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Cocktail Curiosity

Chad White doesn’t look like what you’d probably expect from the founder of the Ohio Rum Society. He lacks the sailor’s swagger and pirate’s pedigree some mistakenly associate with the world’s most versatile and diverse distilled spirit. Also absent is the alienating ego that easily identifies pretentious experts in elixirs as unmistakably as a parrot, [...]
J.R. McMillan

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Chad White doesn’t look like what you’d probably expect from the founder of the Ohio Rum Society. He lacks the sailor’s swagger and pirate’s pedigree some mistakenly associate with the world’s most versatile and diverse distilled spirit. Also absent is the alienating ego that easily identifies pretentious experts in elixirs as unmistakably as a parrot, an eye patch, or a peg leg.

Instead, you’ll find the modest charm and Midwestern demeanor of a kid from Toledo, captured by the allure of Columbus more than a decade ago, who carved out his own corner of the local craft cocktail scene in a category that stretches far past the fabled shores of the Caribbean.

“I was the victim of really great niche marketing,” White confessed of his college years at Ohio University and an early affinity for rum. “It wasn’t until I ordered a flight of premium rums with a friend at a rum bar in Cleveland that I realized there was more out there.”

The most familiar names in American rum aren’t awful, but aren’t exactly transparent either. Adulterated by artificial flavoring and coloring, many are more like alcoholic soda pop than true spirits. Luckily, White and his future wife’s shared love of travel afforded him the opportunity to collect interesting bottles from exotic locations, a hobby that quickly escalated, perhaps out of hand.

“It wasn’t long before my suitcases were coming back filled with rum,” he chided. “My wife told me I either had to drink it or share it—not just the rum, but my passion for it.”

Columbus has a knack for finding or following the next new thing. From coffee and cocktails to breweries and barbecue, White knew he couldn’t be the only one in town experimenting at home with his spirit of choice. What started as just another Facebook group to exchange articles and opinions on the emerging rum scene didn’t stay there long.

“That online conversation soon evolved into inviting friends to my house for tastings,” he recalled. “If there were a bunch of bourbon drinkers, I’d start out with something dry and well-balanced, but with a little weight, obviously aged, with bold flavors.”

Further reinforcing the notion that everyone already seems to know everyone else in Columbus, that first formal gathering at Grass Skirt Tiki Room quickly grew to connections and subsequent soirées at Curio, Denmark on High, Blind Lady Tavern, and The Light of Seven Matchsticks. It turned out there was quite a bit of quiet dabbling behind local bars as well, substituting rum for traditional base spirits.

“It connected me with all of these underground rum geeks—bartenders, proprietors, but also curious cocktailers—people who love brown spirits like bourbon, or white spirits like tequila. People who love the craft of fermentation and distillation.”

White is a recruiter for the tech sector by day, a knack that clearly extends beyond his keyboard. Unlike similar ‘societies’ that simply need to usher a readymade community into the same room, White had to educate and elevate rum among the masses while roping everyone into the same orbit.

Two years in, there’s no slowdown in sight, with meetings nearly monthly, an updated membership program, and a new name—recognizing the greater geographic reach and influence of his growing group of self-described ‘rumheads.’

“We began as the Central Ohio Rum Society, but soon started pulling in members from around the state for our tastings. So we’re now the Ohio Rum Society, even though our interest is really international.”

Themed meetings from “January in Jamaica” to “Rum, Beer, and Revolution” tap into the convergence of history and chemistry, as well as practical and tactical conversations, like getting rum into the country a little easier by flying back through Puerto Rico for a less onerous trip through U.S. Customs.

“I have three bottles of rum I ordered from Europe that have been waiting for weeks in Customs in Chicago,” he explained. “Importers are still figuring out if there is enough interest in the States to distribute here. So that’s part of the hunt.”

