Common Roots’ brewery burned down a year ago. Owner says surviving coronavirus will be harder

Albany Business Review / "This is much harder than getting through a fire that burns down your facility."

Photo by Donna Abbott-Vlahos / Albany Business Review

Christian Weber was getting ready to commemorate an unusual anniversary in March — the day his brewery, Common Roots, burned to the ground — when another unpredictable disaster entered the picture: the coronavirus pandemic.

In a month when Weber was planning to put one tragedy behind him and finish an expanded $6 million brewery in South Glens Falls, he instead was forced to confront a new challenge: How to keep his business afloat when customers have been ordered to stay home and beverage distribution is virtually nonexistent.

“Because there’s a sense of uncertainty and we don’t know if it’s two months, three months, nine months, is it a year?” Weber said. “This is much harder than getting through a fire that burns down your facility.”

“The night of the fire, no one was hurt, and at the end of the day, that’s all that matters,” Weber said. “Although that night was very hard, and I’ll be honest the last 12 months there have been a lot of sleepless nights for me … This is a very different situation because there is a very real safety concern here.”

Common Roots is keeping its temporary taproom open and selling beer to go, but the staff of 17 has doubled down on safety measures: masks, gloves and plenty of signs to emphasize social distancing. Weber said in-house sales have taken a hit, but they’re enough to pay overhead and employees for now.

The brewery’s distribution channels, however, have closed up almost entirely as many restaurants and bars are shut down or limiting service. Weber said normally about half of all Common Roots packaged beer — which is brewed by SingleCut Beersmiths in Clifton Park and Torch & Crown Brewing Co. in the Bronx — goes to supply stores and restaurants across the Northeast.

“We are a company that definitely has to manage things right now and be very careful about what we’re doing,” Weber said.

Like so many other small business owners in the region, Weber applied early for a loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program using his existing lender, KeyBank. He received approval for the loan a few days later, and he’s expecting to see the money next week.

Weber found the application to be very easy, especially compared to the complicated SBA loans he sought to finance the brewery’s expansion.

“No one one wants to dig a deeper whole and put more debt on their company when they’re already drowning in debt and expenses and bills, so to have something as convenient as the PPP was, as well as favorable to the [borrower], it was a really smart program,” he said.

Common Roots has been able to retain most of its employees, except for a few brewers who Weber sent to work at his brother-in-law’s steel manufacturing company. The six-figure loan will give Common Roots breathing room to meet payroll and other expenses for the next few months.

Weber is still hoping to open the new brewery and taproom this summer — construction has been allowed to continue as an “essential” project, both because it will be the business’s primary location, and because it falls under food and beverage manufacturing.

But a lot remains uncertain. The new taproom has a full restaurant and will come with lots of overhead costs that normally would have been covered by distribution revenue. So while the timeline may end up being pushed back, Weber is happy the coronavirus hit earlier rather than later.

“If we had just opened, this would be a lot harder for us. I have definitely played more worse scenarios in my head as I lay in bed at night,” Weber said.

The pandemic might also change how Common Roots does business in the long term. Weber is looking at ways to stop infectious diseases in the future, whether it’s eliminating paper menus or designing the space to accommodate social distancing.

“This is going to be a paradigm shift for our entire country here on how we go about everyday life,” he said.