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Crafting Support for the Hospitality+ Restaurant Sectors with Bill Covaleski

Podcast published: November 13, 2020

With winter weather fast approaching, we know that the local restaurant and hospitality sector is facing an even more precarious position because of the ongoing challenges of COVID-19. We sat down with Bill Covaleski, a Co-Founder and Brewmaster at Victory Brewing Company, and the Chairman of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association (PRLA). Bill shared his experience of learning from and with his local business community through the PRLA, and how local restaurants, event companies, and businesses across the hospitality sector can work together to support their companies, staff, and customers.



What does a brewmaster do?

  • Bill Covaleski and his friend and co-founder, Ron Barchet, graduated from the Doemens Institute in Munich, Germany.
  • Bill and Ron had very hands-on roles in the early days of making beer with Victory Brewing Company; overtime, they transitioned to growing a talented team of brewers to take over leading the creation of the beer.
  • Now, Bill and Ron now advise, guide, set targets and monitor the results of the brewing team.

How has the PRLA responded to COVID-19?

  • Being the chairman of the PRLA in 2020 has been like sitting in the front seat of a fast paced roller coaster.
  • Bill began 2020 as the co-chair; on March 14, Bill became chairman when the co-chair moved out of state with his work; on March 17, lockdown orders came to Pennsylvania.
  • In the immediate wake of lockdown orders, Bill and the entire team at PRLA worked to switch its focus and business model.
  • The PRLA revamped its membership model, which reduced the staffing numbers of at the organization; the PRLA was forced to furlough its sales team and some of its administrative team.
  • In pivoting its membership, the PRLA moved to be the essential hub for important, relevant information for the restaurant and hospitality sectors across the state.
  • The PRLA began sharing its bulletins and updates with all, regardless of membership: the information was too critical not to share.
  • The PRLA began detailed daily news bulletins and updates, and increased the number and frequency of its informational webinars.
  • The organization looked at its role as operators in public health and worked to empower restaurants, event venues, and the entire hospitality and lodging sector to keep their local communities healthy and safe.
  • In changing its membership model, the PRLA pivoted its membership dues structure, charging restaurants $1 per day for membership.
  • Since March 15, the PRLA has seen 150 new members join its ranks.

How does advocacy figure in the PRLA’s work?

  • Many of the PRLA members express frustration with hearing new ideas from state and local government that may or may not suit their respective business models.
  • By aggregating the voices of its members, the PRLA has grown a stronger, louder voice that is more readily heard by government and other leaders.
  • Lobbying always felt like a dirty word to Bill, but he now understands that elected officials do need education about the folks and sectors which they represent.
  • Advocacy is an important task for any membership organization, and in fact, of any business owner.

How did you come to join the PRLA?

  • In 2006, Bill realized that as a brewmaster, he had no experience running a restaurant or taproom. So, Bill joined to the PRLA to turn from his peers and colleagues in the organization.
  • Overtime, Bill learned enough to be asked to serve as the chairman of the PRLA.
  • As beverage manufacturers (like wineries and breweries) turn to retail to support their businesses in COVID-19, Bill’s role in the PRLA has afforded him the opportunity to support and nurture those manufacturers.
  • Bill considers joining a trade association (like the PRLA) as an opportunity rather than as an obligation.
  • The PRLA has launched a program called HARP – Hospitality Assistance Response of Pennsylvania – which aims to support the hospitality across the state.
  • Through HARP, businesses like Victory Brewing Company and 135 other donors have donated more than 257,627, awarding grants to 848 hospitality workers in need of financial assistance.
  • Victory Brewing Company donated t-shirts with an updated design of its keg man artwork – now available for sale on the Victory Brewing website, with all proceeds going to HARP.

Joe Casabona: Hey, everybody, and welcome to Start Local, a podcast focused on helping businesses in Chester County, PA and the greater Philly area as we try to navigate through this covid-19 economy. Now, before I bring in my fellow co-host Liam and our guest today, I do wanna tell you about Start Local Monty. It’s our monthly newsletter. it is very free. It comes to you once a month. It sums up the episodes we’ve had In the past few weeks. it gives you some news and information around the county and the greater area, and it’s a good resource. We’re getting ready to  send our inaugural Newsletter very soon as there is lots of stuff happening around the county as we move into the holiday season.

