As we approach one year since COVID-19 arrived in Rhode Island, 12 News is bringing you special reports all this week. They’re stories of heartache, heroes and hope.
EXETER, R.I. (WPRI) — As scientists continue to work feverishly in laboratories across the world to combat the coronavirus, Matt Richardson is working in a lab of his own, crafting beer he’s brewed with passion and love for six years at the Tilted Barn.
These days, however, he’s making three times more of it than he usually does, because in the midst of a global pandemic, he was able to expand his business in a big way.
It all started inside the old barn on his large farm property in Exeter, where people can come to enjoy a drink with friends or pick up some cans to take home.
But that barn is also in Richardson’s backyard, so when the pandemic hit, he said the risk was just too great.
“Being on our home, with the kids around, it just wasn’t safe,” he said.
To keep his business going, Richardson said the brewery began offering take-out only through an online ordering system they launched themselves.
“At first, we didn’t know what was going to happen, but we were shocked at the amount of people coming for take-out only,” Richardson recalled. “We didn’t miss a beat, it was great. All the regulars still came, new people were coming to find us. It was nice to see that support.”
Richardson had just broken ground on a new barn a month prior. To his surprise, the pandemic actually helped speed up the construction.
“A lot of other projects were put on hold, so we got full attention from so many different contractors,” Richardson said.
Richardson was able to open the doors to their new barn last November. Due to the state’s current capacity limits, guests need to make a reservation in advance, and Richardson suggests acting quickly since weekends typically fill up fast.
Another challenge the brewery faced, according to Richardson, was a can shortage.
“With all the bars and restaurants closed, there was a time for four to five months where there was no draft beer to be had,” he said. “That meant everyone was putting their beer into cans and bottles.”
That shortage meant Richardson was forced to order cans by the truckload at $30,000 a pop. But thankfully, draft beer is making a comeback, and the Tiled Barn is now available on tap at more than 20 Rhode Island restaurants.
Not all businesses are thriving, however. The Rhode Island Hospitality Association estimates that 30 to 35 local businesses have closed permanently since last March. Another 140 went into hibernation for a few months.
Then there are the 10,123 Rhode Island businesses that opened during the pandemic. The R.I. Secretary of State’s office previously told Target 12 it was the first time the state saw more than 10,000 business applications in a single year.
Graze, a charcuterie provisions shop located on Main Street in East Greenwich, was one of those thousands of businesses to bloom during the pandemic.
Co-owner Geza Tanner said they opened their doors the week of Thanksgiving after testing the waters for a few months at pop-up artisan markets.
The week of their opening, they were booked solid and customers were eager to get their hands on their products in time for the holidays, according to Tanner.
“Our boards became everyone’s centerpiece in this very different entertainment,” Tanner said.
The pandemic also helped other local businesses grow. The Bead Sting Gift Shop and Boutique in Coventry was in debt before COVID-19 hit, co-owner Jan Olivier said, adding that the rise in online shopping had hit their business hard.
So when everyone went into lockdown, she took to Facebook Live. Four times a week, for four hours at a time, hundreds of customers would tune in to get a look at some of their new products, participate in giveaways and learn of upcoming sales.
She tells 12 News they’ve had nearly 10 times more volume in sales compared to last year, and have since expanded their store and hired three additional people to keep up.
Back at Tilted Barn, customers continue to line up to get their hands on some beer. This success isn’t lost on Richardson, who knows how challenging this past year has been.
He said he’s counting his blessings that at least beer appears to be pandemic-proof.