Jason Phelps, co-owner of Ancient Fire Mead & Cider in Manchester said sales are down about 30 percent overall, he’s had to lay off about eight part-timers and it’s become harder to find new customers during the COVID-19-related shutdowns, but he said he’s still paying his bills so far and take-out offerings have proven surprisingly popular.
Phelps said the business is bringing in about 70 percent of what it usually does in revenue.
Take-out is up from its usual 45 percent share of the business to about 60 percent now, and as high as 80 percent during the first month of the pandemic shutdown.
But dine-in services are gone and wholesale sales are down.
“We’re definitely down. We’ve done very little wholesale business,” Phelps said.
He said wholesale made up about 10 percent of his business before, but it’s now closer to 2 percent.
Phelps said the operation is being run just by him and his wife Margot since they were forced to lay off eight part-time employees. Luckily, he said all of those employees had second jobs.
“We want to bring them back and have them get paid as quickly as we can,” Phelps said.
As a meadery, Phelps said he faces some unique challenges. Most meaderies in the state are licensed as wineries, and as far as he knows those don’t have permission to deliver products to customers. Though he has a restaurant license he could ostensibly use to deliver, he can’t see a way to make that profitable.
And unlike beer breweries, which produce familiar styles of beer like IPAs and stouts, enabling people to purchase new releases with some reliable expectations, customers perusing a mead menu don’t have the same lexicon to lean on.
“I definitely think especially engaging new people (is challenging). We have ‘What style of thing is this’ questions,” Phelps said.
That’s a challenge that existed somewhat before the pandemic, he said, but the COVID-19 crisis may have exacerbated it.
And while he enjoyed strong take-out sales in the first month, he thinks those dropped off in recent weeks because people are trying to spread the love.
“I think, on aggregate, people are still supporting local, but they’re supporting more brands than they had been so they’re sort of spreading their money around,” Phelps said.
Originally, Ancient Fire never did food take-out, since their food offerings were meant to accompany and pair with the drinks people bought. But now, it’s becoming a big part of the take-out orders.
“We’re selling more food to go than I would have ever expected,” Phelps said.
They’ve offered things like goat cheese on a cinnamon pear jam by Mac’s Apples in Londonderry, or a package containing peanut butter Rice Krispie treats with Cruising Elm, their Concord grape mead, and a pair of glasses.
“It’s kind of date night ready-to-go for people who like peanut butter and jelly, and it was an immediate hit,” Phelps said.
Phelps said they naturally run the operation pretty lean, without spending a lot or taking on debt. They had planned on spending more later in the year to help the company grow, but the virus struck before they did, so they’ve been in a decent shape financially, Phelps said.
“We’ve not had to mess around with our bills yet. We’ve been able to pay everything for March and April,” he said.
They’ve even given back to the community with up to $1,400 in donations to various charities like the NH Food Bank, the American Cancer Society and others.
“One of the things that’s been very consistent about what we’ve done here at Ancient Fire is community work,” Phelps said.
He said the feedback from the community so far has been “amazing.”
Meanwhile, he has been able to release a few new mead varieties, such as Rosa Nova (7 percent), made with raspberry from Manchester, cranberry and rosehip, and Fuzzier Still (7 percent) a popular peach mead, of which Phelps made a new batch of last week.
On May 4, also known as Star Wars Day, Ancient Fire will be releasing Tai Fighter (7 percent). Phelps said the drink was originally a mead/sangria cocktail the sangria elements of which have been baked into a new mead recipe, with Macadamia blossom honey from Hawaii, orange peel, lime juice and brown sugar.
As part of the release, the meadery will be open that week for a week-long celebration culminating that Friday (May 8) in a virtual happy hour over Zoom, where Phelps will update customers on what’s going on, host sci-fi themed trivia and give away prizes in the form of coupon codes for takeout orders. You can join the happy hour on Facebook here.