There is no doubt that local restaurants in Pittsburg felt the impact of Kansas’s statewide restrictions in response to the coronavirus crisis. Limits on the size of allowable “mass gatherings,” in particular, were hard to deal with for The Pitt, a popular local bar and grill — especially with the economic shutdown coinciding with graduation for Pittsburg State University.
“That was something that really hurt us,” said Blaise Main, general manager and co-owner of The Pitt. “We lost 18 graduation parties with 30-plus people for each party, and then five of them were 100-plus person parties. Planned and deposits paid and decorations and all that, you know, staff was hired obviously to fulfill those.”
Nonetheless, Main said, the business was able to shift to curbside delivery, and since being able to reopen for in-restaurant dining The Pitt has seen an influx of customers who seem optimistic about the economy bouncing back after the hit it took from COVID-19.
“A lot of people were worried at first,” Main said. “As time went on, and you know, around here luckily we didn’t have that many cases, and I think as time went on we got a little more easy-going about it.”
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At Otto’s Cafe, a Pittsburg institution since 1945, social distancing requirements meant a reduction in seating capacity to less than a third of what it would normally have. The restaurant also had to cut staff and operating hours — and even menu items, said owner Nathen Goff. Otto’s typically serves Philly cheese steak sandwiches, but even after being able to reopen for in-restaurant dining, it wasn’t yet able to put them back on the menu, as its hoagie bun supplier remained shut down because of the coronavirus. Still, Otto’s was able to make the best out of some aspects of a bad situation.
“We closed down for a while at the beginning to do cleaning and stuff like that,” Goff said. “It was a really good time to do that — get the floor re-waxed and just basic stuff, stuff you can’t do with people in here.”
State coronavirus restrictions were a serious burden for some restaurants with slightly different business models than the typical cafe, mom-and-pop diner, or bar and grill, such as brewpubs.
Kansas’s “one-size-fits-all response” to the coronavirus, while “appropriate for midtown Manhattan, New York City, or even for metro Kansas City, is probably not appropriate for Crawford County,” said Mark McClain, co-owner of Drop the H Brewing Company — one of two new craft breweries to open in Pittsburg last fall, only to struggle through the coronavirus crisis just a few months later.
Joel Stewart, CEO and head brewmaster at the Jolly Fox Brewery, expressed similar frustration when asked about the state’s regulatory framework put in place in response to COVID-19.
“Well you got about two hours to talk?” Stewart asked, jokingly.
On a more serious note, Stewart said that Kansas’ failure to ensure unemployment payments were made to all laid off workers on time, as well as a lack of clear communication about exactly what was necessary to ensure safety for those at the highest risk from COVID-19, while not imposing unnecessary restrictions on those at much lower risk, were major problems.
“You just need a little more consistent message across the board,” Stewart said.
McClain noted, however, that at least one state regulatory body, the Alcoholic Beverage Control division of the Kansas Department of Revenue, handled the coronavirus crisis well when it came to allowing businesses like his to safely continue to operate.
“There’s kind of a question mark if you’re a craft brewer — if you don’t distribute, normally you can sell growlers or crowlers to go for your patrons that wanted to take some with them,” McClain said. “With the advent of curbside delivery, that kind of left a gray area in the law subject to interpretation, and the state people in charge of that actually took that gray area out and delineated it in our favor to make sure that we knew we were complying with the law and were fully able to offer beer to go via curbside delivery.”
Now that in-restaurant dining is back on the table, patrons of Drop the H and the Jolly Fox are no longer limited to getting their beer in growlers and crowlers (refillable containers for draft beer) — although that option remains available at both Pittsburg brewpubs.
WHAT TO EXPECT:The Jolly Fox Brewery in Pittsburg recently added two new beers to its lineup, a golden ale called Lucky Streak, and Stargazer IPA — which is “a little different than your normal IPA,” according to Jolly Fox CEO and head brewmaster Joel Stewart. “It’s going to have a lot of orange peel flavor to it,” Stewart says. “It’s like not your typical grapefruit, citrusy flavor, it's more of an orange flavor IPA.” Pittsburg’s other craft brewery, Drop the H Brewing Company, also has a new beer, Nightfall Lager, which is the first featured beer in its “Community Tank.” The Community Tank concept is geared towards benefiting area charitable organizations. Once costs for ingredients and taxes are covered, the rest of the proceeds from sales of Nightfall Lager will go to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southeast Kansas. Once the Nightfall Lager tank sells out, another new brew will take its place to benefit another area charity. Both of Pittsburg’s local craft breweries, which are located just blocks apart and both opened last fall, also have more in store than just new beers on tap. In the case of the Jolly Fox, you can take that literally — the brewpub has been working to get bottling operations up and running, so be on the lookout for Jolly Fox craft beer in area stores this summer. For those who prefer to be immersed in the brewpub atmosphere, meanwhile, Drop the H is bringing back its Wednesday trivia nights, where patrons can enjoy the brewery's signature pizzas and craft beer in an especially entertaining environment. Pittsburg is not the only locale in the Four State Area, of course, where breweries have had to adapt to the coronavirus crisis. Tulsa, Oklahoma-based Marshall Brewing Company recently released a new seasonal beer named after Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees called Grand Lake Light Ale. “While we knew that Grand Lake Light Ale would be successful, given the current COVID-19 crisis, we have a scaled approach for the beer,” says Wes “The Godfather” Alexander, who is in charge of sales and “other fun things” at MBC. “That being said, we expect Grand Lake Light Ale to be widely available across Oklahoma by next week.”