MISSOULA — It's not just your locally-owned businesses.
For one Missoula-based beverage distributor, the pandemic dealt a keg-sized blow to a company that keeps the beer flowing for a quarter of the state.
Reporter Megan Mannering headed over to Summit Beverage and their efforts to keep the glass at least half full.
Behind the big game, is the beer, and behind the beer, is a bustling operation spanning the state of Montana and far beyond.
“Super Bowl Sunday, when you're sitting there and you go to the fridge and you grab your favorite beer, that beer went through all sorts of steps and crisscrossed the country before it got to your living room,” said Vice President of Community Relations for Summit Beverage Mike Markovich.
In every bar, grocery store and convenience stop in the United States, a distributor delivered the product that you very well might have stocked in your fridge.
“We help to keep the prices at an even keel so that the small bar on the Idaho border pays the same price for a case of beer as does the big box store down the street from us,” said Markovich.
The distributor levels the playing field - consider them the unsung heroes of the beverage biz, and distributing almost 25% of our state’s beer and wine, servicing over 25,000 square miles of Western Montana, is Summit Beverage, with facilities in Missoula and Butte.
“We have an awful lot of dirt to cover,” said Markovich, “and our mission is to make sure those shelves don't run dry.”
But those shelves did run dry. Markovich told MTN News that everything went downhill on March 17, 2020, “Saint Patrick's Day marks the first big beer holiday.”
According to Markovich, distributors count on Saint Patrick’s Day beverage sales to kickstart the new year.
“We have approximately 1,100 accounts,” said Markovich, “1,100 bars, restaurants, grocery stores and convenience stores that we do business with on a daily basis, so you can't just deliver all those accounts overnight, it takes weeks to build the product in the back rooms, behind the bar, under the counter.”
Summit Beverage began prepping for St. Patrick’s Day around the first of March but that’s when all of our lives took a turn, "a week before Saint Patrick's Day, a directive came down from the governor,” recalled Markovich.
Suddenly, restrictions were placed on bars, restaurants and casinos, impacting more than half of Summit Beverage’s accounts, "never before in history was somebody able to turn off the lights on 600 accounts with the flip of a switch.”
Not only did Summit Beverage lose the customers, they had beer aging, going bad. Canned beer has a shelf life of 120 days and kegs are only good for 90.
“So you're really talking the clock's ticking here on the keg beer. It's in these bars and restaurants, and it’s not going to have patrons to drink on St. Patrick's Day,” said Markovich.
With a special exception from their federal regulator and the state of Montana, Summit Beverage called up those 600 accounts, offered them a credit, went back and picked up the beer they had just delivered.
“That did two things,” said Markovich, “It freed up cash for those operators to be able to pay employees, pay a power bill, keep the lights on...and it gave us product to be able to sell to those off-premise channels where we were seeing unprecedented demand. People weren't just hoarding toilet paper, they were hoarding beer too.”
But they couldn’t save every drop, "we decanted hundreds of kegs of beer, we had to get a permit from Missoula County because we dumped so much beer in the sewer.”
The industry took a hit, and then it took a turn, forcing distributors like Summit Beverage to reevaluate how they do practically everything. But on Super Bowl Sunday, when the beer is flowing, restrictions are beginning to lift, and the sun stays in the sky a little longer, Markovich is hopeful.
“The Super Bowl reenergized us coming out of the holidays, you know, and I really hope that we see a return to the on-premise businesses and I hope people get out and support these small mom and pop mainstream businesses because really they are the lifeblood of our community.”
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