Speaking of flights, no conversation about rum would be complete without one. Like most, I know what I like even if I lack the keen palette or industry jargon to put it into words. But that’s where White and his fellow rumheads earn their reputation as approachable connoisseurs, not another class of liquor snobs. Chad carefully curated a collection based on my beer and bourbon background. In fact, he could easily spot each style and brand at a glance, an impressive feat after more than an hour of cocktails and chit-chat in a deliberately dim tiki bar.

He described the origin and attributes of each as I sipped and swished, noting the time and terroir evident in the sweet heat and woody finish of the aged rums before moving up to the bright bite and botanical nuances of the rhum agricole, made from distilled cane juice, not fermented molasses. The journey from 60 proof to 120 was dangerously delicious, and it’s a flight that might require a copilot to get home.

“Rum is a shapeshifter,” he explained. “That’s what we love about it.”

Obsession over such subtleties may sound like the musings of wine wonks. But as an admitted rum amateur, the flavor profiles actually fit right in line with my inner coffee geek—sometimes spicy, earthy, or even floral, but never one note.

We wrapped up with shots from his personal stash (a rare bottle from Barbados actually signed by the distiller) and a couple more classic cocktails, further burnishing the depth and breadth the right rum can bring to nearly any glass—not just those with a garish garnish or bawdy boat drinks in your buddy’s basement.

“None of these rums were available in Ohio when I started,” he revealed, noting the reach of the Ohio Rum Society in creating demand from restaurants to retail. “It’s why rum is still so shrouded in mystery for most, past the major brands. But that’s why we’re here. Columbus is a trendsetter, and we’re fundamentally changing the way people think about rum.”

For more on the Ohio Rum Society, find them on Facebook.

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Still Brewing: Columbus breweries attempt to find new footing amid COVID-19

Mitch Hooper

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Pivot is often a term used in start-up companies. It's when a company decides that what it's doing is working, but not entirely, so they move the strategy in a direction that is more profitable. It takes careful planning and months of execution to get it right. And when it comes to breweries in Columbus right now, there has been plenty of pivoting, however, very little time to prepare.

For Colin Vent, head brewer of Seventh Son Brewing Co., and Bob Szuter, co-founder of Wolf's Ridge Brewing, there have been many shifts in their day-to-day operations. While both breweries are still operating—as they are considered essential business under the shelter-in-place order—their focus has moved from filling kegs for the various bars that carry their brews to bottling and distribution. More specifically, the breweries are finding new ways to get the beers into homes beyond the traditional method like stopping in at the bar, or picking up a case at the grocery store.

"We've had a very, very strong carry-out presence every single day," Vent said. "We're selling like 100 to 200 six-packs a day out of the little reach in cooler. We've never seen carry-out like this before; even on a good Saturday we wouldn't sell that many."

While much of the staff at the breweries are furloughed or laid off, this new addition of direct home delivery has provided small financial opportunities to the staff if they were interested.

"All of that is great, but it doesn't make up for all revenue we are losing by not being able to sell pints," Vent explained.

And that seems to be the issue at hand for Vent, Szuter, and presumably other breweries in the city. Breweries make a good portion of its profits through pint sales. When folks can't visit the bar to grab a drink, the ripple effects quickly become an issue. Vent cited variables like long-term contracts with hops distributors as these pre-existing orders were made under the pretense of last year's sales and this year's projections. In other words, these breweries simply aren't producing the same amount of beer as before, but the purchase orders of ingredients are still under contract.

For Szuter, he's skeptical that the Payment Protection Plan—a loan designed to incentivize small businesses to keep employees on their payroll—just isn't enough to cover all the costs that goes into operations.

"For us to bring back and match the full-time equivalent, we'd have to bring back 65 people and there's just not a business for 65 people right now," Szuter explained. "There's enough [work] for maybe 20, 25 [employees]? Maybe 30 if we want to be really aggressive with labor."

There's also the lingering unknown that plays a major role for Szuter: will these loans be forgiven?

