UTICA, N.Y. — After a year of planning and preparation, Jennifer Earl was ready to open her new farm brewery in Utica when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020 and state restrictions all but shuttered such establishments for a while.
However, when the state eased back restrictions and allowed breweries and bars to open with reduced capacity and outdoor seating, Earl, owner and CEO, knew it was time to open the doors to Bagg’s Square Brewing Company at 330 Main St. in Utica.
She forged ahead and opened the brewery on June 12, 2020. Earl says while it was tough, things went better than anticipated.
“I think because we were new and we have a large space, I think people were eager to help us out,” she says.
Bagg’s Square Brewing can seat 100 people outside and features about 5,000 square feet of indoor space including a tasting room and event room. The brewery’s total footprint is 8,600 square feet in the Doyle Hardware building, with the remainder of the space used for brewing and other back-of-the-house operations.
“I think because it’s so large, people felt safe,” Earl says. Despite the warm opening response, starting any business, let alone a brewery, was more than challenging amid the pandemic, she notes.
While she was able to receive financial assistance from both the federal Paycheck Protection Program and Restaurant Revitalization Fund, Earl says when COVID cases picked up in the fall, she “had to lay off a whole bunch of people.” Earl laid off about six of her 15 employees at the time. Fortunately, as cases declined this spring and restrictions began to ease, Earl says not only was she able to hire people back, but she also added new employees to take the brewery’s workforce beyond where it was before. Currently, Bagg’s Square Brewing has 25 employees, three of whom work full time.
How it started
Earl began brewing up the idea for her business after a 2014 trip to Dusseldorf, Germany, where she and her husband visited a brewery named Uerige. The place was small, she says, with just two beers on tap and a small food menu. However, it was always packed with people enjoying the brewery and the sense of community. After observing that, Earl knew she wanted to recreate a similar experience in Utica.
In 2015, she began researching her options, eventually closing her music-therapy studio as she worked to launch her brewery. She knew right away that the Bagg’s Square area was the perfect location as one of the older areas of the city. And she knew Utica, with its rich beer-brewing history, was a good location in general. On top of that, the demographics were good, Earl adds. In particular, the nearby Utica train station sees nearly 200,000 people a year, according to 2016 data, she notes.
While the process of bringing the brewery from an idea to reality was a long one, that turned out to be beneficial during the pandemic. “Because this process has taken so long, I’ve learned to have some grace for things out of my control,” Earl says.
That enabled her to roll with the constantly changing government restrictions amid the pandemic. Now, with those limitations gone, Earl is charging full steam ahead. She declined to share revenue figures and says the brewery has not yet met its initial revenue projections. But she expects that to change soon as business continues to pick up.
“We’re pretty aggressive with our marketing,” she notes. She is working on a billboard and works with both the Utica Observer-Dispatch and WKTV on marketing and advertising. Earl is also starting to add various events to the brewery’s calendar such as live music, trivia nights, and karaoke/open mic nights. “We’re trying to be creative,” she says.
As she looks around at other projects taking place in the area, Earl says she is proud to be part of the revitalization of downtown and expects the other projects will only benefit her business.
Looking ahead, Earl says the brewery is working on distributing its beer through both wholesale and retail avenues. In addition, as a farm brewery, Bagg’s Square Brewing can have up to five locations under its license, she notes. While she has not pinpointed any new location yet, Earl always has her eyes open to opportunity.
“I just want to add to the culture of this state,” Earl says. “I love what I do.”
Bagg’s Square Brewing (www.baggssquarebrewing.com) recently commemorated its one-year anniversary with a ribbon-cutting celebration with the Greater Utica Chamber of Commerce.