Delta Means Change

by | May 1, 2024 | 0 comments

  • The faces behind Delta: Tim “Pio” Piotrowski & Michelle “Speedy” Riehn.

Delta Beer Lab had a solid business plan when they opened in February of 2019. They worked on creating a model rooted in their values of sustainability, fair pay, environmentalism, community, and helping support local nonprofit organizations that aligned with their mission and values. Their mission statement is: To expand the community through quality local craft beer, without barriers to gender, race, or sexual orientation.

The original business plan included buying locally made equipment, obtaining a large community space for events in an area of Madison/Fitchburg that is negatively impacted by racism and economic disparities, contributing to environmental initiatives to offset the impact of their business (1% for the planet), and paying their employees a living wage (with revenue share) so that tips could be donated to local nonprofits each month. The plan worked, and worked well, until the pandemic struck 13 months later, and the economic aftermath of the pandemic required Delta Beer Lab to re-organize and strategize as inflation rose, impacting every area of their business model.

Changing It Up 

In March 2024, Delta Beer Lab sent out a press release outlining the significant changes that the organization was making to try to mitigate the rising costs they are incurring due to inflation, high interest rates, and financial issues related to pandemic losses and the changes in how and when people gather in public spaces in a post-shutdown pandemic economy.

One of the major changes to their model includes re-organizing their employee pay and their nonprofit revenue share model to lower the costs of their products and encourage consumer growth. This means that they shifted from accepting tips for their nonprofit of the month to allocating those tips to employees instead. This move was made in the hope that they could lower their employees’ hourly wages without negatively impacting their employees’ ability to make a living wage. This move also opened the potential for tipped employees to make more than what they were making with their higher-than-industry-standard hourly wage. Delta Beer Lab has also committed to pay their employees their prior hourly wage should the tips received not cover the difference between what they were making previously and the new salary structure.

Delta Beer Lab’s new plan for supporting local nonprofits moves from a monthly model that was sustained through tips from customers to a model in which each week a different local nonprofit is featured through a program named Change It Up Tuesdays. Each Tuesday, a different nonprofit receives the proceeds from sales for the day and can accept donations at an event they host at Delta Beer Lab 4:00–8:00 p.m. Delta Beer Lab will assist with planning the event and advertising on their website and through social media, while the nonprofit of the week is tasked with hosting and inviting supporters to join them in the taproom. This shift might result in a smaller amount of funds going to each nonprofit but also allows Delta Beer Lab to continue to provide funds to local nonprofits that align with their values.

These organizational moves have allowed Delta Beer Lab to lower the prices of their products and keep their employees fairly compensated while preserving their mission and values with the hope of increasing customer growth. They hope to re-evaluate in the future and find a better way forward. The changes have been made public to raise local awareness of the struggles that small businesses are facing in a post-shutdown pandemic economy, as pandemic financial relief has dried up while inflation and interest rates continue to rise.

Pricing Struggles Test Values 

As a business that opened 13 months before the pandemic shutdown, and eased into reopening post-shutdown by prioritizing the safety of their staff and guests, Delta Beer Lab has struggled to find a balance between the increasing costs of operation, costs of living, and knowing when and how to pass those costs on to the consumer through increasing prices. They chose not to raise their prices in the first three years of operation in the hope that they would recover by now as the return to “normalcy” continued in a post-shutdown pandemic economy, despite rising costs resulting from pandemic-related inflation and shortages, including increases to the costs of ingredients, freight, and packaging.

Delta Beer Lab decided to raise their prices in Year 4 and rolled out a reasonable increase in costs that seemed to be generally acceptable to customers and the community. However, the ever-increasing costs forced them to raise prices again, which ultimately resulted in a stagnation in sales. This required them to re-examine the increases that were put into place and re-strategize on how to balance the increasing costs, while finding ways to encourage growth and also preserving their commitments to their staff, nonprofit partners, and their mission and values.

The financial challenges that Delta is facing have forced the business to actively engage in testing their values while trying to maintain some semblance of a sustainable business model. The changes that were implemented are contextualized within their values of doing good for their staff and community, while being mindful not to engage in practices that are contradictory to their mission and values in order to survive.

The owners of Delta Beer Lab will readily tell you that they did not get into the business to make excessive amounts of money but rather to make enough revenue to support themselves, their staff, their community, local nonprofits that align with their values, and environmental organizations that help offset the impact the brewery has on the ecosystem to sustain into the future.

