GRAND RAPIDS — Equipment maker Coldbreak knew it would face a major challenge when the outbreak of COVID-19 led to the shutdown of bars and restaurants and events across the country.
The company’s signature jockey box is a portable tool craft breweries use to serve draft beer at large gatherings such as beer festivals. Not only were the beer festivals themselves canceled in the wake of COVID-19, but also the viability of the craft beer industry has been called into question.
In a survey last month, Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association found nearly 60 percent of craft brewers could sustain operations for less than three months if the current shutdown conditions persist.
Coldbreak had doubled sales in the last couple of years and was projected to nearly double again in 2020. After long functioning with a small operation, the company scaled up last year to seven employees. Then the coronavirus hit and “that all came to a screeching halt,” said Boyd Culver, who co-founded Coldbreak with Chris Musil.
The company made the tough choice to lay off its staff, regroup and prepare for what was coming next.
“It wasn’t just a matter of cutting staff. These people are my friends,” Culver said. “On a personal level, that’s the lowest I’ve ever felt; I’ve never gone through depression like that. The staff that we had was just amazing. Obviously, it wasn’t our fault that this happened, and they understood that, but it’s still painful to have to do that. They’re all such great people.
“When it comes to our customers, it’s the same thing. They’re all our friends, and we just want to see everybody do well. Obviously, we want them to come back, from a business standpoint, but we want them to be successful because they’re our friends.”
The pandemic outbreak also wreaked havoc on Coldbreak’s business. Jockey box sales were projected to grow 50 percent year-over-year in April, but the month’s sales ended up being down 80 percent from a year ago.
“We’ll be chopped at the knees, but we’ll be OK. We’ll survive this,” Culver said.
Coldbreak secured a Paycheck Protection Program loan and was able to hire back a couple of staff members. It’s mostly Culver and Musil working on the floor these days, assembling jockey boxes and other products, including homebrewing equipment, which is where the company got its start. Sales to homebrewing shops have actually held up during the pandemic, and Coldbreak plans to expand its offerings to hobbyist brewers.
The company also is going to “pivot our focus a little bit and go more direct to the consumer,” Culver said. That includes an educational campaign via YouTube videos to show people what a jockey box is and how they could use it for smaller gatherings like house parties and weddings. The company also was in the process of getting collegiately licensed to make branded jockey boxes for tailgating parties.
“A lot of beer drinkers don’t even know what a jockey box is, and rightfully so. They drank out of them at beer festivals and they didn’t know it,” Culver said. “But we have some products that are more suitable for the home. We feel that’s going to be the more popular thing.”
From a personal level, Culver said he misses meeting up with his friends over a beer at a brewery or a bar and having random conversations with new people. Even so, he’s in no rush to risk his family’s health to do so right now.
“I often compare it to a shark attack,” he said. “People do go back into the ocean eventually, but it takes them a long time to get comfortable.”