WILMINGTON — On New Year’s Eve, Ellie Craig was preparing Front Street Brewery for its final throw down of 2021.
“We are running a very limited menu,” the sales and public relations manager explained Friday.
By 4 p.m. on New Year’s Day, the brewery locked up for the next 30 days. The goal, Craig said, was to have little leftover product as the restaurant closes to the public to upgrade the brewery and host staff trainings.
“Typically, we shut down every year for at least three or four days to do some renovations and repairs — touch-up painting, staining,” Craig said. “But we’re doing a pretty big overhaul.”
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Once February rolls around, the general public will see the same Front Street, only with new tile in the bathrooms and behind the bar, hardwood floors and upholstered seating, a fresh coat of interior paint, and an updated façade. There will also be less obvious fixes, such as corrected plumbing and secured loose wires.
“We’re just reinvesting in our infrastructure because this building does date back to 1865,” Craig said.
Front Street received a façade grant from Wilmington Downtown Inc. in November, which awarded five $2,500 grants to downtown businesses to keep the aesthetics of their property updated.
“When Hurricane Florence popped up as a category four hurricane, we had to very quickly get boards on the front of the building,” Craig said. “We tried to patch and stain and fix everything, to get up and running again after being closed for a week — but, now, we’re going to strip everything down and sand and refinish.”
Though the business will be closed to diners, Front Street is paying all 60 of its employees during this time. It received a little over $1 million from the Small Business Administration’s Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which awarded 130 or so grants to restaurants in New Hanover, Pender and Brunswick counties in August.
Restaurants that applied for the grant were provided funding equal to revenue loss due to the pandemic and will not have to repay it as long as money is spent by Mar. 11, 2023 on eligible uses (payroll costs, mortgage obligations, rent, debt service, utility payments, maintenance expenses, construction for outdoor seating, business supplies, supplier costs, and business operating expenses). FSB will tap into the $1 million, Craig confirmed, yet will not utilize “anywhere near that.”
“Those funds that are not used will go back into the pool of money that can be redistributed throughout the community and back to the federal government, so they can utilize that in other ways,” she said.
It’s been a tough year in the restaurant industry, with employers undergoing labor and food shortages, as well as increased prices on products and goods. Craig attributes the success of Wilmington’s first brewery — which opened in 1995 — to a dedicated team that worked through it together and stepped up to the plate when needed.
“And they deserve some time off,” she said.
However, FSB is still paying staff while closed this month. The operation took an average of the last quarter of the year to come up with the figure for each employee’s pay during January. Craig said staff will be required to come in some days to help with deep cleaning and moving equipment, among a few other tasks as needed.
“But we’re really making an investment in our staff with this closing,” she iterated.
The brewery is utilizing the time to host a multi-level training process, especially to address changes in standard operating procedures and policies due to Covid. Craig said the goal is to get back to the basics of Southern hospitality and changing the tone at the onset of the customer experience — the moment someone walks up to the hostess stand.
“People have changed the way they interact with others — their overall demeanor — during Covid,” Craig said.
One amenity already added in June to make up for longer wait times was opening the newly renovated third floor tap room — formerly an event space — instead of having customers milling around in a small hallway indoors.
“So instead of saying, ‘Sorry, you have to wait outside or go walk around,’ we have this other experience we can introduce to our guests,” Craig said, “where they can enjoy a small menu of appetizers and a beer while having to wait for a table.”
While staff have been updated on-the-fly as changes are made, Craig said they’re utilizing the restaurant’s downtime to retrain and ensure “everybody’s on the same page,” top to bottom. Plus, FSB is already bulking up on new team members for the upcoming season.
“So the people coming in mid-January to start this training process will be ready to go into the busy summer season with us,” she added. “And, truth be told, we have one of the best restaurant staffs in Wilmington, right now — these people really do care about this place, and the culture and community we’ve built here at Front Street.”
Customer experience training will get underway with John Formica — best known as the “Ex-Disney Guy,” a leading authority on tourism, hospitality and service industries — who will give a one-day seminar. A former FSB employee, Lauren Burke, who worked at the restaurant for six years but now is a life coach, will come in to talk about work and life balance, and how one feeds into the other.
“She understands our culture and our community, what it’s like to work at Front Street, and she’s going to be talking to our staff about how to apply things to your everyday life and your everyday routine to set you up for success in this industry,” Craig said.
Brew master Christopher McGarvey will lead a session on craft beer, and the FSB management team and whiskey ambassadors will address its vast, award-winning selection, touting over 450 whiskeys, bourbons and scotches.
“We’ve got several of our senior employees currently studying to take their Stave & Thief whiskey steward certification course,” Craig added.
Front Street Brewery will be refreshed and ready to reopen Feb. 1.
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