"It's a big deal because if we are trying to bring 30, 40, 50 people back to work, we're borrowing a lot of money to do that," Szuter said. "If we have to pay that back within two years, that's going to be a huge impact to our cash flow if we have a debt payment of $10,000 to $15,0000 a month."

It's been a marathon full of hurdles for these breweries. Szuter said as he and his team prepared all the required information on a Wednesday to apply for these loans, by Friday those requirements had changed forcing him to gather the new information needed and resubmit. Fortunately, WRB has been around for seven years and has built solid relationships with the banks they work with. It made getting this information less difficult, but still frustrating. These relationships, however, might not be the case for other breweries and bars.

"A lot of places don't have the systems in place to look at the information as quickly as we might, Szuter said. "Five or six years ago when we were using QuickBooks, I don't think we could've gotten the information as quickly as we needed to so we could get in the queue and apply for this."

Szuter said he's not only concerned for his own business, but other small businesses in Columbus as well. And it's also why he's asking our political leaders to step up and provide some clarity to this fast-paced and on-going situation.

And, in times like these, Vent said it's crucial that the community supports local now more than ever.

"Buy hyper local," Vent said. "This isn't just like, 'Oh, bummer! There's less beer on the shelf. There's a brewery out of business.' And it's like no! It's people out of business. At the end of the day it's people suffering. It's not about the brand, like the Seventh Son IPA doesn't give a shit if you drink it or not; it's Barry and Tito and all the guys that work here. It's those people that need the support."

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Last Call For Alcohol: A look at how COVID-19 is impacting the bar industry

Mitch Hooper

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It's Friday night and Eight & Sand Tavern is empty. There’s not a pint being poured, a March Madness game on the televisions, or a song playing on the speakers. Saint Patrick’s Day? That came and went weeks ago. A month that was supposed to be primed for making cash has turned into quite the opposite.

This is life for Brody Wakefield, owner of Eight & Sand Tavern, and many others involved in the bar industry. Life has come to a screeching halt amid the COVID-19 outbreak. This situation has evolved quickly and the impacts have been sweeping, leaving little time for many of these folks to prepare for the unknown in the upcoming months. Combine an international pandemic with the slow financial months for bars in winter and you are left with a tough situation.

Illustration by Sarah Moore

“We’ve just come out of our two slowest months of the year—where we actually lose money—and we [were] hoping March is the month where we turn a corner,” Wakefield said. “St. Patrick’s Day, patio weather, and March Madness often make March the best month of the year. Now it’s gone.”

Columbus has welcomed many new bars to its city within the last few years and Eight & Sand fits the bill as a newly opened spot. It requires a great deal of overhead and risk to open a bar, and hitting goals and projections are crucial for long-term survival. Though Wakefield said the tavern was on track in many ways, it was still two years out from hitting those projections that can provide regular profits. Given past viruses and diseases that garnered media attention, he said COVID-19 wasn’t something that was initially concerning him. It was business as usual until simply it wasn’t.

“This is unprecedented territory. Like most folks, I underestimated the results early on, citing the many outbreaks we’ve had over the last few decades and thinking our exposure would be minimal. I thought about SARS, H1N1, Zika, Ebola and others that certainly had a global impact, but locally we came out relatively unscathed,” he said. “That thought process didn’t age very well.”

Quickly, what looked like something that would blow over became chaos. Now, with business closed indefinitely, he’s looking into coronavirus-related small business loans with lowered interest rates and extended payment periods, but like many things during a pandemic, there are caveats.

“We are still a young business. We only have one year of tax filings available right now, and we don’t show a regular history of profitability, so those may be barriers we’re not able to overcome,” he explained. “The SBA Disaster Relief portal also crashed [on March 23], so we’re in an additional level of purgatory.”

