The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted many a business model, causing entrepreneurs across the country to quickly pivot their approaches in order to survive. In the hospitality industry, the trickle-down effect of bar closures has been massive, and among those that have been hard hit are cocktail ice companies. By breaking down enormous blocks of ice and shaping them to order for cocktail bars and events around the country, companies like Hundredweight Big Ice in New York City, PDX Ice in Portland, Oregon, and Just Ice in Chicago had found the perfect niche within a niche. At least, until the pandemic forced events to be cancelled and bars and restaurants nationwide to shutter almost overnight. “We don’t normally sell to people making cocktails at home, so all of a sudden we didn’t have a single customer,” says Paty Boccato of Hundredweight.
One of the first specialty cocktail ice companies (if not the first), Hundredweight was born out of cocktail bar Dutch Kills in New York City. Amid the COVID-19 closures, Dutch Kills started offering to-go cocktails, which also created a new opportunity for ice sales. “We quickly realized that the people who were buying cocktails through our to-go window wanted larger quantities [of ice] to take to their house, so we started doing delivery to them as well,” Boccato says.
Most cocktail ice companies were already set up for refrigerated delivery services prior to the pandemic, so the logistics of shifting from commercial to residential shipments weren’t insurmountable. Still, the approach is different and takes some finessing. “We’re going to people’s houses now, and they aren’t bartenders, so they don’t really know what they need or want to order. We’re giving them a lot of guidance on that front, handing out recipes and giving them cards that teach them how to shake or stir at home, which is something they might not have learned otherwise,” Boccato says. “We’re getting a little more business now, but it’s not even 10 percent of what we normally do.”
In Portland, Oregon, the team at PDX Ice was already exploring residential delivery with subscription services prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, so even though 70 percent of their business disappeared overnight, the new normal has involved ramping up the consumer side of the business. They’re doing this in part by offering a new a la carte menu on their website. “We had 4,000 ice cubes already cut, probably 1,500 spheres and other various cubes, and bags of one-inch Kold Draft ice set aside for liquor stores and grocery stores [in March],” says founder Charles Hartz. The struggle has been getting the word out to potential customers. “Now we’re kind of going door to door, dropping off postcards in mailboxes to let people know what we’re offering.”
For Blind Tiger Ice in San Francisco, the issue is similar. What started as a small percentage of residential deliveries has morphed into something more significant. “The biggest logistical challenge for us is finding the folks that want our ice. Instagram is helping, but we’re exploring partnerships with alcohol retailers and are coming up with new ways to bundle our products,” says founder Gretchen Tucker.
With millions of people around the country now unemployed, the luxury of purchasing specialty ice can be a tough sell, so Tucker says she’s thankful they’re operating in a relatively affluent area. “I think there is a residential market here in the Bay Area that could sustain the operating costs of our small, scrappy enterprise, but the big question is whether or not we can find it and nab it before we go bust.”
In St. Paul, Robbie Harrell, CEO of Minnesota Ice, realized he’d need to diversify operations significantly after going from 30-plus daily ice deliveries to zero in the span of a few days. The company partnered with a local fish distributor called Market House to offer packages of ice shipped overnight. They also expanded their online shop to include goods from other Minnesota-based companies like Bittercube, Five Watt Coffee, and Milkjam Creamery, to put delivery trucks to good use while also helping other local businesses sell their products. Within the next week, Harrell says Amazon will be selling Minnesota Ice on that platform as well. “We realized that it was going to be hard to pay for our overhead if we’re just selling small bags of ice,” he says. “We’re trying to get restaurant-quality products to people in their homes. It’s comforting to know that we’re going to be able to go back to these places when they re-open, but in the meantime it’s nice to bring that kind of thing to people.”
For Penny Pound Ice, 95 percent of business came to a halt when bars and restaurants closed in Los Angeles, San Diego, and other parts of Southern California (their clients include several bars under the Consortium Holdings umbrella and The Whaling Club). “We decided to furlough the staff and go to a skeleton structure as we pivoted to retail—we have a few grocery and liquor stores we work with, and we’ve been working with some clients to help with their to-go cocktails as well,” says owner Gordon Bellaver. They’ve also offered the use of their refrigerated trucks to Union Station Homeless Services to get meals to those in need. “The fact we can help the industry and people with food insecurity is great,” Bellaver adds. “We’re saying to everyone that we’re here and with you and we’ll see what this looks like on the other side. That’s been the focus for the past few weeks.”
Bellaver admits the “other side” is unknown at this point, so while they’ve been targeting new ice customers in the short term, Penny Pound has also been diving deep into R&D, exploring new products and revenue streams in case their previous clients don’t have the funds to resume their contracts after re-opening. “We see that quarantining and people doing things at home in smaller groups will be the new normal for some time, if not in general,” he says. “We’re anticipating entirely new structures, so we know we have to evolve. We’re approaching this as a clean slate.”
Back in New York, Boccato worries about how long these short-term measures can sustain Hundredweight. “We can’t last forever like this, especially in New York City where the costs of operating a business, even when it’s not operating, are so high.” Her hope is that clients won’t drop their ice services once they re-open. “Ice is a luxury item and something people use if they’re giving customers the best of the best. A lot of our clients will be so financially devastated that I don’t know if we’ll be a priority for them anymore. I have a sense that a lot of people have loyalty to us and will continue to give us business, but there’s no predicting that part of it.”
Regardless, she’s willing to give it all she’s got. “We’re ready to be creative. We’ve thought of so many things, like maybe turning Hundredweight into a butcher shop because it’s all the same equipment, from the freezers and bandsaws to our cutters who are already butchers. So we’ve already started thinking beyond to figure out what to do. We’re not going down easy.”
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