So if you wanna sign up for that, it’s very free, very monthly. You can go to start local.co/news. That’s start local.co/news.

Okay. First, let me bring in my fellow co-host Liam Dempsey. Liam, how are you today? 

Liam Dempsey: Joe, I am fantastic. I am very proud of you for successfully using inaugural in well, in a grammatically correct way. I’m a, this is a podcast I can be proud of now. Thank you, sir. 

Joe Casabona: Thank you very much. I’m very, you know, I, I’m very concerned about words,  because, you know, it’sIt’s important, 

Liam Dempsey: No, doesn’t matter.

Joe Casabona: I try not to use annual until we have the second one, right? That’s a big sticking point as well. but this podcast is not about semantics. It’s about small, medium, big businesses here in Chester County, and I am very happy to welcome our guest, bill Koleski. He’s the co-founder and brewmaster at Victory. Bill, how are you today? 

Bill Covaleski: I am doing extremely well, Joe, thanks for asking. I really appreciate the generosity of your, your time today.

Joe Casabona: Our pleasure. The honor is ours. Thank you for taking time out of your day to talk to us on our podcast here. Now, we have a couple of questions for you regarding your role as chairman of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association. But, before we get to that, why don’t you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Bill Covaleski: Oh gosh. So I founded Victory Brewing Company by working with my best friend since the age of 1970, since the date of 1973 when we were 10. So Ron and I wrote our business plan after working in the brewing industry in 1994. And, with the assistance of friends and family, we were able to open the doors of our Downingtown Brewery and taproom in February of 1996.

And, it’s been a blur since then. I don’t recall the rest now. It’s been wonderful. The engagement and support of the community, the ability to create careers and have the incredible energy of so many people come through our doors, work in our operations, and create unique. Experiences in beer and cuisine.

Joe Casabona: That’s fantastic.  Liam and I are both big fans of your work. I am very happy to see that you’ve in recent years, introduced some, a couple of sours if I’m,  remembering correctly. 

Bill Covaleski: Mm-hmm.

Joe Casabona: those are my favorites, but, yeah.  Anyway, we’re big fans of your work and thank you so  for coming on the show and giving us a little bit of intro there.

I do have one more question, if I can ask brewmaster, What, what do you do? Because I have a few friends who are in brewing, either as a hobby or as actual brewers.  and I’m, I’m always fuzzy on the details.

Bill Covaleski:  Yeah. So, the qualification starts with the fact that I graduated with a diploma from the Doemen’s Institute in Munich. 

Ron attended and is certified by the University of Technical University of Munich at Veit Stefan. at any rate, we had the hands-on roles from the beginning and have over time grown an incredibly talented crew that does the brewing. And really product development. So our roles at this point is to advise, to guide, to create the targets, monitor the results, and basically liberate a very talented and creative crew to do their very best work.

Liam Dempsey: Thank you for explaining that. That’s very helpful. And as a loyal customer, I am also happy to monitor the results if you need anybody to come in and try to….

Bill Covaleski: Yeah, that’s the best part, right? Monitoring results. 

Liam Dempsey: Bill, when I moved to the area, I’m originally from the Midwest. When I moved to the area, I was literally dragged by new neighbors and colleagues out here, down to Victory Brewings location in Downingtown. And one of the things that struck me, aside from the real quality of beer, I’ll be honest, it took me a while to get into the food. ’cause I was just interested in, and overwhelmed by the good beer was the comradery and the kind of community aspect and the friendliness of both the staff and the other customers. 

And you shared in the run up to this conversation about how, you know you are a brewmaster, you make beer. That’ was your love in your business start. But that as Victory Brewing Company grew and you got into being a restaurant owner and having to come up with menus and all the things that come with creating a wider experience for customers that you looked around to try to learn from the community of folks who have already done that. And you shared that, that led you into becoming a part of the Pennsylvania restaurant and Lodging Association. And now, a few years down the road, after you joined, you’re now the chairman. What’s that been like? We know the hospitality sector has been just crippled since COvid 19. Talk to us about this, if you would. 

