the only impactful thing that a lot of people did.
We operated business as usual, sort of, through the weekend. Assuming it would be slow because of the St. Patty’s Day festivities in Downtown Sioux Falls. We sort of hedged our bets in this to give us a little more time to make a decision based on facts and science, and not emotion. We were correct, it was a very quiet weekend in our bar.
On Sunday, Jean and I came to the conclusion that being a part of the solution was going to be our objective, rather than being part of the problem. We informed all of our staff that we were going to be shutting down all gathering components to our operation, for the time being, until we get a better idea of what was going to be happening over the next couple of weeks. Little did we know that weeks would turn into months, and now, a year.
We had entered 2020 with a great deal of optimism regarding our business, and the direction it was headed. Our event program was taking off, and JJ’s Axes & Ales was turning into a very successful component to our personal income and debt elimination strategy. The 3.0 Cocktail Bar was treading water nicely as we continued to figure out what we wanted that to be, as changes in staff had left us with a little bit of an identity crisis. It was certainly holding it’s own, but something needed to change. I guess in a way we can thank COVID-19 for compelling that change. More on that later.
For the first couple of weeks following the “15 Days to Stop the Spread” strategy being implemented by the POTUS and the CDC, things were… weird. People weren’t really sure what to do, businesses really didn’t know what to do, us included, and the word “pivot” was starting to become a business strategy, rather than a basketball move. When the first five cases of COVID-19 were announced for our community, that is when things started to get real. And for us that meant, pivoting… a lot.
Jean and I huddled up with Zac, our GM at that time, and made a decision to go all in with making customers happy by providing a few other things in our store, not related to adult beverages and desserts. We also added a new service that became omnipresent in our community, and across the country… Curbside Delivery. For lack of a better phrase, the beginnings of that were a shit show. But, we managed to find a rhythm, and before we knew it, our retail sales were back on track, and pretty solid.
Meals-To-Go – Our first pivot was Meals To Go. Jean has long been the queen of comfort food. So, she dug out her old recipes and we started making meals for folks to pick up and take home. We initally tried stocking them in our Grab-N-Go case, but they would be gone before we event had a chance to market their existence! We started an email group and quasi-ordering system for Meals-To-Go and realized that we had created kind of a monster! But, you enjoyed them, and in spite of the tremendous amount of work, we made it happen, for awhile.
In the midst of all of this, as if we didn’t have anything else to do, we had converted The Event Room into a smallish grocery store, offering milk, eggs, bread products and other essential items. I decided, why not offer fresh produce! So, Barry’s Banana Stand was born! We were getting weekly shipments of fresh produce and pre-packaging orders for folks. Joe and Barry were charged with making all of this work, sort of, and they did an excellent job. However, the amount of time we spent on it, and the amount of money I wasn’t making, left me with a decision to end the program after about a month. While I learned a ton, what I learned mostly was that I needed to stick with what I know.
That lead to our next pivot… Virtual Whisk(e)y Tastings, and wine. We held the first ever Virtual Riedel Glass Tasting in April of 2020. This then evolved into weekly Whisk(e)y Wednesday tastings and bottle raffles that also had a great deal of success, and are still going on today with a healthy balance of Virtual an in person participation. As we fleshed out the legalities of offering Flights To Go, we evolved that into our next pivot… Cocktails To Go! Who doesn’t want a JJ’s 3.0ld Fashioned in the comfort of your own home! These were also met with great success, but also found us on the wrong side of the law, according to someone who shall remain nameless. So, we put that program on hold while we dove back into to legalities. And, after a couple of weeks of phone calls and research, it was determined that we were doing, and wanted to do with our Cocktails To Go program, was legal and so we started producing them again. It was fun for awhile, but fizzled out as people started to go out to bars and restaurants again. We still offer them to folks who ask, but it hasn’t held as a huge component of our continuing business.
At the end of May, Jean and I were tired. We had spent the better part of April and May doing everything we could to keep folks engaged, but finally came to the conclusion that we needed to focus on ourselves for awhile. We ended the Meals-To-Go program. We ended fresh product. We ended that constant worrying that you needed us to do these things. The Boozy Bakery team was handling things on that end, and Zac and the team were handling things on the adult beverage end. So we took a break and decided to get healthy!
In June, after the No Lingering Ordinance was lifted in Sioux Falls, we decided it was time to re-open our bar, but on a very limited basis. We offered cocktails, beer and wine, just like always, but only offered pre-packaged food and grub boxes. After a couple of weeks you wanted more. That’s when Kaleb Blue entered our lives, and honestly, things haven’t been the same since.
