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Four Loko finally joins the pack of local hard seltzer offerings

Mike Thomas

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You go to sleep one night, and seltzer is just the fizzy stuff in big glass bottles that clowns used to hose fools down with in old cartoons. You wake up, and it’s the hottest beverage trend since India Paled its famous Ale (or whatever).

While the drink predates this calendar year, there can be no doubt that the summer of 2019 belonged to hard seltzer. Whether you were getting “Truly” hammered, or disregarding all laws with White Claws, surely these fizzy intoxicants were a fixture at many a summer function you attended.

A hit with the fit crowd for their low calorie count and negligible carbs, the alcoholic seltzer sensation has washed over the nation like a carbonated, mango-flavored tsunami. Popular though they may be, these beverages are not without detractors. One article in the San Francisco Chronicle called spiked seltzers “the summer’s biggest scam,” pointing to the fact that in spite of marketing to the contrary, the drinks are not in fact seltzers, but carbonated malt beverages (like Smirnoff Ice and Zima).

With enormous international companies such as Anheuser Busch getting in the hard seltzer game, it was only a matter of time until the forward-thinking minds in our city’s booming beverage scene put their own stamp on this latest and greatest toastable trend.

While not native to Columbus per se, Cleveland’s Platform Beer Co. has won a spot in the hearts of local craft brew fans thanks to its hoppin’ downtown taproom and the consistent quality of their products. Platform is also one of the prominent regional brands to embrace the spiked seltzer phenomenon wholeheartedly.

Available in six-packs, Platform’s rotating series of hard seltzers features some flavors that will be familiar to regular drinkers of the national brands, such as black cherry. Where the brand finds a leg up on the competition is a slate of unique offerings like Passionfruit, Ginger-Lime, and Blood Orange Yuzu.

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Platform’s seltzers clock in at the industry standard 5% ABV, and retain the same near-clear, bubbly appearance as most competitors. While a respected craft brewery dipping a toe in this segment might get the mustaches of snobbish craft beer purists twirling, Platform has never been known for playing it safe—and they’re not the only ones.

Seventh Son Brewing sports ample draft handles in their multi-tiered taproom, giving pilot batches of “out there” brews a place to shine among the pleasing regular lineup. With so much room for experimentation, it’s no wonder that Seventh Son has cracked the hard seltzer puzzle.

A departure from the norm in several ways, Seventh Son’s “Kitty Paw” is a raspberry-flavored seltzer crafted with 100% real fruit juice and zero artificial colors or flavors added. The striking pinkish hue of this feline- inspired booze water also helps Seventh Son’s creation stand out from the pack. Opaque and bursting with tart berry flavors, Kitty Paw should be a hit with fans of fruit-flavored lambic beers. Available on-tap only, this initial offering is just the first of a planned series of hard seltzers being cooked up by the Seventh Son team.

No hard look at hard seltzer would be complete without mention of Four Loko, the “blackout in a can” hooch concocted by a group of OSU grads that mixed copious amounts of caffeine (since removed from the recipe) with alcohol, fueling all of your worst college-era mistakes.

If the notion of alcoholic water at first seemed too absurd to believe, leave it to Four Loko to take that absurdity to the most extreme possible end. In a Twitter post dated to August 11, 2019, the company teased their own accursed foray into the hard water game with a beverage that would pair “a hint of blue razz” with a daunting 14% ABV. At the time of this writing, no such drink has appeared on store shelves, for better or worse (…better).

[Update: After much delay, Four Loko announced the release of its hard seltzer product—a 12% ABV black cherry-flavored drink—on November 5, 2019.]

Only time will tell if spiked sparkling water will make the move from passing fad to permanent grocery cooler staple. Refreshing and all-too- crushable by nature, typically gluten-free, and with a fraction of the calories of even the lightest beer, it’s easy to see why summer drinkers were drawn to the spiked watering hole in droves. With companies big and small experimenting in this increasingly-crowded segment, water may just be the hottest new beverage in town.

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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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