Surly Brewing's Omar Ansari on Making Tough Decisions During COVID-19 Crisis

Apr. 21, 2020 at 6:43 PM

COVID-19 is forcing brewery owners across the country to make hard decisions. Surly Brewing founder Omar Ansari has made his share of those decisions over the last month after shuttering his beer hall, beer garden, pizza place and event space in mid-March. Couple those closures with the shutdown of on-premise sales, and around 60% of Surly’s revenue evaporated overnight. “It’s a massive hit to revenue, to profitability, all those plans are out the window at the moment,” he said. The loss of closures and loss of revenue led Surly to furlough 280 members of the company’s 360-person workforce, moves that Ansari knows come with a heavy human toll. “There are people I know don’t have a huge cushion,” he said. “One of our guys was just about to have a baby, and just did the other day. There are people who have built this brewery and people who have bled for the brewery. We don’t have a choice, but it was a pretty tough thing to know that those people aren’t going to get money. “It’s hard to look people in the face after they’ve given you everything they had, and we just don’t have enough to keep them employed,” he continued. In the interim, Surly has turned to feeding those folks and their families on Fridays and has maintained insurance for them. Ansari is hopeful that they’ll someday be able to return to work once whatever new normal takes hold, but the road ahead remains a tough one for Surly, which due to its size as the 34th largest Brewers Association-defined craft brewery, is unable to sell beer to-go or offer curbside pickup. Temporary relief from lawmakers to allow breweries the size of Surly to offer to-go beer or curbside pickup does not appear to be on the way either, although as of Saturday, the state is temporarily allowing bars and restaurants to sell up to a 6-pack of beer, cider or hard seltzer or a bottle wine with to-go food orders. “That’s not an avenue that’s open to us,” Ansari said of to-go sales. “It’d be great. It’d probably bring more people in the door.” Instead, Surly has turned its attention to promoting #TastesBetterLocal campaign to support local restaurants and bars that are able to sell beer with to-go orders. Ansari discusses that program, as well as shares Surly’s experience with applying for funds from the Payroll Protection Program, managing the company’s portfolio and production and much more in the above video. Watch additional videos interviews on, and tune in to a special live-streamed Brewbound Frontlines event Thursday, April 23, at 3 p.m. EST featuring the founders of Trillium, Other Half and WeldWerks.