In a press release, the Columbus Chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild said that industry experts predict 25 percent of Ohio’s 22,000 bars and restaurants will close business permanently due to the outbreak. While the Guild is in agreement with the calls for social distancing, it has left more than half a million Ohioans without a job seemingly overnight. In collaboration with the Cincinnati and Cleveland chapters, the USBG has sent letters to more than 200 public officials outlining the struggles the industry is facing and the kind of relief they will need to survive this.

“The state has laid us off, not our employers,” the press release stated. “The state bears responsibility for providing us with full, livable incomes while we serve through our duty of preventing the spread of COVID-19. We are Ohioans who love to help and serve, but in this time of turmoil, we must ask the public for help.”

This pandemic has exposed some of the problems that are inherent in the service industry. Variables such as low hourly wages have led to servers receiving unemployment checks that are well below 50 percent of their typical income, or simply struggling to even get unemployment. It’s also shown the need for these employees to have benefits in place such as health care, retirement, and paid time off. This, combined with the fact that many places aren’t hiring in the midst of an international pandemic, and you can start to get a clearer picture of the magnitude of this situation for many folks.

Wakefield takes these sentiments to heart. While he attempts to navigate the waters of receiving a loan, his staff lives unemployed and unsure how they will meet their basic needs like rent, utilities and food. However, through all this adversity, he and his staff are banding together.

“Our staff has been incredibly gracious and understanding. We have a group of all-stars that I’d put up against anybody,” he explained. “We opened a GoFundMe to try to ease the burden, and we’ve had some really generous friends and regulars donate.” Still, the unpredictability of this crisis adds challenges. “I’m hoping we can meet that goal but the reality is, we don’t know what to ask for because we have no idea what the timeline will be. There’s so much uncertainty right now, which is perhaps the hardest piece.”

As Wakefield said, it’s time for leaders to lead, and much like other bar owners in the city, he’s doing his best to lead his team. Plus, he’s leading in other ways, too.

“I’ve been turning myself inside out for the past two years trying to get Eight & Sand off the ground. Long days, late nights, and very little time with my wife and three young girls. So now I have been able to really dig in as a father again, which is amazing,” Wakefield said. “Bike rides, our daily viewing of Frozen II, and having family meals again is a recharge I wasn’t aware I needed.”

These impacts on the economy aren’t exclusive to the bar scene, and Wakefield is concerned for those within the restaurant scene, too. He thinks of some of his favorite spots around town like Ambrose & Eve, Skillet, Barcelona, and Red Brick Tavern and knows—much like his own tavern—they will need assistance to survive all this.

“The community is doing what it can to support small businesses, but we’ll need politicians on both sides of the line to work together to help them survive,” he said.

Of course, there are ways we, the community, can support our favorite establishments. Similarly to Eight & Sand, many places have started a GoFundMe to support non-hourly waged employees. There’s also take-out from many spots as well as delivery options with reduced fees on apps such as UberEats, PostMates, and GrubHub. Those are some “easier” ways to support the food and drink scene in the city. But if you want to truly help out, pick up a phone; Wakefield encourages you to make a call to a local representative.

“We also are asking people to reach out to their representatives to press for sales tax relief for the months of February and March,” he explained. “Ask them to loosen SBA stipulations so newer businesses aren’t being left out. Ask them to provide real relief for restaurants.”

And above all else, show some kindness to your fellow community members.

“We just need to be patient and have some empathy for each other. I’ve seen a lot of folks using this situation to lob political spears at their perceived opponents. We don’t have the luxury of division right now. Let’s understand that yes, the service industry is in peril right now, but there will be other industries that follow quickly and they also will need help. The economy could be in real trouble right now. We’ll need real action from our elected officials to solve these problems in the short term.”

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Food Fight: With festivals postponed, food trucks are coming to a neighborhood near you

Wayne T. Lewis, Publisher

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Columbus has a certain love affair with food trucks. We must, since there are over 200 of them in the metro area. Ranging from international flavors to local staples, these mobile kitchens bring slices of diverse cuisine to our parks, favorite bars and sidewalks.

