People drink wine in times of joy and in times of stress (hello, quarantine) and although we’ve seen a lot of coverage online and social media highlighting the libations people are stocking up on, the smaller, craft, high-quality wineries, distilleries and breweries you don’t find in massive retail chains, are screwed. Really screwed. Boutique wine brands are what the alcoholic beverage industry calls “on-premise brands,” meaning the majority of what we produce is consumed on the premises it is purchased (i.e. a restaurant). I am the owner and founder of Ripe Life Wines, AKA one of those wineries. So while the sales of alcohol through retail has been quite bountiful (Shanken News Daily reported some retailers were up as much as 400%), we small guys who don’t have the brand recognition or the merchandising dollars to be in the type of retailers that are being flooded right now, are feeling the total opposite. And while I do have a number of small wine shops and gourmet markets that carry our wine (whom I love dearly) they are far and few on a national basis and that sort of retail doesn’t do the volume that restaurants do. To give you an idea, my customers are basically split 50:50 between boutique retailers and restaurants, but 85%+ of my total revenue comes from the restaurant accounts alone. Adding insult to injury, that other 15% from my retailers is largely from loyal catering partners purchasing alcohol for their events who now have nothing on the books for months. So on an average day, not when a caterer goes in and does a massive order for a party, a boutique wine shop will sell 0-3 bottles of my wine, whereas a boutique restaurant pouring me by the glass will sell a few cases on a regular old Thursday night. 

And we, artisanal beverage suppliers, are not alone.

Firstly, I must clearly state that I am thrilled by the newsletters and content that fills my feeds daily with suggestions on ways to support the hospitality industry such as virtual tip jars, gift card promotions, and restaurant donation funds. Restaurants need to be supported, full stop. All suppliers in the food and beverage industry need restaurants to reopen on the other side of this pandemic to survive in the long run. The media is doing a great job highlighting the restaurant and hospitality industry crisis as it pertains to the impact of losing consumer dollars. But the conversation and outpour seems to have stopped there, and it is critical we take it one step further up the food chain- literally... 

It does appear there is a very understandable assumption out there that while grocery stores, take-out, and drop-shipping services still exist, food and beverage suppliers can do a temporary 180 to reach consumers. And while that is the case for many, it is very much not the case for many boutique artisans and farmers due to their small size, regulatory rigmarole, and/or the perishability of their commodity. We need to get included in the conversation too so consumers can modify their current purchasing behaviors and where applicable, gratuitous government limitations on points-of-sale are temporarily lifted until restaurants return to normal service as they are the businesses that keep us small suppliers afloat.

The only retailers who could post restaurants numbers for any sort of consumable, not just wine, are big chain retailers and that isn’t the playing field for a small, craft-winery (or anything small and craft, really). You have to be mass-produced to even attend tryouts and if you make the team, you have to pay (a lot) to play. As a consumer you see it and don’t always realize it, but in a major retail setting you are being overloaded with options by huge brands that pay for merchandizing tactics to get you to buy their products; being at the end of an aisle aka “getting an end-cap,” being on a middle shelf, or, for white wine and rosé, placement in the refrigerator-- ideally middle shelf, slightly to the right or left depending on which direction the door opens—all these things are negotiated with the retailers who do big numbers, so that is why small producers of artisanal products rely on independent restaurants who don’t play that way yet still do big volume. Restaurant buyers tend to be a lot more concerned with quality because they’re doing the picking for the consumer so it looks bad on them if something doesn’t taste great. They also don’t put competing items on the same menu. If a patron at a restaurant that pours my wine asks for a “light, non-oaky chardonnay,” mine is the one they are getting.

But at least my product can last in its packaging for several years without spoiling. 

