Bissell Brothers adapts to taproom closings with near statewide delivery routes
Bissell Brothers Brewing had a product to sell in late March but suddenly lacked the most direct method of distribution — its taprooms in southern and central Maine.
Gov. Janet Mills shut down bars and restaurants around the state to dine-in service nearly two months ago in an effort to deter the spread of COVID-19, impelling businesses like the popular Maine-based craft brewery to develop quick sales alternatives beyond curbside pickup in order to maintain financial solvency.
“As this all started to happen it felt like you had these 72-hour cycles where the world would change dramatically and it kept changing one way,” said Matt Robinson, general manager of the craft brewery’s northern Maine operations in Milo.
“Then 72 hours after policing the doors a little better and spreading out the tables and being on five-minute cleaning cycles and with everything looking different, it quickly became, ‘The taproom’s not going to be open at all. What do we do?’”
Company officials blended social media marketing with a tradition resembling milk sales of generations past to develop a near-statewide home delivery system virtually on the fly — or at least on the roads of Maine — to accommodate much of their fan base while continuing to generate income.
Bissell Brothers now has delivery routes covering most of northern and southern Maine, the northern routes based in Milo and the southern routes leaving from the company’s Portland base, which opened in 2014.
“Between everything we’re doing up here and down there, we’re not missing very much,” said Robinson of the brewery’s in-state geographic reach.
That’s particularly true in the less populated more northern reaches where the deliveries originate at the production facility and taproom brothers Noah and Peter Bissell — the company’s founders — built at a former snowmobile dealership in their Piscataquis County hometown of Milo two years ago.
“Here curbside isn’t as big so we said let’s try [delivery] and see if there’s anything there,” said Robinson, whose parents grew up in Milo. “Let’s see if we can find routes that make some economic sense and where you can get enough orders built up so you can go do a route and bring beer to people.”
Those routes developed organically over a matter of days.
“What started to happen was that from Facebook messages and Instagram messages and from people we’ve become friends with over the years of being open here starting to reach out saying, ‘Hey, if I put a big order together with some friends would you come to Presque Isle or Rangeley or Lubec?’” Robinson said.
The company marketed possibile delivery routes on social media, and the response was almost immediate.
“Very quickly we could see that there are routes here,” Robinson said. “These are people familiar with Bissell Brothers but who don’t come to the taproom every weekend because they’re 2½ hours away.
“But if that beer’s going to be on their doorstep, they would be willing to have it and see us quite often, so in the blink of an eye we carved out north, south, east and west routes that made sense for us.”
Bissell Brothers then repurposed vans typically used for transport purposes between Portland and Milo from Milo west toward Dover-Foxcroft, Greenville and West Forks; Down East to Ellsworth, Bar Harbor, Machias and Lubec; south toward Newport, Skowhegan, Waterville and Augusta; and even more routinely to Greater Bangor.
But the greatest revelation among the routes is a northern swing through Millinocket toward Houlton and Presque Isle, a six- to eight-hour loop with 30 to 35 contact-free deliveries.
“That’s a van full of beer going to 35 different people,” Robinson said. “So certainly in that way it makes economic sense and execution sense in being able to connect with those people and provide what they’re looking for and give them some sense of normalcy within all this.”
What’s surprised Robinson and his staff even more is the repeat business that turned a late-March novelty into regular customer visits.
“I kind of thought out of the gate you’d see a lot of people who were buying for support,” he said. “I kept waiting for the dropoff period, wondering what we were going to do when the orders stopped trickling in, but a friend would tell a friend who would tell a friend and instead it started to grow. Now it sort of feels like a delivery business.”
Bissell Brothers also has delivery routes to an “extended Greater Portland” to complement its curbside efforts from its 6-year-old location in the state’s largest city.
“Those delivery routes are much smaller by mileage but much, much bigger by volume,” Robinson said.
How Bissell Brothers will handle its delivery service once the coronavirus abates and the taprooms re-open is uncertain, though a scaled-down version is possible.
“It’s hard to get too far out in terms of any sort of planning,” Robinson said. “Right now it’s how reactive can you be to the set of data that seems to change every 48 or 72 hours.”