Brew News Spotlight on Able Ebenezer Brewing Co.: Ninja-like reflexes helped overcome COVID slow down

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While local small breweries are all struggling to adjust to the upside-down economy caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Able Ebenezer Brewing Company in Merrimack had their best two months of sales in April and May, thanks to a lot of hard work producing beer at a rapid clip and leveraging their in-house distribution team to offer direct home deliveries.

Co-owner Carl Soderberg said the early days of the shutdown of the hospitality industry’s dine-in service on March 17 were marked by confusion and uncertainty.

“There was obviously a lot of uncertainty in mid-March. We honestly didn’t know what to do,” Soderberg said. “The first thing we did was try to stop the bleeding. Because we lost about 75 percent of our revenue in that one day once the hospitality industry shut down.”

Soderberg estimates about 50 percent of the business’s revenue traditionally came from their taproom, 25 percent came from kegs sold to restaurants and the remaining 25 percent from retail can sales. 

At first, Soderberg said they decided to cancel the production schedule for the first week of the shutdown, not sure if they would be able to sell anything. But soon he would come to regret that as they worked overtime in subsequent weeks to brew as much beer as they could to meet the high demand for canned beer.

They were also sitting on tens of thousands of dollars worth of kegs that they could no longer sell, so they canned as much of that as they could.

The entire Able Ebenezer staff stayed on, despite COVID-19. Courtesy Photo

“We committed fully to cans,” Soderberg said.

Luckily, the brewery had its own canning line that was installed in 2017, which allowed them the flexibility to control their production schedule and sell cans at a better profit margin.

Soderberg also said they were lucky that they decided to keep sales and distribution in-house, as well.

“It’s not conducive to exponential growth which seemed the sexy thing to do pre-COVID,” Soderberg.

But he said it is conducive to adapting to extreme crises with the agility of a ninja. 

Soderberg kept all six full-time and two part-time employees on the payroll from the start. And in May the company got some Payroll Protection funds from the Small Business Administration, which he said was a big help.

“I wanted the whole team here and focused on the problem,” he said.

They started prepping for the long haul. A few times, the canning process hit some supply chain bottlenecks as can shortages struck, and one vendor had to raise their price by 30 to 40 percent overnight.

Soderberg said they were hustling for weeks to get the production back on track. 

“I think it was an ongoing fight all the way through April into May before we were fully caught up,” he said.

Early on, they set up an online ordering system for direct home deliveries, and they used their two company delivery vehicles to make deliveries. Their routing process became five times more complex, he said, and at times, Soderberg and co-owner Mike Frizzelle had to help out with their own trucks. 

Bar Manager Nicole Cunningham was given a new role as dispatch manager. And the high demand for deliveries resulted in creating two new jobs. 

They wired it so when an order came in on the website, a “Bruins” goal-horn sound effect would play over the loudspeakers in the brewery. Soderberg said they plan on keeping the fog horn even after they have reopened the bar on July 4 weekend. 

The distribution gambit paid off, he said. This year they expected to make about 2,500 restaurant and store deliveries. They’re now approaching their 2,000th order for direct shipping to customers this summer, and they expect to reach 7,000 to 10,000 by next March.

“We were in the middle of the best month as a company in overall sales. April and May were the best months we’ve ever had. Which is kind of mindblowing. Sales were up 38-ish percent,” Soderberg said.

Distribution sales (both to customers, restaurants and stores) became 80 percent of their revenue up until July 4. To-go and curb-side sales made up for the remaining 20 percent.

Not only do they plan on continuing the direct shipping indefinitely, they plan on expanding the windows to later in the day. And over the next several months, Soderberg plans to upgrade the existing delivery vehicles and purchase a third one.

He said the process is far simpler than restaurant or store deliveries, since it’s all paid up front, so they don’t have to deal with tracking accounts receivable.

Soderberg said they decided not to open the bar for outdoor seating in May. Instead, they used that time to complete some facility renovations, which included some landscaping to expand the outdoor seating area to seat about 32 with spacing, installed an air conditioning unit, installed a glass garage door on one of the former bay doors and did some painting and other maintenance projects.

Moving forward, Soderberg said the direct distribution model will help the veteran-owned business if there is another downturn in the market in the months ahead, but he’s careful not to act complacent.

“I think it’s going to be months before we have an idea of what this industry is going to look like on the flipside,” he said. 

Soderberg said he is constantly reminding people, “Don’t get cocky, don’t get complacent. Stay focused. All those things you get told in the military.”

Able Ebenezer Brewing Co. is located at 31 Columbia Circle in Merrimack. Find them online here.

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Ryan Lessard

Ryan Lessard is a freelance reporter.