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Why a beer garden opened in the pandemic

The founder of Geist craft brewery, Narayan Manepally, talks to Lounge about launching a restaurant even as covid-19 continues to be a challenge for F&B brands

Narayan Manepally, CEO at Beerworks Restaurants & Microbrewery Pvt. Ltd. that owns Geist brewery. (Photo: Saina Jayapal)
Narayan Manepally, CEO at Beerworks Restaurants & Microbrewery Pvt. Ltd. that owns Geist brewery. (Photo: Saina Jayapal)

About a month ago, craft beer manufacturer Geist opened its beer garden attached to its sprawling brewery on the outskirts of Bengaluru near an ertswhile village called Nimbekaipura. Almost as soon as it opened, Bangaloreans drove down to the picturesque location, undaunted by the pandemic or the city's notorious traffic jams. It helped that Geist occupies around 78,000 square feet of sylvan land, which allows tables to be spaced out to maintain social distancing while sunlight streams in through the large branches of a banyan and peepul tree.

“When I visited this plot of land for setting up the brewery, I fell in love with it at once. I knew it would be a magical place for a beer garden,” says Narayan Manepally, co-founder of Geist. It took him about three and a half years to realise that dream. As luck would have it, the timing made it imperative for the beer garden to open in the middle of the pandemic.

Over a phone call, Manepally speaks to Lounge to share how the company weathered the pandemic and what it took to open a restaurant now.

What motivated you to launch the restaurant in the pandemic?

Some of the best businesses have been built during a recession. If you can do it in a pandemic/recession, it can only get better from there. You will also focus on a bunch of basic things such as cost and cost control. For instance, license fees are lower now and it’s easier to get a licence. We are lucky that we had the room—it’s a 78,000 sq feet area and the brewery takes up about 11,000 square feet. We were lucky that my mindset has been about keeping spaces open-air because Bengaluru’s weather is unbelievable. Hopefully, it will translate into a deeper connection with our customers where they will experience the brand in its fullest capacity.

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What aspects of the pandemic did not favour you?

In the early days of the pandemic, what was really difficult for us to witness was our sales slumping to almost zero from a very high number. Our investors have put their faith in us, and there was pressure on us to tell them how we plan to recover and survive. It kept me up many nights. I was petrified while considering how to survive, grow and thrive.

Then, what happened?

Geist was primarily a business-to-business model pre-pandemic, so we pivoted to home delivery. First, there were the growlers and now we are closely working with the government to set up an end-to-end cold chain so that fresh draft beer can be delivered home at the right temperature. We will be the first homegrown brewery to be able to do so. Any change in temperature degrades craft beer and this is an important infrastructure opportunity that came out of the pandemic.

How were you able to fund the restaurant?

We have always been frugal with our funds. There are two things that we don’t do—buy market share and scale without ironing out the kinks. For example, I’d rather spend time and money on creating a great beer than give away my product for free or offer 1+1 promotions. When these initiatives discontinue, customers usually don’t come back for the brand. I am inherently opposed to scaling the business and then experimenting to fix any issues with the product. Because the risk that you have is, if the taste of the beer changes after hitting a certain volume goal, you will lose customers. Paying attention to these two business aspects helped us save money so that we could scale properly.

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A few weeks before covid-19 hit, we were in the middle of a fund raise and completed that round which helped us too.

Who are your investors?

We never took the venture capital and private equity route, because we want people who believe in patient money. This means they will allow the businesses to thrive and not push businesses in directions that it doesn’t want to take. With venture capitalist and private equity, sometime you have to show significant growth because that is their business model. We have a bunch of HNIs who have put large to small amounts of money and that’s how we have raised equity. There are no debts, but we have a credit line from a bank.

What happened to your staff?

We retained 99% of our workforce. Although we had to cut salaries initially, now they have been restored. We have a discounted meal scheme in the company for the staff canteen which was launched in the pandemic. For 20, they can buy a complete lunch with rice, chappati, daal, rice, papad and vegetable. Now, we are working on medical insurance for our staff. We hired about 25 people to run the restaurant.

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How did you design the menu?

There were two things—every dish in the menu should be imbued with Indian flavours and the staff will have a say in it. So, each team member contributed by adding a dish they grew up eating. Our chef is from Maharashtra, so we have a sabudana khichri, our co-founder Mohan Alapatt is from Kerala and we have his grandmother’s beef dish, and my contribution is a twist to the famous Bengaluru snack Khara Bun Congress. It is sold at VB Bakery in the city and I found it through my son’s doctors. We have a team member from Nagaland and he created a pickled chicken dish for the menu. The menu will offer you food which is familiar and comforting.

Which dishes and beers define the following:

Home: Dal+Chawal+Roti with Geist German Lager

Joy: Lamb Burger or Biryani with Geist Kamacitra

Family: Pizza with Geist Weiss Guy

Party: Kebabs/Biryani with Geist James Blond

This is part of a series of interviews with chefs and restaurateurs on coping with Covid-19 in the hospitality business.

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