These Breweries Boost Workplace Morale by Encouraging Communication and Incentivizing Their Employees in Unique, Fun and Meaningful Ways
The following is the fourth and final article written by Tara Nurin exclusively for ProBrewer. Visit the ProBrewer Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion resource page for additional DEI articles and resources.
To grossly understate the situation, it’s a tough time to own a craft brewery in the United States. In addition to the usual playbook of challenges, over the past few years you brewery owners have had to negotiate: the rising cost of inputs; tariffs on aluminum and steel; declining sales growth in the sector; shifting expectations/demands around inclusivity; the question of whether your company will have to defend itself against any accusations of sexual impropriety or abusive practices; a deep labor shortage; and all the other issues related to COVID.
Though you and your business partners are the ones forced to directly shoulder the financial burden of navigating these unexpected twists and turns, your employees feel them too, perhaps just as deeply. Some of these hardships impact them acutely — say, for instance, if the pandemic robbed them of their livelihoods then the labor shortage required them to work in overdrive to overcome scant staffing — while the stress from others may trickle down from top management and spread through the ranks to create a pervasive sense of exhaustion and dread.
You can’t avoid these hits, of course, but you can do your best to foster a culture of comfort, wellbeing and enthusiasm in your workplace.
Creating a welcoming environment for workers takes much more than a shift beer, a holiday party or even a diverse staff. It takes intention, open communication, and employee trust and empowerment. Then comes the hard part. It also calls on you to open yourself up to critique, step outside your comfort zone and, when necessary, 86 your bros who hang out in your taproom getting drunk and acting entitled without tipping their servers.
I promise, though, if you do this, the ROI will be worth it.
Writing on his Secret Hopper blog, Andrew Coplon says, “Craft beer is about community, and if you’re not building a strong company culture within your four walls, then it’s going to be much harder for that positivity around your brand to grow.”
This isn’t idle ideology. It’s real dollars and sense.
Coplon writes that his taproom secret shopper service has found that, “When a guest receives low engagement on their first visit to a brewery, they are only 37 percent likely to return/recommend. However, when they receive high engagement, as a result of this wonderful environment full of passion you’ve created, a guest is 98 percent likely to return/recommend your brewery.”
Among the resources the Brewers Association provides to help brewery owners retain and motivate their staff is an article (behind a membership paywall) full of creative tips on how to incentivize your workers. It goes beyond basic good employment practices like paying a living wage (and making up for low tips), offering paid sick leave, and providing benefits to include perks like these:
Prizes ranging from a free case of beer to a $50 gift card for winning monthly contests for achievements like upselling the most beer and getting named in the most positive reviews. (Faubourg Brewing, New Orleans)
Gift cards traded with other local breweries and bars to reward outstanding performance. (St. Elmo Brewing, Austin)
A $5 credit for beer or merch per shift instead of a shift beer. (South Lake Brewing, South Lake Tahoe, CA)
Outings to neighboring breweries and holiday gifts that range from an embroidered winter coat to a night at another brewery’s B&B. (Lake Anne Brew House, Reston, VA)
Beyond this, some breweries — even newish, smallish ones — have devised innovative ways to encourage connection between co-workers up and down the hierarchy, and the dividends are paying off. Here are a few of my favorite examples.
Love City Brewing, Philadelphia, PA
Co-worker communication is mission critical for co-owners Melissa and Kevin Walter. Not only does every one of their 20 employees have both of their cell phone numbers, but the couple sit in on monthly staff meetings and daily front-of-house pre-shift meetings whenever possible. This gives employees a chance to get to know them and feel more comfortable engaging. Melissa Walter, a former therapist, likes to chat socially with bartenders once she’s finished for the day.
“You have to have that relationship there if something serious comes up,” she says.
Walter does her best to create opportunities for workers to get to know one another, as well. She and her managers use their shift, department and staff-wide What’s App threads to congratulate workers on jobs well done, wish them happy birthday and make note of life events like a new apartment.
She says they do it, “So people are aware of the positive things happening in people’s lives and hopefully have conversation around that.”
Realizing that the people serving the beer generally work at opposite times of day from those who make it, the Walters bring brewers to pre-shift FOH meetings to guide servers through tastings. The aim is education, surely, but also something else.