I mentioned earlier an identity crisis with our bar. Prior to COVID-19, we didn’t know what we wanted it to be, or what it offered. Kaleb was, and still is, dating Kate, Jean’s second in command in The Boozy Bakery. As I got to know Kaleb, I learned a little more about his background in culinary arts. Jean and I decided we needed to talk to him about coming to work for us. After some encouraging, he agreed to be our Chef in The Boozy Bakery, focusing on “elevated bar food”. We spent the next couple of weeks figuring out what we wanted that to look like, and the rest is history.
The Boozy Bakery evolved, or pivoted, into not only offering exceptional desserts and savory snacks, but into full service kitchen, servicing customers frequenting The 3.0 Cocktail Bar. And the food has been incredible, and very well received by our regular customers. It has also given us a whole new level of creditability with the food scene in Sioux Falls, which you know can be very critical, and demanding. It hasn’t been without it’s challenges. We had to acquire new equipment. Learn a lot about sharing space with a fully functioning bakery, and make money at the same time. And just as things were humming right along… COVID-19 took its wrath to our community with great force, causing us to yet again, go on the defensive.
Around the end of October, the number of cases in Sioux Falls were getting out of control, yet we managed to keep it out of our house (JJ’s). That wouldn’t be the story as we headed into November. Before we could blink we had five down for the count, and made the decision, quickly, to shutter our gathering spaces again, so as not cause any community spread from our space. It was hard to say no to people who wanted to come in to drink, and eat this wonderful food they had been hearing things about. But, it was necessary. During that time, we also learned of the passing of at least two of our customers from the disease, and even more since. That was met, by me, with sadness, anger, and a new found motivation to once again, not be part of the problem.
The City of Sioux Falls had been wrestling with a mask mandate for some time. We really wanted to self impose a mandate, but wanted to wait to see if the city would take the heat of of us, and impose it for us. We couldn’t wait anymore, and I am glad we didn’t. Because what was ultimately passed as a “mask mandate” was not enforceable, so what was the point? Ahead of this “decision” Jean and I, once again, huddled up and made the really tough decision, to require ALL of our employees, patrons, service folks, delivery drivers and sales reps to comply with our mandatory COVID Mitigation Protocol, with the most divisive component being, the requirement to wear a face covering at all times, unless seated at a table or at our bar.
This met with some resistance, as you would expect. We were challenged by what have become known as “the anti-maskers”, but we were committed to the protocol, and empowered our employees to require 100% compliance. They were, and still are, happy to oblige. Our purpose in doing this was two-fold. We wanted our employees and customers to BE safe from COVID-19. All of the information being provided to us by our healthcare partners and the CDC said this was the best way to do that. We also wanted everyone that wanted to shop, eat and drink with us, to FEEL safe in our environment. We knew the only way to accomplish this was 100% compliance by everyone.
The media caught wind of our CMP, after a Facebook post. We did interviews with two local news stations within a day, plus the Argus Leader. While our requirement to comply was not foreign to businesses, mostly chain stores, we were the first locally owned business to require 100% compliance of our CMP. So I guess that makes it news. Again, we met with some resistance, but for the most part people were pleased with our approach, and the showed their support. Boy did they show their support. As since that time, business has never been better.
I told myself I would keep this blog post to under 2000 words. I am almost there, so I will end my narrative with this… We would not be where we are without our team. I want thank those that are still with us… Joe, Ericka, Josh, Julie, Kevin, Tyler, Monica, Barry, Tucker, Carrie, Ted, Tre, Kate, Kaleb, Shonna , Liam… and those who were with us through this year, but have moved on to greener pastured… Zac, Dani, Marli, Aaron, Emily. As well as a slew of event staff, you know who you are. To our event team… your time is coming get ready! People are ready to party, and we are ready to provide the service they are accustomed to when JJ’s is on the job!
I would also like to thank Dylan and his team at JJ’s Axes & Ales. There is a whole other narrative to this story, but moving locations and basically rebuilding the business during a pandemic was no easy task. We certainly couldn’t have done it without them.
I guess I have one more person to thank. Jean is my partner in life and in business. The patience she has shown through this year as we try different things has been, in a word, impressive. The amount of work she has done to keep up her end of the business has been equally impressive given the circumstances of fending of the virus, staying safe, worrying about her Mom in assisted living, and dealing with her own health issues as an aging person (not implying she’s old, so don’t go there). Impressive, and I am in awe every single day, but I probably, like most guys, don’t express my feelings as well as I should. She got her first shot yesterday, and the sense of relief from that moment has made us breathe a little easier in our house, as we can now see that the end is truly in sight. We just need to be patient, because it’s not over yet.
As I close this, I have one ask. Just one. Be kind to one another. The one thing we have learned through this last year is that hate only fuels more hate. We win as a society when we respect each other. It’s not hard. We can disagree, but lets keep the discourse civil and devoid of hateful rhetoric. It’s really not that hard.