In late March, 15,000 gallons of beer were sloshing around in Peter Bulut’s tanks and barrels with nowhere to go. Bulut, the owner of Great Lakes Brewing Co., first started working in his father’s tiny craft brewery in Toronto almost 30 years ago, when he was 21. Since taking over five years ago, Bulut, now 50, had transformed it into a model small-scale brewer — quintupling its production capacity, opening an onsite restaurant and retail store, and building up a force of nine full-time salespeople who landed the company’s beer into bars, restaurants, and liquor stores all over Ontario.
Back on March 13, when Covid-19 was creeping its way into Toronto, Bulut started taking small precautions, like suspending in-store beer tastings. Then the full weight of the calamity struck with stunning speed. Two days later he closed the restaurant and store. Most of the bars and restaurants he supplied beer to were closing, too. Five days after that, facing a 50% drop in business, he laid off a quarter of his 52 employees. “I didn’t sleep for two weeks after that,” recalls Bulut. “When you’re the owner, it’s your fault.”
He didn’t want to do more layoffs — but what was he going to do with the tens of thousands of gallons of beer piling up? Maybe he could sell it online and do home delivery? One of his employees had set up an online shop to sell T-shirts and caps with the company’s logo. Bulut had the employee call Shopify, the company powering the site, to find out what it would take to convert it into an online beer-sales-and-delivery store. Bulut was surprised by Shopify’s response. “They jumped all over it,” he says. “They wanted to help us hit big sales volumes.”
Two days later Great Lakes transformed into a fully functioning e-commerce operation, taking home delivery orders on its website. They made a few dozen sales the first day. Within a week they were up to 500 orders daily. There was so much business that Bulut kept all of his nine salespeople busy full time delivering the beer to customers’ homes. Meanwhile, Shopify helped Great Lakes set up a contactless credit-card reader and a…