Bill Covaleski: Yeah. It’s a fantastic question. I appreciate it. I’ve been characterizing the experience of being chairman of the PRLA this year. as to my friends as basically being in the front seat of the rollercoaster, The twists and turns, the surprises, the changes are getting thrown at the organization very, very quickly.

Fortunately, we have an extremely talented CEO. And our board, similar to the role of brewmaster, we’ve sort of point to the directions, point to the opportunities and, our CEO does a lot of the heavy lifting. But it’s been a very, very integrated top team this year to communicate set goals and look through the windshield and see what the threats and opportunities are. 

But, in terms of my ascension into that role, it’s a three step process. You’re first treasurer, then your co-chair, and then your chairman. I began the year as co-chair, but unfortunately our chairman had to leave the state to take another job. And so on March the 14th, I was appointed chairman and we all know what happened on March the 17th with the closure of five counties. Including Chester County and then the 19th with all 67 counties of Pennsylvania. So, auspicious timing for sure.  

As an organization, the very first thing we did was got serious about what membership would be looking like down the road. The revenues are driven by membership so we revised the whole membership model, which caused the furlough of our sales staff of five at PRLA that included four additional administrative positions. So, immediately we were reduced by 60% in the headcount of the organization. And in changing the membership model, we rephrased or restated our mission that we would be the provider of information that was essential to hospitality operators to operate not only through this pandemic, but through the future as well. 

And therefore in the interest of public safety, we made all of the resources and advisories that PRLA had at our disposal free to everyone. We began detailed daily updates via email. Again, free to anyone who subscribed. And we increased the volume and pace of our webinars and advisories as well.

So again, we’ve looked at our role as operators in public health, which of course food services everyday, and we wanted to make sure that everyone member or now non-member was going to have the resources they need to do the very best things they could for their community. 

Joe Casabona: That’s…

Bill Covaleski: Go ahead.

Joe Casabona: Oh, I was just gonna ask a follow up question. Feel free to finish your thought.

Bill Covaleski:  So the other great thing about changing our strategy on membership was that at that time, Pennsylvania had essentially 26,000 hospitality operations of which PRLA could only boast about 2,700 as members. So even though we were the legitimate voice of the industry, we really didn’t have anywhere near the majority of all operations in it. And historically, we were almost more driven from a white tablecloth sort of perspective,  with a due structure based on annual revenues.

So we changed the dues down to a dollar a day, in essence for restaurant operations thinking that, if you can’t afford a dollar a day for essential information to run your business, then probably you’re not the best member anyway in the long term. And so that really sort of opens up a whole new realm of possibility for us to engage with lots of operations that we hadn’t before. And, it’s gonna broaden the diversity and depth of the organization, which is something I very much look forward to. 

Joe Casabona: That’s really fantastic. And I was actually gonna ask kind of what changes you made to a membership because as you probably know, when there’s chance of a big economic downturn or revenues or profits decreasing, people take a hard look at what they’re spending money on, and then need to figure it out.

So, you kind of answered my question already, but I do wanna highlight the fact that you said that dues are $1 a day.  I think that’s a good way to put it, right, because people might get a sticker shock from $365 a year, but $1 a day, I mean, that’s like, you know, you should be able to pay that.

Bill Covaleski:  Right, right. And just to clarify, that’s the fee if you pay, you know, for a full year in advance. We actually do have a monthly rate as well, which only boosts it, you know, a few bucks. Yeah. But,  you know, ots of options. 

And to give you some perspective on that, Joe, prior, so that’s really a reduction by almost two thirds for most, you know, existing, established members. So it’s a significant change to the organization. and stepping away from having, you know, human sales representatives, really does present a challenge for us in our communications and the vitality of the organization to fulfill that mission of being essential to operators. So we’re taking on a big challenge. No doubt about it.

Liam Dempsey: That’s really interesting. To put you on the spot a little bit, has the change in pricing structure you said it’s bringing in different types of members. Can you share any information about the volume of membership and how that might have changed? 

Bill Covaleski: Yeah. Great question. Thanks, Liam. 

Since March, the 15th, we’ve had nearly 150 new members join organically. And the scale of them are typically relatively small. We may be looking, we are looking right now at still proprietor pizza shops, deli’s. So again, folks that in the past hadn’t necessarily joined our organization for all the benefits of advocacy and information, but now they see it as hopefully essential and reasonable to be a member.