“This is a different way for them to get to know one another,” Melissa says. “‘This is your brewer. Ask him questions. Talk to him.’”
Trace Brewing, Pittsburgh, PA
At brunch service one Sunday six months after opening, a large handful of employees pulled Trace’s marketing manager outside to express concern over something they’d just witnessed. At a flirtatious male customer’s request, the manager had sat on the patron’s lap and posed for a picture.
“We don’t want to normalize that kind of behavior,” they gently scolded. “We don’t want to have a culture here where that sort of interaction with a guest is acceptable.”
The fact that the manager was a straight man and the brunch honored LGBTQ+ Pride Month belies the point. Rather, the message is this: employees felt empowered to politely correct a senior manager in order to preserve the sanctity of their space.
“There’s this sense of transparency and accountability,” says the manager, Aadam Soorma. “We listen.”
Employees at Trace have a lot of self-identity invested. Though it may sound like a small thing, they set the tone for the taproom by playing whatever music they’d like (one beertender is a Black heavy metal bassist so there’s that), and managers tap employees’ connections when it comes to bringing in (mostly minority) food trucks, bands, yoga instructors, and the like. With white male ownership, a South Asian marketing manager (Soorma) and a staff that’s almost half comprised of people of color — including another beertender, nicknamed Shaggy, who’s a semi-pro wrestler — it’s easy to see how staff feels like their backgrounds, interests and friends help piece together the colorful mosaic that is Trace Brewing.
Creature Comforts, Athens, GA
At Creature Comforts, culture is everything — so much so that the brewery just folded its Strategic Impact, Hospitality, and Employee Experience departments into its Culture department so they can leverage one another in overlapping situations to ensure employees are treated just as well as guests and outside stakeholders. As if to prove their commitment, the 100-person-strong brewery boasts a vice president of culture, a director of hospitality, a director of employee experience and three other people who have the words “hospitality” or “human resources” in their title. This team strives to make employees feel at home, share a sense of belonging and have their professional and personal milestones properly recognized.
In the summer of 2020, Creature Comforts formed a DEI committee from a cross-section of employees. Its mission statement: “Creature must create opportunities and cultivate a culture where any person can thrive.”
But let’s be real. Any brewery can scratch together a committee. Creature puts its words into action.
In addition to offering unlimited paid time off, 401(k) matching, and 80% coverage of health benefit premiums, and in addition to providing access to programs for mental health, financial counseling and leadership training, Creature encourages personal development by inviting employees to a speaker series to learn about areas where brewing touches society. In April I joined two Black beer professionals from Atlanta, Jennifer Price and Christina Hughes, in a virtual conversation about women and diversity in the industry. Prior to that, managers hosted “Making Black History through a Black Future in Craft.”
“These give our employees a chance to learn and gain perspective from voices outside the company,” says hospitality director Katie Beauchamp. “We have created space for conversations around important topics.”
It’s an outcome that plugs in directly to the brewery’s tagline: “We exist to foster human connection.”
Stone Brewing, Escondido, CA and Richmond, VA
Until she co-founded the Stone Women’s Network in early 2021, communications and public relations director Lizzie Younkin didn’t really know which other female co-workers have children or realize how enmeshed women really are at all levels of the company.
“I need to know who my working moms are for those moments we need to share or troubleshoot!” emails the mother of two.
These epiphanies have come about thanks to the group she helped form to, as the mission statement reads, “Develop resources and opportunities that benefit Stone Brewing with a particular focus towards the unique challenges faced by women in the workplace.”
So far the group, which is open to men, has hosted conversations around workplace harassment and is planning one about allyship; launched a book/podcast club; run virtual networking sessions; listened to guest speakers; and invited female team members to spotlight themselves — sharing for five to ten minutes on topics like who they are outside of Stone and what journey they’ve taken to become women’s activists. It’s also sponsored memberships to the Women of the Vine & Spirits organization and access to the annual Beer With(out) Beards conference; soon they’ll accept applications for someone to earn a women’s leadership certificate from Cornell University’s online program.
Younkin says, “Having this group established allowed us to act faster when the moment came for us to pull together women in a safer space for conversation around harassment. I also think having this group in place earned us some trust with the team that made these conversations more comfortable, organic and authentic.”