As I started to sweat about restaurants closing, I began thinking about all of the other boutique-y and non-manufacture-y supplier friends I have made along the way at the countless fancy food shows and wine and food festivals I’ve spent the last six years attending. I started thinking about my buddies whose products have little-to-no shelf life; cheese mongers, butter-makers, caviar farmers, and so many others with incredible products predominantly sold through restaurants, but also don’t have shelf life so their goods aren’t on the minds of panicked people right now. And then I began thinking about the very delicacies that inspired my first wine, The Clambake Chardonnay; bivalves. And then I thought: f*ck. I immediately texted two of my favorite local oyster farmers – founders of Barnegat Oyster Collective -- to let them know how sorry I was and that I had a garage full of wine they could help themselves to at any point. In addition to them growing some of the most beautiful oysters I’ve ever had in my life, the impact of losing them would, from an environmental standpoint, be horrible for the Barnegat Bay (where I grew up and currently live on) and I realized we really truly need to start turning more attention to the small business supply side of restaurants immediately. We are slipping through the cracks right now and the outcome could be irreparable.

“For the oyster industry, I fear the implications of this pandemic are grave. Farmers can’t just hit the ‘pause’ button on a growing crop. We need to continue to work. Farms require maintenance and maintenance requires laborers. Oysters also don’t necessarily fit the category of ‘staple food items’ and they’re a poor candidate for ‘take out’. Us oyster farmers need to come to terms with the likelihood that for a little while we’ll be without income and that many of the restaurants we rely on may not see the other side of this thing” says a friend Matt Gregg, the co-founder of the Barnegat Oyster Collective and owner of Forty North Oyster Farms in Barnegat Light, NJ.

Gregg’s partner and co-founder, Scott Lennox, echo’s the same sentiment and adds, “This is a really important aspect that people need to be talking about. We, through the Collective, directly distribute and market the oysters of thirteen independent oyster farms. We are all scrambling to find creative ways to get through this.”

The point is us small suppliers like us out there need to find a way into the conversations and homes of consumers while restaurants are closed because losing restaurants and not having a way to sell our product will have catastrophic impacts. Taking this one level further, something to keep in mind: anything that you eat or drink is always tied to agriculture. I repeat: anything you eat or drink ties back to a piece of land and us small producers are sourcing from small farms (either that we own or contract) for our base ingredients and if we don’t have the money to pay for crop, they don’t have the reserve money like factory farms do to care for the farm and harvest said crop and that is when real hell breaks lose. 

The takeaway here? Please continue to support restaurants through gift cards and donations and take-out! But also, please get the conversation started about small businesses on the supply side. Safely seek out the artisanal and small grocery stores and markets that are still open and buy from boutique suppliers like myself. Or go directly to small suppliers (like us) yourself. Google around and ask a local cheese maker, butter maker, oyster farm, scallop farm, clam farm, winery, craft brewery, distillery, etc., if they can do a curb side pick up or ask them if they can deliver to you. Anything that you’d find in a restaurant, and not a normal chain supermarket, try and have it delivered by calling up or ordering online if they have it set up. Maybe consider paying for future goods if delivery isn’t an option. At least wine lasts in its bottle, but my heart goes out to those who farm or produce a product with a short shelf life and necessitates relentless maintenance. Every penny helps. We aren’t using this scare trying to save our business right now, that will be completely dependent on restaurants opening back… what we are trying to do is have money to feed our families and pay our employees something and pay our growers for more crop. 

At the very least, just help get this conversation started about the suppliers most vulnerable from the restaurant shutdown. As a nation who just got a crash course in microbiology and epidemiology, I’ll break this down very simply: if the food and beverage producers who work with (or own) the farms that grow our ingredients go out of business, many small farmers will be without customers and will have to lay off labor and perhaps abandon their land altogether. When crops are planted (or animals are bred) for food and no one is there to care for things or harvest the bounty, crop rots and when crops rot, they attract pests. And when we get an unnatural influx of pests we also get…new diseases amongst humans. 

If you’d like to purchase from a small supplier in this article, visit ripelifewines.com/wines for wine and barnegatoyster.com/store/oyster-party for oysters, which includes tutorial on how to SYOO–shuck your own oysters!