Liam Dempsey: Yeah. I think in Covid 19, we hear from all sorts of businesses about there’s so many different organizations, institutions, levels of government sharing information that in running a business, especially a small business where we’re doing so many different tasks, that’s difficult to disaggregate, which we need to action today, which we can leave until Next month and what we should be thinking about towards the end of the quarter. So that kind of service where you’re paying somebody to pay attention and figure out what matters to your size business or your side of the sector is really important. Really valuable. What a great service.

Bill Covaleski:  yeah. Absolutely. So the other thing too that the organization is extremely good at is advocacy representing the interests of the hospitality community. And for many operators, there’s a frustration of just, you know, hearing new ideas come out of Harrisburg that may or may not suit their business well. And having the frustration of not feeling like they have a voice in order to educate their elected officials. 

And so the advocacy aspect of the PRLA is really a significant benefit aggregating the voices and  lobbying. And I know the term lobbying always felt like a dirty word to me. But when you step back and you realize that your elected officials do need education so that they can best represent the interests of the community you serve your employees, your patrons, shareholders. It never ceased to amaze me when I have my few days in Harrisburg and we meet with elected officials and as soon as we walk out the door as hospitality operators in walks, the dental hygienists. And then the actuarials, and then the lumberjacks, and then the steam fitters. And it’s just, it’s mind boggling. The interests that an elected official has to be educated on. 

So advocacy is actually an important obligation of any trade association and really any business owner. If you don’t make your interest known, you really can’t expect them to be understood and supported.

Liam Dempsey: Yeah. I think that’s a really important point and it’s one we were hearing in our previous conversation with Cheryl Kuhn from the Southern Chester County Chamber of Commerce around bringing folks together for a louder shared voice. And even if the voice, you know, drifts on both ends of whatever issue it might be, at least there’s some commonalities there.  Thank you for sharing that. I think advocacy is important, especially since it’s very hard for one business. Even a huge business can struggle to get its voice heard a much less smaller businesses.

I wanna change gears on a change gears on us a little bit, he says, with some difficulty and ask you about how you got started with the PRLA you know, we talked about that you started your business, your brewing business in 1994, but at some point, you decided you needed to join a restaurant lodging association. Walk us through that and what that’s meant for you. 

Bill Covaleski: Yea. Tthank you for that question. So, the fact of the matter is, as I detailed earlier, Ron and I have training as brew masters. Neither of us had actually ever worked in a restaurant on the service side or on the kitchen side of things, which is, you know, a big gap in our experience, right? So when we’re running tap rooms, so, I guess it was about 2006 when I came to recognize the potential benefit of membership in the PRLA so that I might learn from my peers and be a better restaurant operator based on the comradery and expertise that I could gain from my peers.

You know, secondarily, it was easy to justify as well, because of course we have products that serve well in restaurants. So, you know, the opportunity, the platform to meet with my peers who might buy beer products for their operations was good as well. But I really expected to learn more than anything. I was walking in almost as an empty vessel ready to be filled. And lo and behold, through over time, I have apparently achieved enough knowledge and expertise to be trusted to be the chairman of the organization, which is really cool because I can continue to contribute what I’ve learned to established peers. Yet, also be helpful to entrepreneurs that are new and getting into this business. 

And there has been a tremendous amount of sort of hybrid hospitality models where manufacturers such as wineries, breweries, distilleries are exercising a retail driven model to support their manufacturing. So,  it gives me a great base of experience to nurture some of those organizations as they find their way in a ospitality side of things.

And, you know, the experience is wonderful too because what you see is everyone comes together to contribute what they have to offer, especially here in this pandemic, we have communities within communities. So we have restaurateurs who have taken their time to go out and basically do checks on restaurant operations without any authority. With plenty of expertise to see if all the protocols, all the safety protocols are in place on Fridays and Saturday nights, and basically advise that operator if they see something that’s amiss, something that could be improved upon.

So, that’s what’s really neat about being part of this hospitality community is that we look out for one another. And in doing so, what we do is we raise the level of consciousness and quality of overall public health. 

