Published in Food/Agribusiness

Virus throws curveball just as Peat’s Cider opens Southwest Michigan taproom

BY Sunday, May 10, 2020 06:00pm

STEVENSVILLE — Peat’s Cider Social had been open for less than two weeks when co-founder Dan Peat began hearing about a highly infectious virus that was starting to affect various parts of the country. 

The company, Peat’s Original Cider, started nearly three years ago as a distribution-only craft cider maker at the Peat family’s 200-acre farm in Paw Paw. By launching Peat’s Cider Social, a 16,000-square-foot combination taproom and 16-lane bowling center, the company was creating a direct consumer connection that would allow it to stretch its legs and produce a range of ciders, not just what would sell at distribution accounts. 

Dan Peat, co-founder of Peat’s Original Cider. COURTESY PHOTO

When the new location opened in early March, Peat’s Cider had hired seven people to staff the new taproom. 

As the news of the coronavirus kept coming, the company put up a social media post about its sanitation practices to reassure its new customers that it was taking the situation seriously. 

“It was really incredible in probably 72-ish hours how quick it went from, ‘We might have to adjust our process a little bit,’ to ‘I think we need to close, guys,’” Peat said. “We’ve got the risk of being owners and this comes with the territory, so it’s up to us to figure it out.”

Before the state mandates hit, Peat’s Cider Social shut down the bowling alley and closed the taproom except for to-go sales of cider, before ending even those limited customer interactions.

“In our observation, if a lot of people aren’t taking it very seriously but we are, then we’re putting our staff at risk, or ourselves or our family,” Peat said. 

As well, Peat observed the irony of the situation.

“We literally have social in the name of our taproom and social distancing is the name of the game, so that’s some bad luck,” he said. 

Peat “dusted off” a crisis response slide deck he had prepared years ago as a student at Michigan State University to guide the company through the wholly unfamiliar process. The company’s leadership team met with each employee to discuss best options and offer help in any way possible. 

The goal was simple, Peat said: “To treat people well so that they want to come back to us when this fog passes.”

Another challenge in the shutdown for the young company hit on the production side of the business. Typically, fruit growers’ apple stocks dwindle in quantity and quality necessary for cider making by early spring. While the company had a couple of year’s worth of data to project distribution demand in normal times, it had no playbook for 2020 to estimate the demand at the new taproom until this fall’s crop becomes available. 

“That was already hard enough to plan for, then you throw in the mix that both us and our distribution accounts are going to be all out of whack over COVID,” Peat said. “I bought a lot of them and got the juice going; now I’m hoping that I’ve bought enough.”

As the company got more information about the virus and proper procedures, it reopened for curbside sales. Peat said the leadership team constantly is monitoring best practices and the latest news about the virus to ensure the safety of staff and customers. 

“We want to be conscious that we can look ourselves in the mirror and say we did all the right stuff, which right now, I definitely feel that we did,” he said. 

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