It’s a challenging business in good times, with most trucks having just a few hours each day to log a success. Of course this is Ohio, so weather brings its own challenges to the table. While the entire restaurant industry has been hit hard by closures to limit the spread of the coronavirus, food trucks are now facing an economic snowstorm. 

“It’s devastating. Some are making 10 percent of what they did. The spots they have on a daily basis, 90 percent cancelled,” said Nik Gandhy, founder of Streetfoodfinder.com, a website that helps the public locate their favorite food trucks.

On top of their daily walk-up business, a significant portion of business is catering parties and events. Those too, have been virtually
all cancelled.

“Here at Pitabilities, we are working hard to keep our staff employed as much as possible. Our sales have dropped nearly 90 percent, with some new opportunities coming up that may help us save a few jobs. As of today, we are making some really hard decisions as to who and how many of our staff to lay off. This has been the most difficult decision of my entire life, I have never laid off anyone in over 35 years of having employees,” Jim Pashovich, founder of Pitabilities trucks, said.

Despite these hardships, there is a certain resilience and scrappiness that makes up the food truck community. Leading the charge is the Central Ohio Food Truck Association (COFTA). 

Last week, COFTA introduced its Neighborhood Pickup program. This program is offering the opportunity for local food trucks to continue to serve their community, while practicing appropriate social
distancing measures. 

In the coming weeks, food trucks are scheduled to serve at designated locations around Greater Columbus. These locations have been selected with ample parking and immediate access to residential neighborhoods. Residents can view live, updated truck schedules online and place their order in advance. A designated pickup time will be provided, eliminating the need to wait in line to order. Payment can also be made online, so cash and cards do not need to be exchanged at the order window.

“We have transitioned from serving our guests at their place of employment and now going to the neighborhoods where they live. Our lunch service is nearly nonexistent and we hope that we can build a dinner service in the neighborhoods,” Pashovish said.

Gandhy added there are also efforts to use Nextdoor.com to identify neighborhoods that would like to see a food truck stop by.

“It’s hard, but we’re trying to get better finding new spots. We’re actually trying to go to apartment complexes instead of the streets, so we can get some business,” Abimael Ruiz, owner of two Taquitos food
trucks, said.

Food safety has always been a high priority for the food truck industry, and with the new social distancing measures in place, they are working on methods to serve carry-out while keeping customers safe.

“A lot of the trucks have signs out that say “please respect social distancing.” So customers can still walk up to order. But other trucks are requiring all orders be placed online,” Gandhy said.

Gandhy has been working day and night to get as many food trucks as possible set up with online ordering so they can better compete in the new reality. Customers can find a truck, place an order, and pay on the site, and walk-up to the truck when it’s ready for pick-up.

Despite the massive challenges facing these small business owners, many of whom toil in their trucks day-in, day-out, the guy who builds many of the trucks thinks the industry will survive, and perhaps even grow as a result of this economic storm.

Michael Gallichio is the owner of Titan Trucks—a Central Ohio custom food truck builder and founder of the annual Food Truck Fest.

Gallichio says the latest food truck boom was created in the wake of the last economic collapse when everyone lost their jobs. “People figured, hey I don’t have a job, and for a relatively small investment I can be in business for myself.” 

Starting a truck can be done for as little as $75,000, according to Gallichio. For now though, those dreaming of a new mobile business will need to wait, as the current food truck operators figure out ways to navigate a world with far less demand and virtually no access to crowds.

“Some of the food trucks are shutting down and hoping to ride it out. But these guys are innovators. They’re gonna find a way. That’s what’s so cool about this industry. They’re constantly evolving,” Gallichio said.

As for the Food Truck Festival, it’s still scheduled for early August, but like many things these days, that’s subject to change as the state and nation combat the coronavirus threat. Until then, we can all daydream of being next in line, wearing our flip-flops, hot sun on our back, cold beer in our hand, waiting to experience something special.

Find food trucks headed to your neighborhood on streetfoodfinder.com

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