Ohio distillery owner pivots amid coronavirus to save jobs ahead of its 10-year anniversary

How a pivot to hand sanitizer created a business boom that the owner never dreamed of

Co-founder and owner of Ohio’s Watershed Distillery Greg Lehman always dreamed of having customers wrapped around the block for his distillery’s spirit offerings. Amid the coronavirus pandemic his dream materialized, but with a wildly different product.

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“I had this idea that someday we would make this great gin or this great bourbon and people would line up around the block for it,” said Lehman. “But when I came in on the first day we offered the public hand sanitizer, it was amazing, people lined up. We shut down a few traffic lights!”

The moment represented a peak in what Lehman described as a “roller coaster year.” His decade-old distillery and adjoining restaurant were celebrating a successful quarter in early March as well as their strongest year in 2019. In fact, Watershed Kitchen & Bar was one of the top three restaurants in Columbus. Everything changed for Lehman, however, when Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine issued an executive order to close bars and restaurants. The move forced Lehman to lay off close to three dozen of his employees.

“I was at the restaurant and I had to tell the whole restaurant staff how to apply for unemployment,” said Lehman. “And if you look at the distillery side of our business, 60% of our distilling business comes from being sold into restaurants. The reality really set in that our business could be gone.”

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IWSR Drinks Market Analysis is forecasting an overall volume decline of about 1.8% for total beverage alcohol in the U.S. this year. Lehman said Watershed quickly pivoted to produce much-needed hand sanitizer after learning that other distilleries were producing hand sanitizer. The hand sanitizer was offered to the public as well as to first responders and front-line pandemic response teams. Watershed also shifted to an all-curbside bottle shop model for sanitizer, spirits and merchandise.

“Producing hand sanitizer really helped with morale,” said Lehman. “Everyone's all of a sudden inspired and passionate, and we're helping people.”

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Lehman continued the curbside trend and produced Columbus' first drive-thru festival and curbside bottle release. He’s optimistic for the future and is excited to have made it to September, which marks Watershed’s 10-year anniversary.

“In February, if you told me that, come August, I was going to be within 10%, but a little bit below last year, I would be disappointed,” said Lehman. “But here I am, cheering our teams and Watershed on because we're making it happen and we're not having to cut people’s jobs on the distilling side.”

On Sept. 19 the Watershed released a new bourbon expression to celebrate its 10th anniversary as an independent Ohio distillery.

For more on how co-founder and owner of Ohio’s Watershed Distillery Greg Lehman pivoted during coronavirus, watch the full video above.

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