A few months ago, Gay Gilmore was beginning to feel desperate. When the COVID-19 crisis first reached Seattle, the co-owner of Capitol Hill’s Optimism Brewing knew that staying afloat would be an unprecedented challenge for her business.
For the spot known mostly for its wide array of IPAs, stouts, and pilsners, to-go growlers and cans became the only sources of revenue for months. But Optimism didn’t have a robust distribution and retail operation, nor its own kitchen. And even when Seattle entered phase two of the state’s reopening plan, which allowed for limited indoor and outdoor dining, there didn’t seem to be a viable way to reshape its business model. The five-year-old brewery with the upbeat name saw only dire days ahead.
Gilmore knew the aspects that set Optimism apart from other beer destinations were pretty much useless during a pandemic. The 16,000-square-foot space housed in a century-old building (a former car dealership) had previously generated revenue by hosting events. But as the months wore on, its large tables and cavernous seating areas sat mostly empty.
Then, an opportunity arose. People in the neighborhood who worked from home began to hover by the entrance early in the day, before Optimism opened, hoping to find a spot to settle in. “I would see guests come in, like right at noon, with their laptop in one hand and a backpack on their shoulder, and they’d be like, ‘Can I get a table near an outlet?’” Gilmore says. “I realized there’s this phenomenon that’s happening here. People are going nuts sitting in their apartments working. And they just want to get out for a little bit.”
So Gilmore devised a plan that would accommodate the remote-worker demand while making the brewery a few extra bucks. She opened up a Tock reservation link where people could book a table at Optimism before it officially opened to the public. Guests would get a a beer and water glass refills for around $15 to $20 a pop, along with peaceful, quiet space to spend their workday.
The brewery was already staffed during the morning hours, and the large space, along with the reservation system, helped with the transition, while still allowing it to comply with COVID-19 safety measures. But there were a few adjustments to make. Gilmore had to buy extension cords and soup up the Wi-Fi, and she realized the tall metal chairs and bar stools aren’t completely suited for long work sessions. “We’ve had people bring their pillows in, because our chairs are not like the fancy Herman Miller kind,” Gilmore says.
Still, the reservations filled up quickly, especially once the brewery expanded its outdoor seating onto nearby Broadway Court, thanks to new permits that block off streets for retail plazas. Suddenly, Optimism cultivated a WeWork vibe: people typing away at laptops for hours, calling into meetings, and setting up mini workstations at the brewery.
Gilmore sees photographers and writers taking advantage of the table reservations, alongside tech workers coding. There are students, as well as some people applying to jobs. Those on Zoom calls tell Gilmore that being in a brewery is a great ice breaker when they have to be on camera.
“There’s also a surprising amount of people who come in to escape fire alarm testing or some other outage or construction in their apartments,” she says. “We also have repeat customers, although it’s not like they want to buy a desk membership. They just want a change of pace.”
Now that Gov. Jay Inslee has recently loosened a few restrictions for restaurants, bars and breweries, Optimism can seat members of different households at the same table, and there are now small work groups booking together.
It may not come as a complete surprise that such an option would be desirable, since Seattle is a city of remote workers now. This summer, Amazon let its local corporate employees know that if they can work from home, they’re welcome to do so until January 8, 2021. Similar policies are in place for other tech companies, like Google and Facebook. Even as some offices around town have reopened at half capacity or lower, corporations are finding that working from home will likely be the new normal for a longer period than originally planned.
The protocols around social distancing, mandatory mask-wearing, and sanitization are similar for co-working spaces and food businesses, although restaurants and bars may be under more scrutiny from the health department. There is a WeWork building a five-minute walk from Optimism Brewing, but those who use the facility must pay a membership fee, and the prospect of just heading to a roomier spot with outdoor space and beer seems more appealing (WeWorks no longer have booze on tap in their kitchens).
Other breweries have also considered instituting reservations for those looking to lug their laptops into taprooms.
Fair Isle — the new farmhouse and saison-focused brewer in Ballard — received a positive response to the idea from customers when it sent out a survey about reopening in June. It went so far as to open a Tock reservation line, but only a couple of people per day actually used it. “Not sure if people’s habits changed, we didn’t market it enough, or perhaps this became less important in the summer months,” says co-owner Andre Pogue, adding that if there’s a renewed demand, Fair Isle would consider bringing its daytime reservation system back.
Fellow Ballard brewery Stoup also toyed with the idea, but ultimately nixed it, since its taproom space didn’t seem conducive to managing COVID-19 protocols with the extra factor of having people sitting and working for extended amounts of time. The area that would have been viable is typically used by the brewery staff to spread out and conduct meetings.
Likewise, other breweries said they wouldn’t discourage customers from trying to work inside their taprooms, but probably wouldn’t go so far as to cultivate such business unless there was an increased demand. Reuben’s Brews doesn’t take reservations, but offers an electronic waitlist and free Wi-Fi. Old Stove near Pike Place Market has expanded outside seating, and welcomes those setting up shop at the taproom, but there is no specific reservation line for the work-from-home crowd.
There does seem to be a confluence of factors working in Optimism’s favor: its size, high ceilings with ventilation machines from a company literally called Big Ass Fans, location within a dense neighborhood with a lot of young tech workers, low-touch counter-service operation (the brewery has always operated on a no-cash system), and sizable, unisex bathrooms that offer plenty of space, without entrance and exit doors.
Gilmore says that most people who choose to work at Optimism are there from around 9 a.m. until the late afternoon. But they are not drinking throughout the workday. Some will have their beer that comes with the reservation during lunch, but most decide to order it within their last hour of work, and about half of customers decide to buy more beer.
Every dollar counts these days, so even the modest boost in revenue for Optimism in taking those remote-working reservations is helpful, contributing a couple of thousand dollars each month that it wouldn’t have normally. But with overall business down more than 70 percent since the beginning of the pandemic, Gilmore isn’t sure if any current business strategy is really viable in the longer term.
With colder weather coming, the expanded outdoor seating may not be as attractive, unless the brewery can appropriately winterize the space, which can cost thousands of dollars when factoring in the price of heat lamps, enclosed canopies, and other possible amenities. And guests may be understandably wary of spending an extended amount of time indoors with a bunch of strangers during a pandemic, no matter how high the ceilings are or how well-ventilated the space is with Big Ass Fans.
Since Optimism must offer food in order to seat people inside, it’s been getting by on serving sandwiches from local organic deli chain Homegrown, but that’s not a moneymaker either. If things progress with the work-from-home offerings, Gilmore says Optimism may consider partnering with a coffee roaster and become more of a hybrid cafe/brewery. Anything is on the table to help the business stay afloat, especially as the seasons change.
Optimism continues to draw people in with Tock reservations, even though, as Gilmore notes, everything is still “twice as hard” as it was before to keep the doors open. “You know, I think every restaurant is sort of in that same boat — you can’t survive once the rains come,” she says. “We have some hearty stock, but I’m not sure how hearty it will be when faced with real numbers. Of course, I have to be optimistic, right?”