Baar, 01.07.2020

The beer brewer Martin Uster says: "We would also survive a second wave"

The Covid 19 pandemic also hit the Baar Brewery hard, with sales temporarily slumping by 50 per cent. The family business, which has been operating since 1862, is now financially over the mountain, however, says managing director Martin Uster (40).

As early as the beginning of March, you were no longer offering your hand in greeting and saying goodbye. Did you think at the time that this would still not be appropriate four months later?
It still happens now and again that I react reflexively when someone offers me their hand. But on the whole, I’ve stuck to it and I’ve got used to it. Fortunately, people are quickly get used to lots of things, including the corona situation. By the total lockdown from the 16th of March, I didn’t know what I was going to do, however, and there was absolutelynothing I could do about it.

You reacted quickly and, a few days later, launched a home delivery service for beer and food with other Baar tradespeople. How well did it work?
It was a great experience, but it wasn't worth much financially. It wasn’t a question of making a lot of money anyway, but of doing something for those who had to stay at home. And, of course, also about making better use of our employees.

Did you apply for short-time work for your employees?
We hoped in vain to get around  the problem through the delivery service. We applied for short-time work for most of the 35 employees from 1 April up to 30 June. The compensation fund approved it immediately until 30 September. Honestly, there would have been no point in opposing it – we lost so much turnover.

Martin Uster has been able to relax again after stressful weeks.

How much was that?
At the lowest point, sales were down 50% year-on-year. The fact that the Braui market was allowed to remain open was our life-saver. In April, it generated 50% of the total sales, with only four employees. In normal years, there are about ten employees here. As a result, we did not have to register short-time work for the four employees.

Your beer is also available in retail stores, whose shops were also open in the lockdown. How did the business go there?
We are happy that we have had more representation in the retail trade for a few years now. There was always something going on with the bottled beers, and the sales of canned beer went ...  Phew! (He points straight upwards)

You resisted the production of canned beer for a long time.
That’s true, we’ve only been offering it for a year and a half. The trigger was the Federal Wrestling and Alpine Festival ESAF. Now I’m really happy that we took the step. Our barrel beer sales slumped 97.5% in the lockdown.

Who bought the remaining 2.5%?
Takeaways and private. There are actually people who have a dispensing system  at home (laughs).

How are the figures today?
 Sales are again around 75 to 80%. We recently placed a seasonal beer on the market, "Summer Freshness", which is doing very well. This is actually the football beer we wanted to bring out for the European Football Championships. We had already brewed three brews of it before the lockdown, i.e. about 21,000 litres. All the advertising material was already printed and is now here in the building. I hope we can still use it next year.

With the inscription Euro 2020?
No, there will be no inscription with the year. We already set this in motion before the lockdown, because we felt we had to be careful.

And you didn't have to throw anything away any beer?
No, nothing. Sales of bottled beers fell by only 10%, which was no problem. Most of the barrel beer had been bottled in mid- and end of February, and can last for six months. Everything is gone by now, so we came out of it relatively well.

You advertised on Facebook during the lockdown, often the offers of the restaurants you supplied, although you didn't earn anything from it. Did your company also experience solidarity?
To a great amount, as you could see in the Braui market. At times, people were queuing up on Saturday.

Isn't that more to do with the fact that they couldn't drink the beer in the restaurant?
I’d guess fifty-fifty, but that's hard to say. I certainly had the feeling it had to do with solidarity.

Did you borrow money from the Confederation or the canton?
No, and my father (Kurt Uster is the brewery owner, ed.) and I are proud of it.

We would have rather put private money in ourselves, rather than indebt ourselves and have to repay loans.
Instead, we were able to use a cushion from the company and we handled the finances in a very careful way by stopping investments. This was not always possible. For example, a month ago we had to buy a new truck, which we had ordered in October and which, from the present point of view, we did not necessarily need. We also reduced advertising spending by up to 80%.

How do you assess the situation of the landlords in the canton of Zug?
I have a good feeling again since the latest easings. The weather has finally become more beautiful again, which always has a positive influence. This can be seen in the excursion restaurants, which are well frequented, as I recently noted during the hiking holidays in Davos. You can see that people have had to stay at home for a long time and want to get out. But the weather has to play along. If that’s the case, we will soon return to normal in the gastronomy field.

Do you fear that the lockdown in the catering industry will have a negative impact for years because the loans have to be repaid?
Yes. For those who were anyway short of funds, these loans are probably only a deferral on the road to bankruptcy. During the Corona crisis, three or four of the restaurants we supply closed down, but so far, none have gone bankrupt. But we expect payment difficulties for some landlords in the near future.

And how will you react to this?
We scan every customer closely: nowadays there are many possibilities. We are now looking even more closely. In the case of wobbly candidates, we insist on cash payment on delivery. Or we'll make a 14-day bill instead of a monthly one. This allows us to react a little faster when there are outstanding debts.

Is the fact that Baar beer should be even more present in the retail trade one of your lockdown lessons?
I'm happy about our diversification, because I don't want a lump risk. Gastronomy is and remains an important pillar. In addition, there is beer production and bottling for third parties, for example for Anboss Bier and Wädi-Bräu, as well as the beverage trade, the Braui market for private customers, the retail trade and events.

The latter are unlikely to take place this year.
That hurts, as events account for about 15% of annual sales. Especially in June, when there would have been something going on every weekend. If I were a tough manager, I would have to sack one or two employees simply because the jobs are not there. But we don't sack anyone, and we don't reduce any workloads.

Short-time work is precisely there to bridge such times. From 1 July, we will also pay wages 100% again, thus compensating for the short-time working difference.

We are financially over the mountain and could also survive a second wave. Because we have now learned to deal with such a situation.

How did you deal with it personally?
I was insanely stressed in the first three weeks, with new reports coming in from the federal government every day: a lot of decisions were needed. But I never put my head in the sand and tried to radiate this attitude outwards. I think I succeeded quite well in this. I also exchanged ideas with industry colleagues to give me some assurance that we were doing well. Then it suddenly became quiet and I really enjoyed being free of deadlines. The holidays I mentioned were also good – under normal circumstances I would never go on holiday in June. But the most important thing is that I am in good health and no one in the family and in the immediate vicinity has contracted the virus.

Did people drink more alcohol at home, and is home office therefore good for beer sales?

I don't think so, the social element is missing. We carried out the General Assembly of the Brewery Association online.

At the end, we said cheers via the laptop, which was a bit doofy. I myself probably drank more beer than usual in private, simply because I had no deadlines. And certainly also because it reassured me, I like to drink beer - but not only at home, always in company.