Closing time: eased restrictions on bars and restaurants come too late for some businesses

Craft breweries say a mooted change in the law to allow direct domestic sales from breweries to customers could be a way to ease the financial pressures.

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File picture of craft beer / Credit: iStock

A decision to ease restrictions and allow restaurants, cafes and bars to re-open this week is welcome news for many in the industry eager to get back to business after two months of enforced closures.

But for others Monday is a bittersweet day, as it comes just too late to save their business.

Helsinki’s BrewDog pub is one of the casualties of coronavirus, and as the owners call closing time due to the impact of coronavirus, it means eight people are losing their jobs.

“It’s not a matter of waiting for one more day or so, but we have been closed throughout the month” says owner Joakim Stenius.

“You want to keep everything as good as you can but the fixed costs are too high. When January and February are usually quite slow, then coronavirus came, it was too much” he tells News Now Finland.

Stenius is now focusing on his other BrewDog bar in Tampere but says the restrictions on the number of people he can have inside at any one time, limited to 50% occupancy with social distancing of two metres between seated customers, is going to be hard to achieve.

“It’s going to be really tough. Unbearable in a way. I can understand why they have said we must use good social spacing, and they have to give some directions. But then again in Finland people will queue for buckets” he says.

Mallaskuun Panimo file pic

Brewery restaurant goes bust but hopes for lifeline

Further north in Lapua the local craft brewery is still doing business, but its restaurant had to close.

“Lappua is a small town, and all the restrictions make it impossible to open” says Ville-Petteri Salomäki, Chairman of the Board at Mallaskuun Panimo.

The writing was on the wall already for the brewery restaurant, which filed for bankruptcy last week.

The Mallaskuu Brewery itself has also taken a hard hit during the coronavirus crisis as sales to bars and restaurants collapsed.

Salomäki is pinning his hopes now on a reform of alcohol sales laws the government has been promising to look at soon.

Finland’s convoluted laws for selling craft beers mean you can order products from a brewery and collect them yourself; but they can’t be sent to you from Finland.

“This home sales would be a nice way to compensate for lost sales” says Ville-Petteri Salomäki.

“You can do it at the moment, but you have to pick up the beer from the brewery and that’s the problem. If the market doesn’t open, if we don’t get a license to sell the beer, there is always an option to establish a company in Estonia, sell the products there, and then re-circulate those orders back to Finland again” he explains.

Other Finnish craft breweries have already discovered this loop-hole, which means they can sell their products to Estonia then re-import them for home delivery in Finland.

“It’s the hard way, but it’s possible. The easiest way would be if we get a licence to sell to people all over Finland” Salomäki adds.

Political pressure for sales 

The issue of smaller breweries being able to sell directly to domestic customers – cutting out the middlemen of supermarkets or state alcohol store Alko – is another political thorn.

“The Cebntre Party is always just talking without taking any action” says National Coalition Party MP Sinuhe Wallinheimo, referencing a mid-May tweet where Centre Party leader and Minister of Finance Katri Kulmuni had promised to work on the issue.

“It’s very disturbing especially for those brewing companies that are struggling right now. It’s somehow unbelievable that you can order online beer from Germany to your doorsteps, but you cannot do that from your local brewing company” adds Jyväskylä MP Wallinheimo.

The Brewing and Soft Drinks Industry Association Panimoliitto says they support the idea that smaller breweries would be able to sell directly to customers in Finland, but fear the whole scheme will likely get mired in legal problems.

“The Government has made a proposal and Parliament has approved discussing it in the next weeks. But I’m not sure it’s going to go forward, there’s a lot of complicated things on the legal side” says Panimoliitto CEO Riikka Pakarinen.

“Of course we understand the breweries they need support and they are suffering during the coronavirus time” she says.

When it comes to alcohol issues, Finnish political parties tend to be divided along personal lines, as well as ideological lines with some MPs from all parties supporting more liberalisation, while others are against it.

Another complicating factor for the government parties is that during recent months when bars and restaurants have been closed, sales at Alko increased bringing more tax revenues for state coffers.

“Bankruptcies of restaurants and the like are a really bad thing, and their operations should be normalised immediately” says Oulu MP Lauri Nikula (Centre).

“As for the sale of alcohol, I cannot say whether it would have saved any businesses. Now, perhaps, we should be looking at things more regionally, for example in Ostrobothnia the situation is really calm so all the restrictions should be lifted as soon as possible” he tells News Now Finland.

“Restrictions have really severe effects on the economy, and economic stagnation affects everywhere.”