by Erica Campbell

It’s a strange time right now to be a sales rep. When Co-VID became a thing and the world shut down mid-March, my job at Henderson Brewing had to quickly pivot from on-premise sales rep (aka bars and restaurants) to dusting off my LCBO skills from past years as bars closed and everyone began buying ALL THE BEER to drink while quarantined at home. It was hectic and busy but really exciting. Sales were really strong and it was an odd ‘blessing in disguise’ as I suddenly didn’t have to drive around and visit my accounts mega preggers (yes, I had a baby during a pandemic… #pandemicbaby). Instead, I worked the phones, worked the spreadsheets and my spare bedroom became my daily workspace before I peaced out to Babyland in June. But since then, we have now seen Phase 3 of the pandemic in effect, meaning patios open, indoors spaces open to limited capacity and the province kinda slowly returning to some semblance of normalcy. Since I’ve been immersed in #momlife, I wanted to reach out to some of my industry pals to see how it is out there and what’s going down. 

Meet these 4 rockstars:

Clockwise from top left: Sandy – Bellwoods Brewery (photo credit Nancy Kim), Tyson – Left Field Brewery, Amy – Beau’s Brewery, Mick – Oast House Brewery

What do you do at your brewery? Has your role changed during the pandemic?

SANDY:  I’m the LCBO & Grocery Sales Manager at Bellwoods Brewery. I was hired on at the beginning of the pandemic and due to the ever changing industry, I had to jump on where they needed me. From packing/shipping for home deliveries, helping out at the retail store in Hafis and managing my Lcbos. It was quite a bit of multi-tasking but a great way to learn the ins and outs.

TYSON: I manage the retail sales channels, so the LCBO, grocery stores, and The Beer Store. One of the biggest challenges for the alcohol industry are accounts closing during and after the initial lockdown. When most bars and restaurants were closed, the stores selling alcohol got a LOT busier. Because of this (understandably) we could no longer visit or even contact our retailers as they barely had enough time to serve the huge lines of customers, let alone talk to a rep. This has allowed me to turn more of my focus to market strategy and preparing for the coming fall/winter periods.  

AMY: I safely sell Beau’s Organic Beer to bars and restaurants in Toronto East. As a Sales Rep I’m a service provider extraordinaire, beer facilitator, problem-solver, information source, pal and go-to. This job is a little different every day but these unpredictable times have created new trends and changing rules so you have to keep up. My approach has always been to help a business. Now more than ever I am asking questions and finding ways to symbiotically support our partners, new and existing, as licensees work incredibly hard to rebrand, redesign and recover losses.

MICK: I am the GTA Sales Rep for Oast House out of Niagara.  My role has not changed too much, although during the dark early days of the pandemic I was doing a decent amount of home deliveries to try and generate some revenues for the brewery.

SO, what’s it LIKE out there right now? What’s the vibe ‘on the ground?’

SANDY:  it’s still a little crazy out there and people are being cautious, as needed be. I feel like emotions and anxiety have calmed down a bit and it’s nice to see people out in the world a little more. We’re getting some sort of “normalcy” back. 

TYSON: Tough call… 2 parts cautious optimism to 1 part existential dread. I think the current low COVIDcovid case counts are creating a lot of optimism but we are still seeing bars and restaurants close their doors and that is hard on folks in the industry that have long standing relationships with those customers. Also there are still a lot of reports of silly people doing silly things so…yeah…wear a mask. 

AMY: The Vibe generally feels like cautious optimism. Places are open, people are making it happen. The grind was real before but this is next level. Industry folk are resilient humans by nature of this business. They have had to develop safe and sanitary practices without much guidance. Observing our beer partners’ smart and creative responses to this quick-changing landscape in order to save their businesses has been truly inspiring.

MICK: In short, it’s a tough market out there.  Breweries that are already well established like GLB for example seem to have fared very well during this period, and hyper local breweries like Leftfield and Godspeed have also been killing the home delivery game.  But it’s hard out there for a lot of the smaller less recognizable names in the industry.  Volumes are down across the board with bar capacities limited, patios have helped but…..Winter is coming! 

