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Outdoor Spaces During Covid-19 | Brass Ring Brewery

Brass Ring Shanties
Jessica Spengler

In 2020, we entered a new normal. When once we crowded hip-to-hip in breweries and barrooms, we now spread out six feet, stick to our tables, and wear masks whenever we move about. During summertime, since outdoor eating is a norm many people enjoy, it felt a little bit better, a bit less stifled. But in late fall, when cold weather set in and a surge in COVID-19 cases caused a new round of indoor dining closures throughout the country, breweries, bars and restaurants had to get creative. Plastic outdoor igloos began to show up, allowing a private space for groups to gather outside. Some establishments chose to keep their patios “as-is,” installing large space heaters to keep people warm and cozy. But others have gone a different route, to stand out due to cost issues — or because as the weather gets colder, even large space heaters don’t do the trick.

Here at Porchdrinking.com, we’ve decided to highlight the creativity of these establishments to keep their businesses open, even when indoor dining is an absolutely non-starter. Our first profile is Grand Rapids, Michigan’s Brass Ring Brewery, and their colorful ice shanties.

Community-focused

Brass Ring Brewery opened in January 2018 in the Alger Heights neighborhood of southeast Grand Rapids. Specializing in English Style pub ales, they were the first Michigan brewery, and 26th nationally, to receive Cask Marque certification. Owners and law partners, Chris Gibbons and Karen Boer, along with their small staff, were quickly embraced by the neighborhood, and they happily embraced it back. Neighbor night was a main stay on Wednesdays, with the brewery issuing weekly invitations to neighbors from one street at a time to dine at their community table and get to know one another. Other themed nights followed, such as stein night — where patrons were encouraged to bring in their own stein, up to a liter in size, to be filled for $5 — and, for gamers, Thursdays became D&D night, thanks to manager Michael Gibbons (Chris’ son). They had live music weekly, which often highlighted local bands and Irish music, and regular events that brought the neighborhood together. That’s why, when COVID-19 hit the area and businesses closed down for any on-premise dining, the community quickly rallied and kept Brass Ring’s business flowing with a bevy of to-go and delivery orders during the first shutdown.

“You know, [the shutdown] is just absolutely the antithesis of everything that’s Brass Ring,” said Boer. “I mean, our servers love people, they love to chat with people. Michael and Scott like to sit at people’s tables and you know, they’re all friends, so the social distancing is not our jam.”

That being said, the brewery took the situation seriously.

“It’s a responsibility to our guests we don’t take lightly,” Gibbons said. “The one thing that I think that’s served our brewery exceptionally well has been a very public and open respect for what COVID-19 is, what it represents and making sure that we do things as safely as we can, even if it costs us money. It’s just not worth a $5.50 pint of beer to see somebody transmit it to a vulnerable person or a healthy person.”

A creative solution to an impossible situation

When things opened back up over the summer, the brewery’s patio was nearly always full, thanks to the loyalty of their customers, weekend food themes and well-crafted beer. In early November, when COVID-19 cases began to surge, Gibbons noticed a drop in business. Being a savvy businessman, he knew that another shutdown was imminent, and he started to think how they could use their outdoor space to keep momentum.

“It was apparent to everybody that we were gonna be [shut down]. That kind of put the pressure on, because we really weren’t gonna do anything outside. I hadn’t really seen anything that I believed was necessarily effective.” Gibbons said. Options like domes or igloos were pricey, and space heaters don’t always do the job.

“So, then I thought about shanties, because where I grew up in Charlevoix, Michigan, everybody had a shanty on Lake Charlevoix in the winter for ice fishing. And they were warm and people drink beer in them. Why not make some and put them on the patio? So that was that,” said Gibbons.

Gibbons called Allen Spencer, a local master craftsmen who built Brass Ring’s distinct bar top, with his plan. It didn’t take much convincing, and after a trip to Lowe’s and a few days of hearty labor, the two built three personal outdoor spaces for Brass Ring’s guests to eat and have a few beers inside.

“We had the shanties up in a week. We got shut down on Wednesday and we had people in shanties on the following Tuesday. Six days later,” Gibbons said.

