The plan for N.C.-based Legion Brewing’s West Morehead location began in 2019. At that time, the brewery was close to capping out on capacity at its original brewing facility, plus they wanted to open up a taproom in the up and coming West Morehead neighborhood to stake its claim as a community hub. Progress was being made on the new location, and then pandemic happened, and over the ensuing two years, Legion’s strategy (and plan for that new location) shifted. Here to explain why is owner and CEO Phil Buchy.
Pandemic changes plans
At that the time of the pandemic, 100% of Legion’s revenue was coming from our own taprooms or from selling kegs to on-premise customers. Once the shutdowns happened, our business went from high-growth, to literally zero overnight. While we knew we could get some business from carryout food and to-go beer, that wasn’t going to be enough to keep us afloat for very long.
Fortunately, we were having conversations with Adams Beverage (A-B distributor, based in Charlotte) to give them the rights to distribute our beer in Charlotte. With restaurants and bars closed, off-premise alcohol purchases went through the roof.
Discussions with Adams quickly accelerated, and we started to determine how we could quickly pivot and move from 100% draft to get into packaged beer for the first time. We also partnered with Iron Heart on mobile canning. Finally, we procured some bright cans and designed our first labels. By the end of May 2020, Legion was live with shipping our top two beers—Juicy Jay and Penguin Pils—in 4-pack, 16-oz cans.
We wanted our taprooms to be known as the local bar in whatever neighborhood we had a location. However, during the height of the pandemic, the neighborhood bar moved into people’s homes and backyards. So, in a way, we were still fulfilling what the Legion brand stands for, just through 16-oz cans of beer instead of a stool in our taprooms.
New capacity challenges
The response to Legion’s canned beer was amazing from the start. It was flying off the shelves so fast that we soon started to bump up against another problem: brewing and canning capacity.
Our original location had a maximum capacity of 7,000 annual barrels of beer. With this new channel opened up, we were tracking way ahead of what we could produce. We believed that this off-premise trend would shift to more normalized behavior once the pandemic subsided, but no one knew when that would happen and what a new normal really would look like.
As on-premise locations began to re-open in the summer of 2020, our production capacity, speed and flexibility were all being challenged to keep up with demand. Due to increased distribution in Charlotte, our forward-looking projections were revised upwards, even though we had so much uncertainty throughout COVID.
Fortunately, the construction project at West Morehead also slowed during the early phases of the pandemic. It gave us the opportunity to rethink our plans to ensure we came out of COVID stronger and ready to continue to fuel our growth.
BBL capacity vs seating capacity
We were at a point in the project where we were too far along to move to an entirely new location, so we decided we should shift the space allocation to allow for more brewing equipment for added capacity.
In order to accommodate for the increased brewing vessels, we decided to shrink the taproom seating and the size of the kitchen. These were tough choices, but we felt the added brewing capacity was best for the long game.
One big change that came with reducing the size of West Morehead’s kitchen is that we had to rethink the menu to have it work in the smaller space. So, our team came up with a hybrid idea of offering rotisserie meat flatbreads and Neapolitan-style pizzas. The culinary platform turned out great. We added donor kebabs, traditional gyros, and even a traditional North Carolina-style “pig on a spit”. While we have a wide selection of pizzas, we also use the weekly meat features to create unique fusion-style pizzas that our customers are really liking.
Of course it was tough to give up the seating. But, we have created a great environment inside that gets really buzzing and a wonderful outdoor biergarten that our fans are enjoying.
Looking back, when we first set the plans for our new West Morehead location, we had no idea what was ahead of us. COVID, changed consumer behaviors, and overwhelming success in the retail market were dynamics that we had to hit head on and, ultimately (and thankfully), it has turned out great for Legion.