“Immediately after, we were really scared. There was no direction, no certainty on quarantines, on food to kids not going to school. We don’t have kids but a lot of our friends do. People go into panic, self-preservation mode. RJ said to me he feels more calm and less panicked if he is helping and feeding people. With the cafe closed, we couldn’t do that. [Making free lunches] was a way to do that. Making the lunches for kids.”
It is paramount that our locally-owned businesses adapt to social distancing norms and find new ways to generate revenue so they stay open and money stays in our local economy, rather than exiting swiftly via national chains. But sometimes, the focus isn’t first on how to save the business, but how to save the community around it. Last March, that was the priority of RJ and Lindsey Marvin, the husband and wife owners of Barrel + Brine. We spoke with both of them on the phone this week from their Chandler Street location.
Barrel + Brine started out by making kombucha at 255 Carolina Street in Buffalo on December 15, 2015.
We were doing a flavor/sample event, and we had someone approach and say they drank kombucha every day but that it tasted terrible. We said – well, it shouldn’t! We found that kombucha that was first to market had put out this narrative that it’s funky, it smells like farts but it’s good for you and it should just be endured. The same for fermented foods: We saw fermented foods gaining popularity as far as gut health and esoteric uses, but not a lot of it was delicious, too. So we set out to change that narrative by producing delicious AND healthy kombucha, delicious AND healthy fermented and pickled foods.
Yeah, that stuff tasted bad because it wasn’t being done properly. It was just first out there and that’s what people knew. when we opened B+B, kombucha was first, but from culinary and flavor perspective, we were producing food like pickles but limited to grocery stores, maybe some restaurants, people weren’t totally able to see all that could be done with those foods. So in opening our cafe (June 21, 2019), we had a variety of food very focused on fermentation and preservation that also tasted great and were components of larger meals. We have kombucha cocktails and sandwiches using the fermented products, the pickled products. More importantly, it was a way for us to make a specialized ferment without having to worry about bottling, labeling them, and not worry about selling to stores we sell direct to consumer.
We were still working on just getting our cafe out there on people’s radar when COVID struck. Prior to that, we had made pins to give away “I Found Barrel + Brine.” We would ring a bell when someone walked in, shouting “You found it!” We spent the last five months preparing for a massive B+B relaunch for 2020. All of 2019 we said “2020 is our year” as a mantra. We signed on to larger distribution company, we signed on to another one in Hudson Valley. We had plans to meet with all these people on March 27, launch two new deals in April, and then everything turned around.
We had put everything we had into getting out from here into Finger Lakes, Hudson Valley, NYC, Vermont, Massachusetts. Now we are back to wait and see. Most of the stores that had interest and were ready to get us on board had to retool about getting enough meat supply rather than trying out new skews.
We had to pivot super hard really quickly. We had scaled up for wholesale in kegs – that’s for bars and coffee shops and once we had the product to give them, their doors closed. Luckily, we can use the product here. We didn’t have to waste it. Luckily the benefit of our product is that it has a long shelf life. Our fermented goods are good for 12 months. So people can hold on to it. We had festivals and music lined up for the courtyard so hopefully next summer we can make that happen.
Immediately after, we were really scared. There was no direction, no certainty on quarantines, on food to kids not going to school. We don’t have kids but a lot of our friends do. People go into panic, self-preservation mode. RJ said to me he feels more calm and less panicked if he is helping and feeding people. With the cafe closed, we couldn’t do that. With the cafe closed, [making free lunches] was a way to do that. Making the lunches for kids.
My initial reaction was that B+B was already doing only takeout right before it was mandated that be the case. We were offering food to kids 2-3 days before schools closed, we could obsess about what we couldn’t control or do what we could control.
Being a company in the food service industry, based on community and feeding people, it was obvious that we say, “Ya know what, if you need food, let us know.” We started seeing parents coming in and getting foods for kids who couldn’t go to school. Then people lost their jobs and we got calls from people asking for food who had no way to get food. People who were immunocompromised and were afraid to leave the house, others.
Non profits were shutting down and I had no idea the amount of people who relied on non profits to bring them food. People who are disabled or mentally ill who are relying on non profits. They had aged out of the school pickups. We just said yes to anyone. We had a few people who called who had immunocompromised kids, people going through chemo etc who couldn’t leave their house where no one was yet wearing any masks. So we were dropping off little CSA boxes on their porches.
Lindsey and I had a conversation to break it all out and knew there were so many people that would be supportive. Buffalo Cheese traders gave us cheese. Bread Hive gave us bread. Produce peddlers gave us produce and apples. That’s really community in action, and that’s what we’ve wanted Barrel + Brine to be about from day one. So it made sense to do it that way.
The free meals are still happening today with Lunches. Even if people contact us and are really in need of help – we’ll take care of it.
We don’t get as many calls now – things are going in the right direction but it’s still available for anyone who needs it.
Changes to Business
There’s been a lot less work here in general because we relied on selling product already made.
The hardest part has been trying to kind of predict the future of how people will shop from now on. How will they buy? We’re trying to develop strategies that will make it easier for people to shop with us. We’re seeing people realize that buying local is essential. Beef, pork, produce locally is easier, healthier, safer, cheaper, more sustainable. People are starting to understand that.
We’ve been talking a lot about how we can move forward passed this and make sure people continue to understand that. Come the fall, all these major companies will be spending millions trying to convince us all its better for us to buy from gigantic, national chains, factory farms and meat processing plants. We’ll see whether we can all ban together to dramatically change how we spend and consume.
The health of our employees and ourselves is more important than making what, $200 and someone gets sick? Our cafe’s capacity is 35 people. 25% capacity is serving what 6 people an hour? Not great, but we’ll continue to work with Bare Bones BBQ to do pop ups all summer long. People just pull up, pop their trunk, and go.
Of course, we’re still available in local grocery stores. We teamed up with Produce Peddlers for our kombucha and all products – they’ll deliver to front door.
ProducePeddlers.com They just pick up produce from local farms. That’s our biggest hope that people will support these kind of places because they busted their asses to make sure people could eat good healthy food during a pandemic.
I was guilty of going to Wegmans almost daily when this all went down. Now I just buy what I need from Produce Peddlers and local companies selling beef etc.