Alaska Brewpub Owner On How He Hopes To Keep His Business Open As Winter Arrives

Nov 23, 2020
Originally published on December 7, 2020 4:21 pm

Across the U.S., small business owners like Matt Tomter have been on a rollercoaster, struggling to keep their companies afloat and their employees on the payroll — and healthy.

Tomter owns Matanuska Brewing Company, which has four locations in and around Anchorage, Alaska. Three of them have been open, on and off and with frequently changing occupancy limits, since May.

Tomter last talked with NPR more than six months ago. Now, he faces a resurgence of coronavirus cases, but with two new challenges: winter and the expiration of federal relief programs such as pandemic unemployment assistance.

His locations are currently limited to 50% capacity. As restaurateurs have done around the country, he's used outdoor seating and tents to maximize seating under social distancing guidelines.

In anticipation of bone-chilling temperatures, Tomter is now setting up a ventilated, heated tent.

"Never in my life would I think we'd be serving food in a tent in Alaska in November, December," he tells NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. "But we're just riding this thing, the best we can."

The second challenge — the end of federal aid — is tougher to address. Tomter says he expects some kind of shutdown order in the near future as coronavirus cases rise.

"The staff wants to work. I mean, they don't really have an option," he says. "These people live paycheck to paycheck — or close to it. And they need to work. And there's no help at all right now. There's no additional assistance to take care of them if they are laid off. And we certainly can't afford to pay people if we're not open and operating."

Earlier in the pandemic, Tomter laid off his staff when restaurants were ordered to close.

But then, they were eligible for an extra $600 per week in pandemic unemployment assistance.

That's no longer the case, as Republicans and Democrats in Congress have failed to agree on a new coronavirus relief package.

"I'm not even a big fan of government coming in and saving the day," Tomter says. "But we're in a 100-year event right now, and it seems like that's the only option to keep people from losing their homes if the business that they work at is shut down. And gosh, how are they going to eat? I mean, that's the real basic, simple stuff that we all take for granted as Americans becomes difficult when businesses are shut down."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

These next few days, we are checking back with some of the small-business owners we've met over the course of the pandemic to see how it's going as the pandemic drags on and on. Well, we start today in Alaska with the Matanuska Brewing Company. Matt Tomter is the owner. He's got four locations in and around Anchorage. And when I last spoke to him back in May, he was in the middle of trying to reopen three of them.

Hey there, Matt. How are you doing?

MATT TOMTER: I am doing great.

KELLY: When you and I last spoke - as I said, this was May - you were, at that point, about a week into having diners back in your brewpubs. You were only allowed 25% capacity, which, as you noted, was not a very profitable situation. How did the summer go? How'd summer and early fall work out?

TOMTER: Well, I think, just like everywhere else in the country, it's been a roller coaster. When we reopened at 25 - then we edged up to 50%, and then they brought us to a hundred percent but kept tables 6 feet apart. And then they brought us back to 50%. And then there was a shutdown in August, and we moved everything outside into tents. And we were allowed to serve in tents. Then September, we were allowed to reopen. We're back at 50% percent.

And in Anchorage right now - the numbers are climbing right now. We're anticipating some kind of shutdowns. We're actually in the process right now of setting up another big 20-by-80-foot tent out in front of the restaurant where we'll be allowed to serve food out in a tent heated with some kind of ventilation. Never in my life would I think we'd be serving food in a tent in Alaska in November, December. But we're just riding this thing the best we can.

KELLY: It (inaudible) exhausting just trying to figure out what you're planning for week in, week out.

TOMTER: Yeah, it's tough. I wouldn't wish it on anybody. I - every day, you got to wake up and just figure out how we're going to keep it going today. And, you know, you hope to see a light at the end of the tunnel. We've got good news about vaccines coming in, so let's hope that those things work and are distributed rapidly. And then we can all get back to business as usual sooner than later.

KELLY: What about your staff? - I mean, because they're putting themselves at risk, show up at work every day, even if they're wearing masks and everybody else is trying to be careful.

TOMTER: Well, I mean, first of all, I think they're food service people. I mean, we're all friends. I mean, we're all - we all know each other really well. And the staff wants to work. I mean, they don't really have an option. The mayor - when she shuts everybody down, she still gets a paycheck. You know, I think it's really important that everyone understands shutting a restaurant down - these people live paycheck to paycheck or close to it, and they need to work. And there's no help at all right now. There's no additional assistance to take care of them if they are laid off. And we certainly can't afford to pay people if we're not open and operating.

KELLY: And this is an important point because last time you and I spoke in the spring, the CARES Act was in effect. And most of your staff were getting that extra buffer on top of their regular unemployment check. That's no longer true.

TOMTER: Well, that's - and what we did the first time there was a shutdown is we immediately laid everybody off, and everybody went right into that $600 extra per week. So in Alaska, they got almost a thousand dollars a week when they were laid off. And, you know, I'm not even a big fan of government coming in and saving the day. But, you know, we're in a hundred-year event right now, and it seems like that's the only option to keep people from losing their homes if their business that they work at is shut down. And, gosh, how are they going to eat? I mean, the real basic, simple stuff that we all take for granted as Americans becomes difficult when businesses are shut down.

KELLY: Are you going to serve over Thanksgiving, over the holiday?

TOMTER: Thanksgiving, we are serving 340 meals through the United Way that will deliver to different locations where people are in need. So we're - we've got a whole staff working that day. We'll be done about 3 o'clock.

KELLY: Do you have a special - I don't know - cranberry ale on tap or something?

TOMTER: That sounds pretty good. We have a whole bunch of ale on tap.

(LAUGHTER)

TOMTER: You know, when people say, hey, how'd you get through this thing? It's either I worked really hard through it or I drank a lot of beer through it. And either one really helps.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: Amen to that. Thank you so much for taking the time and best of luck to you.

TOMTER: All right. Take care.

KELLY: That is Matt Tomter, owner of Matanuska Brewing Company in the Anchorage area of Alaska. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.