An unpretentious plea leads to a needed surge in business for Pretentious Barrel House

Andy Downing
Josh Martinez at Pretentious Barrel House

In the weeks after Gov. Mike DeWine shut down much of the state amid the initial coronavirus wave,Pretentious Barrel House managed to get by, subsisting on home delivery orders that spiked following the closure. Gradually, though, business started to fall off for the sour beer purveyor, which will celebrate its third anniversary in October, crashing in the weeks after DeWine allowed businesses to reopen.

“Once the bars were opening and people were wanting to go out, they were forgetting about us and other places, for sure,” said Martinez, who said the brewery typically doesn’t do a booming summer trade because its East Side taproom, located at 745 Taylor Ave., lacks an outdoor patio space. “I was surprised how well we were doing in April, and then again in May, but June was going bad and July was going bad and I was just like, ‘We can’t do this again in August.’ … As a startup, you’re going to have good weeks and bad weeks, and good quarters and bad quarters, but the last few quarters there just weren’t any silver linings to be found.”

Amid the downturn, which coincided with the brewery exhausting received PPP funds, Martinez started to have conversations with investors, discussing options such as shutting down brewing operations and cutting staff with an eye on relaunching post-COVID. “And that’s not something I wanted to do; I’d rather keep all of my employees getting paid, because it’s not a good job market right now for them,” Martinez said. “And they also have healthcare through us, and [a pandemic] is not a good time to lose healthcare.”

It was around this time, at the tail end of a long day, which fell at the end of a long week, which itself fell at the end of a couple of long months, that the normally reticent Martinez logged in to the Pretentious Facebook account and made an earnest public plea.

Friends, Josh here. I wanted to reach out to give a status update. Over the last few months COVID-19 has made running a brewery quite challenging. I am frequently asked 'how is the business doing?' I think my favorite answer is 'things could be worse.' Well, recently things have gotten worse,” he wrote, in part. “Like many of you, we are struggling. We need your support now more than ever. I am writing this not as a business owner but as an employer. I love my staff and I want to keep them gainfully employed. If you are financially able, I would request that you order some beer.”

Martinez then logged off and shut down his computer, leaving him completely unaware as the post started to spread online (it has since been shared more than 640 times). The digital shares had an immediate real-world impact, leading to a surge in business that Martinez said will allow Pretentious to operate regularly for at least the next six to eight weeks.

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“In the last four days we did more business than we had in the last six weeks,” said Martinez, who logged a couple of 17-hour days to help navigate the spike. “I was hoping we’d generate enough business [from the post] to cover costs for like a week, just to give us a little leeway, but it was such an outpouring. … It was nuts, and I don’t even know why.”

A friend offered at least one suggestion for the response. “He told me, ‘I think that’s the most honest thing I’ve seen on the internet in a while,'” said Martinez, noting that he’s normally not the kind to ask for help, no matter how dire the situation. “I feel like [it resonated] because it was kind of different. We weren’t asking for donations or trying a GoFundMe. It was just like, ‘We have all of this beer that we made … and we’ve gotta move it somewhere.'”

In addition to home customers, Martinez said Pretentious also received orders from local bars and breweries, a number of which are experiencing similar struggles. In the coming weeks, the brewer said he plans to use Pretentious’ social media channels to spotlight some of these small businesses as a means of paying it forward.

“My plan is to highlight those friends and small businesses that reached out, because I’m sure they need help, too,” Martinez said. “Everyone always says, ‘Oh, there’s too many craft breweries, and they’re all competing,’ but we’re all friends. We’re all part of the same community and we all want everyone to succeed. … So we’re going to be posting on our social media and encouraging people, if they can, to go and buy some beer, because it helps. As much as you feel like you can’t change anything, or help with everything that is going on, it really does help if you pick up a meal from your favorite restaurant, or buy a six-pack from your favorite brewery. It all adds up.”