Michigan wineries were already ramping up sanitation and modifying group tasting policies as warnings and fears surrounding Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) intensified last week.
Now, as a result of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s order closing bars and restaurants effective 3 p.m. March 16, they’re dealing with what they hope is a temporary new normal. With tasting rooms closed, their focus is primarily on retail and online sales as they try to keep income flowing to as many employees as possible.
Michigan By The Bottle locations around Southeast Michigan have started offering curbside pickup and encouraging customers to call ahead to place orders so they don’t have to come inside. They’re also offering a special of a $5 bonus e-gift card for every $50 in e-gift cards purchased.
“Our guests have been beyond amazing at this time,” says MBTB co-owner Cortney Casey. “They are calling in curbside orders, buying tons of gift cards, sending us notes of love and support.
“I have been moved to tears multiple times each day by their generosity and heartfelt good wishes.”
Meanwhile, MBTB has triaged staffing to try to keep those who depend on their jobs for their sole income working.
“We have about 40 employees across all three of our locations — a mix of part-time and full-time team members,” Casey says. “We should be OK for the short term, but if this stretches on for an extended period, we’re going to be in a world of hurt — just like everyone else in the hospitality industry.
“Hospitality workers don’t have the luxury of working from home.”
Lemonade Out of Lemons
Many wineries operate tasting rooms at reduced hours — or not at all — at this time of year anyway. So, having to shut tastings down doesn’t carry the same impact it would in, say, summer or autumn, says Rick DeBlasio, general manager at Shady Lane Cellars near Traverse City.
“A silver lining is that it isn’t peak season,” DeBlasio says. “We’re closed two weekdays as it is this time of year, and there isn’t a lot of high traffic on weekends yet. It’s still kind of in the offseason.”
Wineries can admit up to five members of the public inside for carry-out sales under the current statewide order. Brian Lesperance, vice president at Fenn Valley Vineyards in Fennville, says that probably won’t be a problem on weekdays. On weekends, he says, the winery will post an employee outside to monitor traffic.
“We’ll have menus outside so they can figure out what they want,” Lesperance says. “And since they can’t taste, it won’t take them that long (inside).”
Leelanau County-based Black Star Farms hopes to use different spaces to accommodate carry-out sales.
“We have a couple of separate areas; we can maybe cater to more than five (utilizing) those separate areas,” says Lee Lutes, Black Star director of winery operations. “What they’re trying to do is maintain social distancing, and I think that’s … a good thing to be doing.”
Many wineries have resorted to offering online deals to spur orders in lieu of tasting room walk-ins. Shady Lane is offering shipping for a penny. Fenn Valley has shipping set at $1 for six or more bottles.
“We started that yesterday when we caught wind the state was going to restrict our ability to do tastings, and we’re supportive of that,” Lesperance said on Monday, March 16, noting that online orders have been robust. “I know other wineries are doing similar things.”
Wineries that offer lodging are feeling the pinch on another level. While the offseason likewise spells fewer bookings in good times, cancellations have been steady, says Liz Berger, operations manager at Chateau Chantal on the Old Mission Peninsula. Chateau Chantal operates a 12-unit bed-and-breakfast that sees 60 to 70 percent occupancy in the offseason, getting a boost on weekends from fans who come for cooking classes.
“I’ve had over 40 cancellations since March 1, and today alone I’ve had 26 cancellations for bed-and-breakfast stays,” Berger said on March 16. “These stays that I’ve canceled are anywhere from arrival as soon as tomorrow and into April.
“Now that we’ve canceled cooking classes, … occupancy is about 25 percent, and I anticipate those will cancel.”
Chateau Chantal was still hosting a few overnight guests this week, but the setup hasn’t been ideal.
“At this point, we’re offering people the ability to come in and get their breakfast and take it back to their room, which is really the only way, according to the governor’s changes, to be eating in public,” Berger says. “That seems to be OK for some people, but the other side of it is they … can’t go out to dinner anywhere. They can pick up to-go food and bring it back to the winery.”
The 10-room Inn at Black Star Farms was looking to be full going into the weekend of March 20. Lutes was expecting that to change — but not entirely.
“We are getting some cancellations (with people saying,) ‘If the restaurants are all closed in northern Michigan and we can’t go to the tasting rooms and taste the way we’d like to, we’ll book with you later,’” Lutes says. “We are also getting people saying, ‘It’s going to be nice and quiet and that’s what we’re looking for,’ and they’re coming up.”
Looking ahead, winery representatives were pretty unanimous in echoing the sentiments of Lesperance, who says, “We hope by tamping this thing down, we can get through it in a reasonable amount of time so that everyone — not just wineries — can get back to business as usual.”