Business Spotlight: Sisters in Suds

Hold Fast Brewing's owners work to overcome COVID-19 sales impact

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Just as Hold Fast Brewing was ready to welcome customers for its first spring in business, the new family-run microbrewery was forced to temporarily close in March.

As the coronavirus pandemic led to Springfield’s stay-at-home order, all drinking establishments in town shuttered for several weeks. Hold Fast’s owners, sisters Carol and Susan McLeod, say it was a challenging situation for their fledgling, 7-month-old brewery.

The sudden, forced closure rocked 2020 revenues off their forecasts by 80% during the roughly six-week shutdown.

“By the time we were ready to get going, COVID hit,” says Carol. “It’s hard to project when you don’t know what you’re capable of yet.”

The sisters were largely still spreading the word about their downtown venture at 235 N. Kimbrough Ave., housed in a two-story former fire station built in 1956.

In March, they devised a pivot that briefly allowed the brewery to convert to a literal drive-thru. Customers could drive into the brewery, where firetrucks once parked, pick up to-go crowler cans from their vehicles, and exit straight onto Kimbrough.

It allowed Hold Fast’s 12-person staff to remain employed during the closure, Susan says.

“It wasn’t going to generate enough revenue to be sustainable, but it gave us something and a chance to have our name out there,” she says.

If not for the pandemic’s impact on sales, the McLeods say first-year revenue would have surpassed expectations.

“I would call it even based on our first-year projections,” Carol says, declining to estimate figures.

At the station
Hold Fast opened with three beers on tap but has since expanded to a rotating roster of 14. While both sisters had a longtime love of craft beer, neither thought of centering a business around it until their father died a few years ago.

“I had that kind of midlife crisis of ‘Let’s open a brewery.’ I knew I wanted to do something with family,” Carol says. “So, when Susan didn’t laugh at the idea of opening a brewery and our mom was on board with it as well … it allowed every domino to kind of fall into place.”

Carol has since earned a brewing science and engineering degree from the American Brewers Guild. She previously worked two years as production assistant for Dead Armadillo Craft Brewing in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Carol moved back to Springfield in 2018 to be closer to Susan and other family, she said.

However, the sisters’ professional pursuits aren’t yet solely focused on Hold Fast. Carol is a part-time shift manager for Starbucks Corp. (Nasdaq: SBUX), while Susan works full time as recreation supervisor at the Springfield-Greene County Park Board. When at Hold Fast, Susan handles most of the brewing.

“We balance each other out so well, and hopefully that day comes,” Carol says of eventually working only at the brewery.

Stinson Building Co. served as general contractor for the former Fire Station No. 1 renovation project designed by Hood-Rich Inc. Declining to disclose costs, Susan says installation of the water and drainage systems was among the project’s major components. The sisters are leasing the 9,500-square-foot building for undisclosed terms from Jack Stinson, who bought it from the city in 2018 for $370,000, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting.

“We tried to leave everything as much as we could,” Carol says, noting the building still has its original subway tile on the walls and roll-up doors.

The first-floor brewhouse and taproom is only Phase I of a multipart plan. The McLeods say a second phase calls for an event space on the second floor – a process that won’t start any earlier than 2022. That will be followed in the distant future by devoting additional second-story room to an Airbnb, Carol says.

Making connections
Food trucks have been on-site since day one, Susan says. However, sales from the mobile eateries, such as Jamaican Patty Co. and Tinga Tacos, don’t factor into Hold Fast’s bottom line. The trucks are allowed to operate for free, as the sisters see the arrangement mutually beneficial.

“We’re tapping into their social media and their followers and getting them to learn about Hold Fast,” Carol says. “At the same time, we’re bringing their food to our customers.”

Beverages, including beer, wine, canned cocktails, cider, seltzer and kombucha, make up 90% of sales, followed by 8% from merchandise, Carol says. The remainder is for prepackaged snacks. Of the beverage sales, she estimates 95% are Hold Fast beers. Giving back to the community also has been a focus, as the brewery regularly devotes a portion of sales from one of its beers to a nonprofit.

Sarah Byrd, community engagement coordinator with Ozarks Food Harvest, says the nonprofit connected with Hold Fast at last year’s inaugural Harvest Beer Festival. The brewery is part of the Springfield Craft Beer Collective, which organized the fundraising event, set to return Oct. 30.

Hold Fast planned to donate to Ozarks Food Harvest based on May sales, but Byrd says the pandemic motivated the owners to extend it by a month.

“They went above and beyond, and they knew they wanted to make a meaningful donation,” Byrd says of the $1,000 raised between May and June. “Their donation helped generate 4,000 meals for the Ozarks.”

While the McLeods say sales have vastly improved since the spring shutdown, uncertainty about the pandemic’s winter impact continues.

“When we have to close the garage doors and we’re all inside, that’s probably what keeps me up at night the most and gives me anxiety,” Carol says. “What is November, December, January and February going to look like?”