When it comes to its logo and beer labels, Short’s Brewing Co. is all about fun. When it comes to feeding a crowd, the brewpub’s restaurant gets serious about utilizing its outdoor dining space to create a vibe that promotes safety and eases the load indoors.
Before the pandemic, Short’s had about 300 seats in its Bellaire, Michigan, dining room. There was room for another 50 on its patio. Everything changed in March 2020. A state-mandated COVID-19 shutdown, followed by social distancing and capacity limits, forced new arrangements that are still a work in progress.
The patio area, once a place for servers to pick up drink orders, became a walk-up window for takeout customers. A vacant lot Short’s owns across the street was turned into a community gathering spot for a number of nearby eateries. The Downtown Development Authority bought tables, a next-door cidery added cornhole, and all of the businesses pitched in to keep the space clean.
Short’s dining room temporarily turned into a place to store cordwood sold for the fire pits in the “Keg Camp” erected in the vacant lot. It takes a lot of wood to last through a northern Michigan winter.
“We didn’t want to have one big heater or fire pit that would become a gathering place, so Joe [Short, the brewery founder and owner] built cubicles out of stacked kegs,” explained Erin Kuethe, Pub General Manager. “They were like little cubbies, each one had a fire pit and a little table—they were full pretty much from morning to night every day.”
The patio and beyond
Now that indoor dining has reopened, Kuethe isn’t certain how much demand to expect for outdoor dining this winter. That hasn’t stopped Short’s from preparing outdoor spaces and thinking about ways to serve customer needs and balance kitchen and service challenges.
“This year it will probably be different than last year because we’re not sure how many people will be interested in eating outside,” Kuethe said. “We get completely full and booked quickly on the weekends, so outdoor dining or takeout is the only option.”
The patio now served dual purposes. It’s both a pickup counter and waiting area. Guests can grab a beer and wait for a table, or seat themselves at one of the four tables available on a first-come, first-served basis. The patio also serves as a pickup window for to-go orders, six-packs or growler fills, as well as space for merchandise sales.
Meanwhile, in the lot across the street, Short’s is creating an outdoor dining area using shipping containers. They are being anchored parallel to one another, with the space in between covered by a tent-like roof for shelter in the winter and shade in the summer.
Kuethe hasn’t determined yet whether outdoor specials will be part of the program this year. Last winter, warm drinks and s’mores kits were sold for consumption around the fire pits.
“It’s something we might do again around Christmas, but we’re not sure how popular outdoor dining will be this year now that people can do both indoor and outdoor dining,” she said.
An ever-growing business
These changes are just part of the evolution of Short’s. After two years of planning and construction, the brewpub opened in 2004 at a renovated 120-year-old hardware store in downtown Bellaire.
Many dozens of brews have been crafted over the years, including a creative Imperial Beer Series that won rave reviews. Short’s soon expanded, opening a brewing facility in nearby Elk Rapids and renovating the Bellaire pub.
The operation employs about 80 people, although during the busy summer tourist season that number swells to over 100. In the winter, the pub is a favorite of locals, as well as skiers from the Shanty Creek Resort that’s just minutes away.
Finding cost-saving solutions
In addition to mainstay beer selections like Bellaire Brown and Soft Parade Shandy, the core menu includes sandwiches, pizzas, appetizers and salads. Brunch is served every Sunday.
All sandwiches are toasted, so they work well for takeout, Kuethe explained. Because there’s always a full rail during the summer, her kitchen staff sticks to the basics. During winter, the team tries more creativity, such as Chinese food, coney dogs or sausage and kale flatbread.
In the face of a tight labor market and supply-chain challenges, Short’s has evaluated what needs to be made from scratch and what doesn’t, Kuethe said. One of those changes was a switch to washed, pre-chopped bagged lettuce.
“We used to buy and chop and process all of our romaine by hand, and that was like two or three hours every day for someone,” she said. “We switched to keep from bogging down the prep line.”
Her goal was to avoid drastic changes, but to consider the work volume and make changes to accommodate the staff. She acknowledges that the cost of value-added items are higher, but the time saved is worth the price. “As the cost of labor goes up, it will only continue to bring savings,” she said.