Just two weeks before the ninth annual Big Texas Beer Fest’s scheduled date of March 27, Chad and Nellie Montgomery, the husband-and-wife team who founded the event, postponed it until July.
They didn’t know at the time that it was the first of many challenges they’d face trying to run the festival and their beer and coffee shop Civil Pour.
“It took almost as much time to handle the rescheduling as it did to set the whole thing up,” Chad says.
It was a lot to handle, but they remained hopeful. Since then, the event has been rescheduled again. It’s now set for March 2021.
The Montgomerys knew the postponement would have a harsh impact on the festival’s workers.
“The people who work the State Fair of Texas work for [us], too. The exact same crew of people,” Chad says.
The beer fest hires about 150 people on a contract basis through a vendor that manages all the food and beverage operations in Fair Park. Because the concessionaires are hired through a vendor, the Montgomerys are the only other employees of the fest. If they need to the couple can put the festival into hibernation mode.
But that wasn’t the case for their brick and mortar.
The duo opened Civil Pour in August 2018, seven years after founding Big Texas Beer Fest. In addition to providing quality coffee and beer, part of their mission for Civil Pour involved supporting the surrounding community.
“The No. 1 thing we tried to do when we started Civil Pour was providing good jobs for people. One of the saddest days we’ve ever had was March 24, when we had to lay off 13 people,” Chad says.
Many of the employees had been working there since it opened. The decision to close the shop for an indefinite period wasn’t easy, and they considered other options.
They received a PPP loan, but after learning more about the terms, they didn’t think it worked well for their business, so they returned it. Keeping the business on a takeout-only model didn’t seem like it could sustain the place that had become a lively gathering place in the neighborhood.
The welcoming space was a regular meetup spot for a multitude of people. Bible study groups, neighborhood groups, book clubs, work teams and students alike made Civil Pour their home base.
Part of what made the space so special was “the energy that was inside of the shop with creative people,” Nellie says.
But they were concerned about their employees if the shop opened again. With revised terms on the PPP loan and some additional loan assistance, maintaining a safe environment for their employees and customers at Civil Pour became their biggest concern.
In a way, the solution to that problem already existed. As originally designed, Civil Pour was built with a walk-up window. The city’s health department had some concerns about it, so it had never been used.
While the shop was closed, the team made some modifications, and it has become the centerpiece of their business model, at least for the time being.
“One of the coolest things this pandemic has taught us is that humans can be really innovative when they're forced to be,” Nellie says.
Most of Civil Pour’s employees have returned to work, and the walk-up window lets the staff continue masked face-to-face customer contact without the additional safety concerns that indoor dining brings. An online store offers shipments of freshly roasted coffee beans, while the takeout ordering system lets customers order items from the food, coffee and beer menus to pick up at the window.
Those food and beverage programs with a focus on quality and local sourcing are another part of the mission and the magic at Civil Pour. Coffee comes from Dallas’ Novel Coffee Roasters. Croissants, cookies, muffins and more come from home-kitchen pastry business Arielle, Pastry Works, which has a storefront location coming to Lewisville later this summer.
The beer program with rotating taps was launched to offer local, national and international brews that customers couldn’t purchase in cans or six-packs in local stores. As the availability of excellent beer has grown in the area, so too has local representation grown on the tap wall.
While the Montgomerys are making business-as-not-quite-usual look easy, the timing of the pandemic’s arrival to Dallas couldn’t have been worse for their almost 2-year-old store.
“We had just had a few months of making a profit and everything working really well. It takes a while for a business to work really, and we had gotten there and were just a couple months into it. This feels like opening up from square one,” Nellie says.
It isn’t the first time the Montgomerys have started from square one. They started following their passion for beer before there was much of a local beer business in Dallas. Before the first year of Big Texas Beer Fest, a VIP ticket to a beer event might get you “cans of a few nationally distributed beers and plated Lunchables,” Chad says.
But local industry pioneers Michael Peticolas and Deep Ellum Brewing founders Drew Huerter and John Reardon began following their passions while the Montgomerys were nurturing their festival concept. Mutually supportive relationships developed along the way.
The path to success that’s worked for Big Texas Beer Fest could be a good philosophy for any business trying to survive a pandemic.
“Grow your friendship circle,” Nellie says. “The only way our small businesses are going to survive is supporting each other.”
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