Top craft brew venue finds a way to meet customer needs in tough times

Switching gears: Corey Crooks with some of the takeaway alcohol options now offered at The Grain Store. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers
Switching gears: Corey Crooks with some of the takeaway alcohol options now offered at The Grain Store. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

Watching headlines around the world, Corey Crooks, owner of The Grain Store in Newcastle East, knew COVID-19 was coming in Newcastle. It was a matter of when, not if.

The craft beer haven was a finalist for best beer/wine cafe in Australia in the 2019 Restaurant & Catering Association Awards. It was also voted #1 beer venue in NSW in the 2019 Australian Craft Beer Survey run by Beer Cartel.

Atmosphere is everything for The Grain Store, which prides itself on independent brews on tap, accompanied by classic food pub-style food.

But COVID-19, and the accompanying restrictions, threw a huge spanner into the works for Crooks. After closing for 10 days to rethink his business, Crooks reopened The Grain Store last week. It is open every day.

"It would be very easy to give up," he said. "Our closure was never a closure. It was a bit of pause to clear the head. We were never shutting shop and waiting for dust to settle. I needed a clear head."

Takeaway choice: Sliders and sides offered at The Grain Store and an accompanying six beer mixed selection. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

Takeaway choice: Sliders and sides offered at The Grain Store and an accompanying six beer mixed selection. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

Like many in the hospitality industry, Crooks never imagined his business serving a takeaway market, but that's exactly what he's now geared up to do to keep trading.

He is open for takeaway food and alcohol sales, and offering home delivery using two of their vehicles.

Famous for its extensive range of independent craft beers on tap, Crooks now offers almost 50 craft beers and ciders in cans in its range, including the gluten-free Two Bays range from Victoria.

He's also offering five beers from the tap for two-litre growlers, which can be delivered. Soon, he will have PET containers that will make delivery of the growlers easier and cheaper (no $10 deposit on containers like he is doing now).

Before the restrictions hit, he was experimenting with takeway food, how it would sit in takeaway boxes, how well it would travel. Now, he's got an extensive offering, including a family chicken feast that is proving "very popular" as well as pork rib fingers, pizza, chicken wings and fries, and burgers, all available for pick up or delivery.

"We took our menu, we had to adjust," he said. "Value is a big factor. A lot of people are out of work, taking pay hit. And we were never walking away from our morals, our ethics."

Thus, the emphasis is on both value-for-money and independent suppliers - not just beer makers, but local Hunter Valley wines and even Earps range of gins, and Earps hand sanitiser as well as Saxby's soft drinks.

Can't give up: The Grain Store owner Corey Crooks was not prepared to shut the doors and ride out COVID-19 without trading. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

Can't give up: The Grain Store owner Corey Crooks was not prepared to shut the doors and ride out COVID-19 without trading. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

To support local musicians, from this Sunday The Grain Store will be offering a live music set online.

For him, these times are about survival, keeping a culture alive and keeping an engagement with his customers.

"We are all about creating culture, supporting independents," Crooks said. "Our staff are integral part of that. If we lost them, just close the doors. They go into other things. We've lost our soul. Having jobkeeper is extremely important. and for their mental health."

It's a two-way street with customers, too, Crooks noted.

"It's very humbling to see familiar faces," he said. "It gives a little bit of normality for them, grabbing wings, or their favourite burger. ...no one even knows what day it is now."

Crooks also knows the future will be different, even when he's allowed to have customers inside the venue. He's already figured the handwashing basin he set up inside the front door in a converted wine barrel will be there to stay.

And while he's keen for a return to in-store business, he can wait. He knows the risks.

"We can't get complacent. Our whole bread and butter is social gatherings," Crooks said. "We are respectful of that. We don't want to go knee-jerk and see a second wave."