A Funny Thing Happened on the Way Through a Pandemic

Q&A with Bryan Ulbrich, Left Foot Charley

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Bryan Ulbrich, owner of Left Foot Charley in Traverse City and self-described winery sherpa, shares his take on persevering during a pandemic and coming through on the other side. One of the hallmarks of his response to the pandemic was a series of videos in which he as CEO interviewed himself as winemaker. They were pretty funny in an offbeat kind of way and helped take the edge off the seriousness of the time.

View them here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tt–OTkoUHc&t=2s

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCrGivhjS8OS1YPOYqEa6S5A

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lzvbuy0_3KQ

While you’re at it, don’t miss Left Foot Charley’s Social Media Theater from April 2020, bemoaning the quiet around the winery and featuring plastic dinosaurs and other animals talking up curbside pickup.

When the pandemic first surfaced, what were your expectations as to how it could impact your business?
Ulbrich: I really thought we were in for a bad March, but that would give us time to get some things done around the winery. After a few days, it became clear pretty quickly that life was about to change and my happy-go-lucky spirit started to get anxious.

How did it affect your operations? How did you manage to get by?
Ulbrich: We shut everything down: refrigerators, hot water heater, I gathered up some special library wines and stashed them at home. Our staff was great and we collectively helped find work in vineyards where they could keep spaced and work safely. Some did get laid off once we saw they could get government help with wages. We reached out to our wine club and fan base and they kept our spirits up with great orders and commitment.

What have been the most heartening things for you?
Ulbrich: The response of our staff to pitch in so many unexpected ways, from vineyard work to packing orders. Jen (co-owner/wife) and I were focused on not letting them down and they in turn were driven towards keeping this company thriving. The concept of a family winery really came to the fore when things got hard. We chipped in to help each other.
The same is true with the customers. I was stunned by the far-reaching support through orders and general communication between our customers and their friends. The LFC family grew significantly during the shutdown.

What are the most ludicrous things, do you think, about trying to operate and survive during a pandemic?
Ulbrich: The CEO/Winemaker interview series we did certainly ranks among the absurd. I found myself filming my inner monologue between the paranoid business owner and the creative, optimistic winemaker. These videos took several takes and got stranger as the wine flowed. I also filmed a lot around the asylum (former Traverse City State Hospital grounds, where LFC is located) and the winery reflecting on the silence and isolation.

Any bright moments you want to share?
Ulbrich: I corralled my family — 12-year-old son, 15-year-old daughter and my wife (age withheld) — to help me bottle cider and wine. It was awesome working with the kids on the line. We bottled about 1,000 cases together through the deepest part of the shutdown.

When Bryan Ulbrich forgot to bring a mask while delivering wine once during the pandemic, he substituted a vapor mask he normally wears in the lab. (Courtesy photo)

Any particularly funny moments?
Ulbrich: I was out delivering wine and realized I didn’t have a mask. So I grabbed a vapor mask from the lab. It felt so apocalyptic I had to take a photo.

Any silver linings?
Ulbrich: Our service and customer communication has improved dramatically. It’s comforting that isolation helped us become better at developing relationships.

What are you most hopeful for now?
Ulbrich: The next vintage, of course!

How do you think you will look back on this past year?
Ulbrich: This was the year that helped me relax and realize that life is out of our control. I spent way too much time worrying. We have always relied on improvisation to succeed and this test helped us solidify this mentality into our culture.

 

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