The homegrown pizza chain, which has expanded to 17 restaurants since its 1993 founding, lost its dining room, bar and catering business, resulting in the layoffs of 120 employees — about a quarter of its workforce.
“We just very single-mindedly went into the position of, ‘We’ve got to get through to the other side so that people’s jobs are still there, and we can bring those people back,'” Dan Black, Zeeks’ president told CNN Business.
Fortunately, Zeeks could lean on the remaining legs of its business — take-out and delivery. But ultimately, the biggest lift came from an unexpected source: Its beer taps.
“People have embraced it in a really big way,” Black said. “And they’ve realized that not only is beer delivery a thing, they’ve realized that Zeeks is the best at it, and so it has really been the main thing that has propelled us through [Covid-19].”
Zeeks sells about 1,500 growlers, or 64-ounce glass jugs, of beer per week across its restaurants, Black said. Pre-coronavirus, it sold about 150 growlers of beer per week via its restaurants’ take-out business.
“We actually almost ran the Northwest completely out of growlers when it hit,” Black said of the vessels that hold the beer.
Draft sales at Reuben’s Brews, a Seattle brewery that produced 170 different beers last year, represented about 30%-35% of its overall beer sales, said Adam Robbings, who co-founded the brewery in 2012 with his wife, Grace. Reuben’s had previously collaborated with Zeeks on the pizza shop’s house beer, Hop Tropic, an American Pale Ale.
“Hop Tropic was the only beer that we were brewing for draft sales in the first two months of this pandemic,” Robbings said. “Everything else was in [cans and bottles] because that was only the route to market for most craft breweries.”
Expanded beer delivery could be an avenue for local restaurants to continue to survive post-coronavirus, said Black, the Zeeks president, who favors those temporary laws becoming permanent.
Not everyone does, though. While the allowances are very popular, some carry significant public safety implications, said Brian Smith, communications director for the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board. It’s possible some regulations stay in place once the public safety provisions are lifted, but not all, he said.
“We made the allowance to help [restaurants and bars] through this period,” Smith said. “Our concern always is about children having access to alcohol.”
For now, the relaxed regulations have given Zeeks “a path to the other side,” Black said, adding the pizzeria chain has brought back some employees. Former servers, knowledgeable of the beer lineup, now are working in Zeeks’ call center, he said.
“We’re not exactly popping champagne corks over here,” Black said. “If you’re in the restaurant industry, survival is a win at this point.”