Merridale Cidery & Distillery, located in Cobble Hill, BC, has been a pioneer of British Columbia and Vancouver Island’s agritourism experiences, but no business has gone unscathed by the COVID-19 pandemic, including Merridale.
“We had to pivot and reinvent just about everything we do,” says owner Janet Docherty. “It has meant changes to the entire way we do business, and some aspects of our business have stopped altogether. As an example, most of our events at the farm are now gone.”
The financial impact has been significant for Merridale given they are not only farmers, but a manufacturer, wholesaler, retailer and hospitality provider. While large commercial liquor producers may have seen a surge in sales due to COVID-19, for the most part, that has not been true for small craft producers such as Merridale.
As one source of support, Merridale enrolled in the Vancouver Island Coastal Tourism Resiliency Program. “We’ve been blown away by the program,” exudes Docherty. “It is so approachable and practical. The webinars and workshops focus on issues that tourism businesses are facing right now and provide access to resources and expertise that we could never afford on our own. In particular, we were able to connect with go2HR, whose recommendations on staffing during COVID-19 were real-world and actionable.”
Merridale took a hard look at what they really wanted to do and trimmed down their business to respond with what was allowed under COVID-19 restrictions. They invented new systems, found new products, changed their style of service, started a delivery business, and the list goes on.
Unfortunately reduced business meant reducing staff. “We are so grateful for the positivity of our team members who we’ve been able to keep on,” Docherty shares. “They have jumped in showing the willingness and ability to do whatever needs to be done. They have been very patient despite the uncertainty of what lies ahead.”
That uncertainty is huge. The world in which tourism and hospitality businesses are operating is constantly changing with new regulations. This means new procedures and training on a regular basis. “It’s expensive and exhausting for both ourselves and our team,” admits Docherty.
Many of the accounts Merridale sells cider and spirits to have closed or are operating at reduced capacities. At home at the farm, they are also struggling with reduced capacity. When the seasons change and everything must be inside, there will be further drops. Future projects that were well underway have been put on hold until there is more certainty in the economy.
Docherty concludes, “In the meantime, we continue to make quality products and offer agritourism experiences we are proud of while we all wait this out. It has been heartwarming to see the tourism industry come together to support one another and the incredible creativity shown as businesses pivot their offerings. We are so grateful for supports like the Vancouver Island Coastal Tourism Resiliency Program.”