How have sales visits changed?

SANDY: Dynamics have definitely changed. We weren’t allowed to contact stores – emails, phone calls, tastings or visits. Only until recently, they have lifted a few things and visits are by appointment only. 

TYSON: In order to visit an LCBO, we need to book a formal appointment, there is a time limit, and we have to set our agenda for the visit ahead of time. Whereas before we could just drop in, leave a sales sheet if we missed the person, and follow up the next day. Currently it seems to be more effective to just call an account rather than visit in person as you don’t have your health and the health of others to worry about at the same time as your sales objectives. 

AMY: I would say interactions are done with a little more distance and caution now. Also the face mask! Choosing the right mask can help with communication, also so you don’t inhale it constantly when speaking.

MICK: Well I certainly don’t just “pop in” to bars or LCBOs without having a real reason to be there, whether it be an actual confirmed meeting or a new product to talk to Beer Ambassadors about.  Plus wearing masks in meetings is hard to get used to, tastings are really a thing of the past now!

What has been challenging with your job in this Co-VID world?

SANDY: Bellwoods is kinda new to the LCBO/Grocery world, but it’s been a fun challenge getting new listings into stores. Covid has impacted the way we can present our beer but we are getting creative with how we market our products. 

TYSON: Finding the right balance for contacting my customers. Stores need more support than ever in this new and challenging environment, but they also have less time to deal with issues as they arise. It’s important to be considerate of limitations, but also just be considerate in general. If you go into a retail store, do your best to be supportive of the people working there. 

AMY: I would say having a boatload of patience has been challenging. The lockdown was necessary but a long waiting game for many businesses. It’s about understanding that everything takes a little longer now. 

MICK: Just really generating decent volumes is tough. Also knowing that the great customers you’ve built relationships with are struggling to keep their businesses afloat and trying to manage that delicate balance of selling beer and having to be a little bit tighter on credit due to the possibility of places going under.  I’m spending a lot more time talking to the brewery about Accounts Receivable:).

Any silver linings or positives?

SANDY: As someone who just started 4 months ago, COVIDcovid has made me learn and think quickly on my feet. It has also allowed me to get to know my team at a more intimate level. Despite all the uncertainty, I can’t wait to see what it has in store for me!

TYSON: That’s another tough one. I think that there is a lot more tangible value associated with small independent businesses and a lot of public support has turned up for them. As well we have seen some relaxing of our very prohibitive laws to allow businesses more sales options and routes to market like bottle shops, bodegas, and allowing restaurants to sell alcohol through take out. 

AMY: Always! Fast-forwarding our age-old liquor laws has been a huge win. Watching businesses change their entire plan with great success. Craft. Beer. Bodegas. It’s a dream to access so much great craft beer and wine all in one dreamy space. More bike lanes! Pop-up Patios! Creative take out experiences! Neighbouring businesses and communities supporting each other-what it’s all about.

MICK: A sense of “we’re all in this together” is very prevalent.  That really helps to know that we’re not alone out there and we can call a fellow rep or meet for a beer to talk about our various challenges.

Finally, any interesting anecdotes to share?

SANDY: It’s been an insane few months of changes but I’ve got no cool stories at the moment, sorry!!  

TYSON: I heard Lost craft is buying Mill St….Just kidding. I’d just like to give a shout out to all of the front-line workers out there that are stocking shelves, dealing with the public, and keeping things running as safely as possible. They don’t get the credit they deserve and I really value the effort they are putting in. 

AMY: Like many Reps I worked delivery during the lockdown. Driving a sprinter van East to West Toronto in 10 minutes during “rush hour” is something I will never again experience in my lifetime. 

MICK: I guess the most interesting thing that happened in all this was I tried to have some fun with the home deliveries and invented a little alter ego persona known as the Craft Beer Ninja.  I posted lots of pics of me in a Karate suit delivering to people and some started to dress up to receive their beer so it brought a bit of levity to the otherwise depressing reality!