Lori Duncan, co-founder and operations manager of Nocterra Brewing Co, talks Nocterra during COVID-19 - challenges, opportunities, improvements, and the future.
Lori Duncan, co-founder & operations manager; photo from Origin Malt
If you've been to the Powell, OH area, you've driven through the historic downtown, and you've cruised by one of the local staples on Depot St: Nocterra Brewing Company. After opening their doors in the spring of 2019, Nocterra has quickly become an exciting name in the craft brew game in Columbus. With over 37 unique brews under their belt, they continue to grow and expand their product offerings. Since their opening, Nocterra has provided a fun and unique taproom, offering a casual, outdoorsy atmosphere, where you can host a pretty great happy hour over the summer while eating whatever food truck is visiting that night. The remaining months of 2019 and early 2020 demonstrated the success and popularity, with large weekend crowds and events occurring frequently. On March 15, 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic made that in-person success much more challenging.
In March of 2020, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine declared a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic quickly spreading throughout the state. Soon after, restaurants and bars were mandated to close, with the exception of carryout or delivery services. We sat down with Lori Duncan, co-founder and operations manager of Nocterra Brewing Company, to discuss what impact the statewide mandate, and the COVID-19 pandemic has had on their business and mission moving forward.
Q: What is the Nocterra Story? How did you all get started?
A: We started homebrewing as a hobby and as a means to save money on beer (or so we thought). My husband Bryan took the hobby to the next level through homebrewing competitions where he met Bruce Vivian, another avid homebrewer. Bryan and Bruce started to brew together more often and discovered they had a similar style and interest in beer types. Over many hypothetical conversations we decided to dig in and see if we could turn our hobby into our careers.
At the time, we had young families, so all of these activities happened after the kids went to bed. (Thus the nocturnal themed name and logo) We’d stay up late nights and brew and talk about what kind of a brewery we would open: what would the name be, what would the concept be, how is it authentic to us, how do we connect with customers, etc. Before too long we realized that we had sketched out a concept that we thought was unique to the Columbus craft beer scene. We took a hard look at our collective skill sets and felt that we had what it took to not only brew but to operate a business. From then on it was 4 years of research, planning, connecting, hard fought fundraising and construction to get to opening.
Q: How did SHYFT get involved with your company?
A: Bryan and I have had a personal relationship with Steve [Reynolds, SHYFT Founding Partner] for the better part of 15 years. When we reached the point in our project where we were ready to start engaging with the city it was time to seek design/architectural help. We had found our space and had attained roughly 1/3 of our fundraising goal. At this point we felt we had enough momentum to keep the wheels turning but also felt like we needed to start producing tangible objects like sketches, elevations and layouts so that we could show the reality of our project and keep the forward progress moving. We invited Steve out to the site to give him the full scope of what we were planning. Steve enthusiastically shared our excitement for the project so we mashed the “GO” button with SHYFT and didn’t turn back. Aside from our preconceived notions of what an architect firm could provide, SHYFT navigated us through appropriateness with the City of Powell, and were a phenomenal partner providing general oversight for the duration project. SHYFT has been a great resource to us. What began as a casual inquiry to one of our friends has led to a partnership that we really value.
Q: COVID-19 hit the bar/restaurant/hospitality industry pretty hard. How did you have to change/adapt your business model to maintain relevance, profit, etc.?
A: Our adaptations occurred abruptly because we are in the sector that received a full shutdown, with the exception of being able to sell to-go on premises. Some of our immediate adaptations were converting our product to to-go vessels. We had a lot of beer in kegs, we transferred all of that product into canned goods so that we could keep product moving out the door in some fashion. We turned on a home delivery service, so that we could bring beer to the people and not just rely on folks coming to see us. We continued daily communication via our social media channels to stay in touch with our audience and continue promoting the measures we were taking to serve them in a safe and friendly manner.
Q: When you were allowed to reopen, what steps were taken to ensure the health and safety of customers?
A: We started by reviewing traffic flow throughout the public spaces of our building and collectively reviewed notes on known customer habits in our space. Starting with a good understanding of how the public moves through our taproom and beer garden was key to knowing how to adapt those flows to be compliant with social distancing restrictions in mind. Once we had a defined understanding of traffic flow we looked for every contact point where we could create a better sense of sanitation and safety by adding sanitation stations, by leaving doors open so that there doesn’t have to be physical contact with a community object. We set up a seating system that allowed us to maximize our indoor and outdoor capacity within regulations, we seated each group of guests based on table capacity and trained our staff on updated sanitation/cleaning requirements between groups.
A lot of our reopening plan included above and beyond sanitation and safety protocols and making sure that our efforts were visible to our guests to help give them a sense of comfort during an uncomfortable time. We wanted our customers to understand that when they were coming to Nocterra, that we were doing everything that we could to keep our space clean, distanced and safe out of respect to them and our staff.
Q: What has been the most challenging when adapting to the pandemic? Has there been any bright spots?
A: The biggest challenge we continue to face is avoiding congregation and managing party sizes. We have a fairly high-volume crowd during the summer months, so there’s always the challenge of wanting to remain hospitable but also to stay infallibly compliant with COVID requirements. Keeping a consistent customer traffic flow moving through the space has been, and continues to be, the biggest challenge under the current restrictions. That said, we do have a good system in place and a great staff keeping an on eye on operations.
The second biggest challenge is that we do sell alcoholic beverages. Our customers enjoy coming to our space to relax with their friends and enjoy a couple drinks. Naturally, inhibitions go down proportionally with the number of beverages consumed. Our job is to keep our environment friendly and welcoming but still reinforce all mask and distancing restrictions.
Q: Of the changes that you have made, which do you think will continue on when the world returns to “business-as-usual”?
A: The pandemic has taught us a lot about how we can maximize our service in our space. We’ll hold on to a lot of those efficiencies after the pandemic.
One of our gained efficiencies, for example, was to set up an outdoor pour station to alleviate some of the congestion that would build up inside. We recognized the value of a dedicated outdoor service station and have worked with you SHYFT for design and appropriateness for a permanent build outside.
In general, just better use of our space, better seating arrangements, those will all hold over for us.
Q: What’s next for Nocterra? Anything new/exciting in the future?
A: What’s exciting for us at this moment is just continuing to grow our brand recognition and distribution footprint. We want to get more cans into stores and more draft lines throughout the city.
While the world is still managing the global pandemic, the bar and hospitality industry has had to grow and adapt their practices to stay alive. Hopefully as vaccines continue to rollout and restrictions are lifted, we can get back to "normal", but for establishments such as Nocterra, adaptation and creativity were imperative. You can read more about the full Nocterra COVID-19 policies on their website (check out the beer and merch while you're there). Check out our project profile on Nocterra here.