Shortly after noon on May 21, socially distanced patrons returned to the Mike Hess brewery in North Park for the first time since the statewide shutdown went into effect on March 17.
At noon on Thursday, May 21, for the first time in more than two months, Mike Hess Brewing opened its North Park, Imperial Beach, and Ocean Beach taprooms to customers, allowing them once again to sit together and talk over a beer, at a brewery.
805 Ocean Ln, Imperial Beach
3812 Grim Avenue, San Diego
4893 Voltaire Street, San Diego
688 Marsat Court, Chula Vista
4101 30th Street Suite A, San Diego
The Hess beer businesses were among the first to open for business following the news, announced late on May 20, that San Diego county restaurants were given the green light to welcome back customers, more than two months after a statewide order prohibited dine-in food and drink service.
To do so, businesses must follow strict safety protocols designed to prevent the spread of coronavirus, including guidelines for social distancing, wearing masks, and sanitation. The exact rules are outlined in an Industry Guidance document issued by San Diego County, in conjunction with OSHA and the California Department of Public Health.
Now that document does specify that “Brewpubs, breweries, bars, pubs, craft distilleries, and wineries should remain closed.” However, it adds the very important caveat: “…unless they are offering sit-down, dine-in meals. Alcohol can only be sold in the same transaction as a meal.”
That gives a re-opening edge to brewpubs, which combine a brewery and full-service restaurant, and for business partnerships such as the Hess beergarden in Imperial Beach, which operates in collaboration with City Tacos.
However, for most brewery taprooms, the option to re-open now hinges on another point of county guidance, which states alcohol businesses that do not serve food themselves, “can contract with another vendor to do so… provided both businesses follow the guidance below and alcohol is only sold in the same transaction as a meal.”
For the Mike Hess Brewing taprooms in North Park and Ocean Beach to open under the new guidelines, cofounder Mike Hess says he followed California Craft Brewers Association suggestion to “be creative.”
In Ocean Beach, that means working in conjunction with a neighborhood restaurant, OB Deli, which provides ready-made sandwiches that are sold to gets, along with beer, in the taproom. At the North Park brewery, beers could be purchased only with a $5 credit for food for the Eat Your Heart Out food truck, which will remain parked on-site during business hours going forward.
Chula Vista’s Bay Bridge Brewing likewise re-opened Thursday, with a plan for rotating food trucks to park in its beer garden. Co-founder Jim Shirey points out that food trucks on the Bay Bridge back patio were already a regular feature at the brewery, and that some of them will now be returning to business themselves, after having no place to park these two shut down months.
Aside from covid-19 safety protocols, such as spacing out tables outside on the Bay Bridge patio, returning customers will find Bay Bridge beers available in 16-ounce crowlers. That’s a change from pre-pandemic days: Shirey says a new crowler machine was an investment that allowed the business to fill and sell four-packs in order to weather the shutdown.
While most breweries and even brewpubs did not open immediately under the new guidelines, several were poised to do so by the end of May or beginning of June, as they prepared their businesses to meet the new protocols, which requires all service employees to wear face coverings. Customers are expected to wear face coverings when not eating or drinking, but those in the same party may sit together without them.
Most of the early afternoon customers at Mike Hess North Park enjoyed beers together without wearing masks. Some had made a point to visit after learning about the re-opening on social media; others had been walking by, or stopped in to buy take-out beer and hand sanitizer, and stayed when they realized they could enjoy their first drink out in more than nine weeks.
The majority of San Diego brewery taprooms do not serve meals on a regular basis, and even those readying to re-open soon are being cautious with regard to meeting the new restrictions. For example, Rip Current Brewing in San Marcos doesn’t serve food, but its North Park taproom shares a space with the Craft House counter restaurant. That’s why Rip Current cofounder Paul Sangster is re-hiring bar staff now to open the North Park location soon, but holding off on San Marcos, for now.
“We are working to better understand what level of food service is required to re-open,” he says, noting that for the moment, public messaging has brewery owners remaining cautious. “It has been difficult to get clarity on this topic that could lead some breweries (not us) to doing something basic and re-opening,” he says.
A lot of customers may remain cautious too, as San Diegans slowly toe the waters in returning to public life. In this regard, Mike Hess hopes returning customers will remain respectful of breweries’ obligations to follow county guidelines strictly regarding masks, distancing, and sanitation.
Sangster is optimistic, though he expects it will take time before taprooms start seeing customers return in greater numbers. When I reached out to Sangster in mid-March, when the stay-home order first went into effect, he correctly predicted it would be two months before on-premise service would resume. Today, he’s forecasting a slow week or two before beer fans feel secure enough to return to their favorite brewery establishments.
“I also wouldn't be surprised,” he says, “to see a surge in customers during late May and June.”