Joe Casabona: That’s, that’s great and I love hearing that. And something that you said that made me think about maybe my own personal experiences is that you joined this trade organization to learn from other members and peers. You know, I’ve heard of joining the Chamber of Commerce, or there are some other organizations that did not feel were super great. I won’t like name them, but, I think that working in a digital medium for me makes it hard for me to see the benefit of joining these trade organizations. But a lot of our listeners, I suspect, are not in the digital realm. And so, I really like that you spoke to your experience about that and how encouraging it is to see these trade organizations help each other out. 

Bill Covaleski: Yeah. I mean, there’s so many things that, like minds can accomplish when they actually get together and they do find common commonality and consensus. And, if we all stay separated and we don’t have these conversations, then there’s so much less that we can achieve. I kind of look at everything that life presents you as fitting into one of two buckets, obligation or opportunity. And so you might say, well, joining a trade association is an obligation. I have to pay dues, I have to show up at meetings.

I look at things like that as an opportunity to learn from my peers to express the interests of my employees, my operation and essentially find the things that we can work on together. And that philosophy of opportunity or obligation has served me very well ’cause it’s often allowed me to take a thing that truly is an obligation and look at it more positively and turn it into an opportunity for progress.

Liam Dempsey: I’m gonna second bill’s statement around the value of trade associations and, you know, chambers of commerce and the value that they can bring. 

I’m a few years ago now, I joined the Chester County Economic Development Council’s, TAG Initiative, which is an innovative technology action group, and that’s just been a wonderful opportunity to get to know businesses of all sizes and all foci across Chester County and kind of the greater Delaware River Valley area. And it’s like Bill, I came to it like, lemme just see where this goes. It seems an opportunity to meet and to learn and it’s just been so rewarding and I’ve learned so much about the county. And to your point, Bill, about the commonalities of all the different businesses and shapes and sizes still have a lot of similarities of what they’re trying to do and they’re trying to build community and pay their bills and support their team and provide great service. And that intersectionality of business to achieve common goals that bring some level of value to everybody is hugely important and really helps a community flourish.

Bill Covaleski: Yeah. And what you just shared there, Liam, I mean, your participation in that group I can see being very valuable because, you know, sometimes it takes people to get together to differentiate their ideas, right? You don’t necessarily wanna be creating a competitive business model to someone who may be better resourced and maybe your neighbor, and that will allow you the opportunity to pivot or perhaps add energy to that competing company and make it better and stronger. So, yeah. I think that those conversations are important. There’s no such thing as a bad conversation in my mind.  It may take you 30 seconds to realize you’re talking to someone you never wish to speak to again, and you learn something there. You may take there’s 30 seconds to meet your new best friend. So, it’s always worthwhile.

Joe Casabona: Bill, thank you so much for sharing some of your insight and your experience today and coming on the show. If people want to learn more about you and everything that you do, where can they find you?  

Bill Covaleski: So [victorybeer.com] is the best source of information. On Victory Brewing Company, I don’t participate too much on social media, but on Twitter I am @Victory_Bill. And on Instagram I am @Billcovaleski.  

And You know, one thing that we hadn’t touched upon that I think is worth mentioning within the context of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, there was a hospitality relief effort created called the Hospitality Assistance Response of Pennsylvania. Victory and 135 other donors have contributed to this effort. And to date has raised $257,627 awarding grants to 848 hospitality workers who find themselves out of work and in need. And our contribution was this really cool t-shirt that revised my original Keg man designed from 1994. And so I believe that like as of last week, there were 61 of those shirts still left. So ,if you do wander onto [victorybeer.com]. You know, stop by the gift shop. 

Joe Casabona: Awesome. I will be sure to link all of that in the show notes. And is there a specific URL or or place for harp?  

Bill Covaleski: There is at the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association. I’ll share that URL with you so you get it up there for the for the pod. Okay. 

Joe Casabona: Yeah. Perfect. And you’ll be able to find all of the show notes over at [startlocal.co]. Bill, thank you so much for joining us today. We really appreciate it. 

Bill Covaleski: You gentlemen are welcome. Thank you for your good questions. 

Liam Dempsey: Thanks for your time, Bill. Really appreciate it. Take care. 

Joe Casabona: Thank you. Thanks to all of you for listening. Until next time, stay safe out there.

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