Successful launch

The shanties debuted to a fully booked line up, thanks to a reservation system designed by Michael Gibbons. Since the brewery opened them to the public, they’ve been booked out at least two weeks, with a waiting list just in case of any cancellations. Sunday through Thursday, each shanty has three  reservation slots at 4 p.m., 5:30 p.m., and 7 p.m., and on Friday and Saturday, five: 2:30 p.m., 4 p.m., 5:30 p.m., 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.

“They’re a huge hit. Everybody loves the shanties,” said Chris Gibbons. So much so, that after three weeks, he and Spencer built a fourth unit. “You would never think. It’s like getting into a carnival box, it’s like getting into a carnival ride at Cedar Point. And then they shut it and then you’re in a box and then you’re like, ‘Oh my god, this is great, get me another beer! We’re drinking in a box!’ It’s crazy. I don’t know how it could be so fun.”

They’re just cool

The original shanties were red, blue and green, colors chosen, not for their ability to draw the eye and drive business, but a more personal reason for Gibbons.

“They match my outfits,” he said with a smile. His partner, Boer, laughed.

Gibbons, a lawyer, color codes his outfits according to his mood, he said. “So today, I knew I had court, a workout, and then I knew I had fun meetings this afternoon, so I thought I’d wear red. It’s a positive day. Green is my bullish day. You can tell what I’m like. You can tell what my mood is. The red is fun. It’s like a mood ring. Red is a fun day. Green is work hard day. Blue is mellow day.”

For the fourth, yellow shanty, the color pays tribute to the brewery’s logo and general aesthetic.

Each shanty is 6×8 feet, with a table the size of a standard booth, and seating for four adults. A small heater gets the booth to a comfortable temperature quickly, and dutch doors allow diners protection from the elements while also allowing servers to get food and drink orders to customers without letting in too much cold air.

“There’s a little heater under the table that warms the air, the air eventually rises up and then they’re open at the top, they’re not sealed. It has corrugated roof so all those is open at the top, so you have natural convection,” Gibbons said. “We put dutch doors on it, so you can open the top if you want more air, because it does get kind of warm. People have on cold nights kept the door cracked.” Portholes  allow diners to look out at the twinkling lights of the outdoor space.

Customers enjoy the shanties because it allows them a safe night out and a unique experience.

“I like to see people’s faces light up when they realize they can still go out. That they can get something different is pretty big,” said Michael Gibbons. “They’re excited when they come in, and they’re super happy. They start drinking beers and they’re hanging out. They just basically look like they’re finally able to kind of relax for a bit or unwind in a way that they haven’t been able to in a long time.”

The rules

There are a few limitations on the shanties, however. Reservations are limited to single households, and customers must sign a sheet when they come in to verify this.

“It’s on the website, it’s on the button, it’s in bold, and then when you come in you have to sign another attestation. So, you can’t make the reservation ’til you agree everyone will be from the same household, and then you have to affirm it again in writing,” said Chris Gibbons. Did I mention that he and Boer are lawyers?

The rules haven’t deterred everyone, unfortunately. A friend of the brewery staff attempted to sneak in with a group. She was busted, and forced to sit at a metal table outside while her friends, who were roommates, ate in the shanty.

“We take it really seriously for a reason. We’re just not in the camp of people who think it’s some kind of big joke. I mean, it’s just not. [A long time employee’s] dad just died, ” Boer said. “The people that do all our glasses, they’re a married couple who lost three out of four grandparents. The husband lost both his parents within two days of each other. It’s just awful.”

That is what stands at the heart of Brass Ring’s shanties. A business taking seriously a world-wide health crisis through fun, creative means, and giving people an outlet to enjoy themselves when it’s been very difficult to do so.

“I really enjoy the shanties for the fact that it gives people a chance to escape their normal lives, and have a little bit of an escape to enjoy their significant other, enjoy their family, to get out,” said Brass Ring server, Scott Leone. “Everything going on is really weighing on them — being stuck in the house, doing work — so we’re a chance to take their minds off things. I think being able to be a part of that gives us a chance to still make a connection with our guests and provide them with a great experience. It’s neat, it’s an intimate experience. I like it. I like doing it. I like going outside. I think it’s gonna be great to see when we have more people coming in and coming out and [we’re] not focused on the shutdown anymore. It’s just ‘Hey, let’s go to Brass Ring and hang out in their shanties,’ you know?”

“That’s what people do when they go ice fishing — they go out there to escape everyday life. I think that we offer that for them. It’s a really neat idea that Chris has come up with.”


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