They are inspired by, and dedicated to, the Seventh Generation Principle of the Native North American Indigenous tribe the Haudenosaunee, that the decisions Delta Beer Lab makes today result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future. This principle is centered in Delta Beer Lab’s values, as care for their staff and community, as well as care for water quality resources and climate change issues have a direct impact on long-term sustainability regardless of overall economic recovery; simply put, beer and community cannot be made without people, water, and crops. 

Every decision that Delta Beer Lab has made, however difficult or precarious, has been filtered through their mission. Despite their best intentions, they have recognized where they have made mistakes and will continue to embrace community feedback when they have faltered. It is never more difficult to know what the right thing to do is than when decisions are made that don’t perfectly align with their organizational values but are good decisions for their bottom line. This balance is not something that most businesses are transparent about, but Delta Beer Lab has made community accountability an important part of their values. Delta Beer Lab openly welcomes feedback and partnerships as they appeal to the community to help the business continue to sustain and encourage growth so that they have more resources to support the community.

Can Passion Pay Off? 

While this feature is focused on Delta Beer Lab and the economic impact that recovery from the pandemic has had on their business plan and their business model, the challenges that they are facing are not exclusive to their business or to breweries. Unfortunately for many small businesses, there has not been a return to pre-pandemic economic normalcy and growth. Many small businesses are struggling to keep up with the continued rise in operational costs, with several filing for bankruptcy as a result.

Delta Beer Lab is just one of many businesses that are trying to find ways to keep the doors open, the lights on, their staff compensated, and their rent paid. And while most of us are struggling to keep up with the high-interest rates, out-of-control housing costs, and the seemingly unending impacts of inflation, the message from local small businesses and nonprofits is timely and clear: If you are able, please find ways to put your money toward businesses and organizations that align with your values so that they may survive—and hopefully thrive—for years to come.

Despite the everyday challenges and stresses of operating Delta Beer Lab, the owners are hopeful that the changes they have made will encourage growth and sustainability. There is no dispute that Delta Beer Lab is passionate about what they do and why they do it; Delta Beer Lab is committed to centering community and living their values even when this conflicts with their bottom line. They are committed to the struggle to do better and to be better than they think they can, and dream of a day when everyone at Delta Beer Lab can shift their focus from the financial stresses they are currently experiencing to focus on their passion for crafting quality beers while supporting the causes that feed the soul of their business and community. 

Ways in which you can support Delta Beer Lab 

1. Buy their beer and/or other beverages (including gluten-free and N/A options) and/or Delta Beer Lab merchandise, and encourage others to as well! They have carryout options available for those not into the taproom scene as well.

2. Bring friends/family/colleagues out to Delta Beer Lab—The space is located right off of the Beltline, off of Rimrock Road, minutes from Fitchburg and Monona, less than 10 minutes from Downtown Madison, and about 15 minutes from most other areas in Madison. They have plenty of parking and a large accessible taproom (whimsically decorated with science/chemistry references) and brewery spaces. The bathrooms are gender neutral with two ADA-accessible bathrooms. They offer a variety of beverages including non-alcoholic options and gluten-free options. The taproom is large with tables of varying heights and sizes, and in the warmer weather months, they offer outdoor seating. They have board games, activities available throughout the week (e.g., trivia and craft nights), as well as food for purchase to make yourself, and they also allow folks to bring their own food.

3. Sign your nonprofit up to be featured on Change It Up Tuesday.

4. If you are planning an event, consider holding the event at Delta Beer Lab—they have reasonable rates for large events and often do not require a rental fee for nonprofits and smaller events.

5. Consider the impact you can have on keeping local small businesses open and help sustain these spaces for the future. n

Author’s note: Delta Beer Lab will always have a warm place in my heart as they were a brand new brewery who embraced the first Magic Festival Pride event hosted by OutReach in 2019 following OutReach’s decision to remove police participation in the 2018 Madison Pride Parade and the move to a brand new police-free event. It was a risk for any business, let alone a new business, and I’m grateful for their support then and in the years since.

jilip nagler finished up their term on the board of OutReach LGBTQ+ Community Center, is a member of OutReach’s Madison Area Transgender Association Leadership Team, a musician, and a community activist
and organizer dedicated to collective liberation. Everything ze knows about justice ze learned from Angela Davis, bell hooks, and queer/trans People of Color.

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