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Coping With COVID: Kent Orton & Wheelhouse Brewing

COVID-19 may have forced BC’s breweries to temporarily close their tasting lounges. However, their entrepreneurial spirit is strong, and their fans are incredibly loyal. As a result, many brewers have managed to bring their tasting lounge right into their customers’ living rooms amid social distancing, by quickly pivoting to online sales.

Some of the BC breweries that have been able to set up digital bottle shops have been taking advantage of features from vendors like Square, leveraging curbside pickup and local contactless delivery to keep the taps flowing while Canadians stay home.

In this series, we spotlight BC breweries coping with change. Today, we feature Prince Rupert’s Wheelhouse Brewing. We caught up with co-founder Kent Orton to see how they are adapting to the new normal.

Q & A with Kent Orton of Wheelhouse Brewing

Q: How did you get started in craft brewing?

We got started shortly after my two partners and myself moved with our families to Prince Rupert in 2007. We all liked craft beer and pub culture, but there was a hole in the market between Victoria and Alaska. We ended up spending five years meeting weekly and learning to brew, perfecting our recipes, and working on our business plan (plus drinking beer).

Then things started falling in our laps. A pioneering microbrewery, Plan B in Smithers, closed its doors, and we picked up their tanks for fire-sale prices. Next, the local U-Brew closed and we got their cold room, kegs, and office equipment. Those two events allowed us to start with very low overhead and be able to grow organically rather than taking out a big loan.

Kent Orton

Q: Craft brewing is a booming industry. What has set you apart from the pack?

We’ve come to really love the North Coast. We like the forests, the ocean, the mountains, and the people. We enjoy showcasing the vibrant nature of the area with locally-produced quality beer. Some of our biggest hits include local products like hand-picked spruce tips, smokehouse-smoked grain, and foraged rowanberries.

Wheelhouse has become a touchstone for both visitors and residents. We’ve built a really great lounge that everyone can [normally] come in and feel like a part of the community.

Q: Tell us about pivoting online and what tools are you using to do this?

Closing our lounge has meant a big reduction in revenue and it’s taken some soul-searching. Thankfully, we were able to quickly get our online store open after shopping around and finding Square was the best value. Now we’re shipping beer around BC, and delivering it around town in our company van.

Q: How is it going so far?

So far it’s working out. We’ve used this time to explore other opportunities and we’re very pleased to have lined up a canning system that will allow us to get into new markets. It’ll be awesome to be able to have our favourite beers in cans when we want to take them on adventures too.

Outdoors at Wheelhouse Brewing. Photo: Jeremy Nemanishen

Q: When this is all over, do you think you’ll keep the online store going along with the doors reopening?

The online store is awesome. We’ll definitely be keeping it going. When and if interprovincial barriers to alcohol sales get relaxed, we’ll be ready to get beer to people who want it from coast to coast to coast.

We can also sell clothing and promotional items around the world through our online store.

Q: Any advice for other business owners during this time?

The Federal and Provincial governments have been great about making money available for those who need it. Taking advantage of programs, particularly the Canada Small Business Financing Program through our bank, has helped.

Other than that, we try to stay positive, keep cool and keep clean!

Wheelhouse Brewing Company

217 1st Ave East
Prince Rupert 

T: +1 250-624-2739
E: [email protected]

Wheelhouse Brewing on Cascadian Beer Podcast

Check out the discussion as Craig Outhet of Wheelhouse Brewing joins Aaron Johnson of  Cascadian Beer Podcast. Full story → 

Wheelhouse Brewing – An Anchor in the Community for Prince Rupert


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