How Kensington Brewing Co. leaned into aesthetics and customer experience to navigate the challenges of COVID-19

Here we speak to Michael Gurr, President of Kensington Brewing Co., about pivoting during the pandemic, the evolution of craft beer, and being a part of the Kensington Market community.

On starting the business in Kensington Market and why Kensington Brewing Co. wants to “look out of place”

Michael Gurr: We opened Kensington Brewing Co. almost 10 years ago now, in the back of a restaurant in Kensington Market, and we actually were initially sort of just like a house brand of beer for the burgers that we served the restaurant. Eventually the beer was doing so much better than the restaurant that we decided to focus just on the beer, so that’s when we closed the restaurant down and signed a lease on a new building that was going up in the neighbourhood.

Kensington is such a unique, weird, wild neighborhood that’s very much the manifestation of our motto: “Look out of place,” which is really about not being afraid to do your own thing. For us the neighbourhood is perfect with its weird imperfections.

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On KBC’s clientele and the company’s commitment to inclusivity, community and education

Michael Gurr: Our demographic is very young. The nature of the neighbourhood is that it’s constantly in flux, and we are quite close to the University of Toronto. So, we get a fair amount of that crowd. And Kensington is not just a place to shop or grab food or drinks — people live here. Over the weekend particularly, we have the “stroller gang” here, mostly young families that come in for a pint during the day. At night, things get a little more rowdy.

We also pride ourselves on being a LGBTQ+ friendly space, offering a safe space not only for our customers but also for our staff, as well. We try to punch above our weight in that respect. In terms of our community participation, we really feel passionately about making sure that if anybody is approaching us from one of the local Business Improvement Associations (BIAs), we are eager to participate. At the beginning of the pandemic we actually pivoted into making hand sanitizer, which we were distributing out basically at cost to the Chinatown BIA, to Leslieville BIA, and to our own backyard and all the restaurateurs here.

We’re a progressive, open and youthful company. We like to get engaged. We don’t shy away from issues that we feel very passionate about. For example, we, like many Canadians, are re-educating ourselves and want to help raise awareness about the history and long-lasting inter-generational impacts of the Residential School System. We have offered our staff a paid day off to enroll in the Indigenous Canada Course by the University of Alberta. This is specifically how we are looking to educate ourselves and provide our staff with incentives to join in.

On growing a business during the pandemic

Michael Gurr: Today, we are a completely different business than the one that went into the pandemic, for a variety of reasons. Obviously, we were forced to think of ways to stay alive. Overnight we lost about half our business, which was other restaurants and bars that we sell to. We immediately rolled out an awesome home delivery program, which is still active today. Anyone can visit our website and within 24 to 48 hours have beer at their doorstep. Increasingly, people love buying things online, so we thought: “Why not beer?”

The month that COVID hit, we had just signed a lease on a second building. I remember thinking “This is a terrible time to take on a bunch of overhead,” but it actually enabled us to quickly scale up production of items that would go into the retail channel, which actually did quite well during the pandemic. Our own in-house retail stores which we were able to keep open at limited capacity, did reasonably well. So, if it weren’t for the fact that we expanded into the second location when we did, we wouldn’t have been able to supply the LCBO with the two products they have now. We’ve got four products at The Beer Store now, and that wouldn’t have happened, or it would have taken a lot longer. So, kind of a silver lining.

On having all hands on deck during a challenging time

Michael Gurr: Everyone at KBC did a really amazing job during a time of great change and uncertainty. I believe that the most challenging times can really bring out the best in people, and we have some great people who truly did everything to help out the business. I mean, we had sales reps working at the retail store! Everyone pitched in. It was still tough, don’t get me wrong. But I’m happy to see us coming out of this this sort of a leaner, meaner machine.

On how the function and aesthetic of Square Register suits KBC’s business

Michael Gurr: I’ve looked at all of the big point of sale systems over the years. The main problem that we had with our type of business and our scale was that the POS systems were overly complicated — POS systems that could launch the space shuttle! We wanted something that was very contemporary in its user experience, and very simple and easy for us to understand. That was ultimately the main driver behind transitioning to Square from one of their competitors. We’ve got this great hardware that the staff and customer intuitively knows how to use. New staff are trained to use it within 5 minutes, because everything is so logically laid out. On the back end, I’m constantly looking at the reporting and accounting functions, it’s very straightforward and simple.

Square Register is such an easy device to use, and beautiful! We actually have customers comment on how nice and sleek it is, which I think is probably something that’s often overlooked. You’re used to seeing a regular cash register, and you might think: “How good does a cash register need to look?” But in a business like ours, things are increasingly driven by both aesthetics and the customer experience. With Square Register everything is nicely integrated, and customers and staff love seeing it and interacting with it. Plus, during COVID, the dual-facing screens are great, because we are always looking for ways to make sure that our environment is safe and everything is separate and sanitized.

On the challenges facing his business and the evolution of craft beer

Michael Gurr: It’s difficult to cultivate a brand that is distinct and that speaks to people in a unique way, and it doesn’t happen overnight. When I first started in this business I was in sales, and I’d walk into bars and restaurants saying: “Hey, try our craft beer!” I spent most of my time explaining what craft beer was. That was a decade ago. Nowadays, craft beer is a cultural touchstone in North America. Even if you aren’t into it, there is a general mainstream awareness and acceptance of it.

Compared to how it was ten years ago, the craft beer scene is so competitive. There are well over 400 breweries in Ontario alone, and there is only so much shelf space, and so much consumer interest. For us, the biggest challenge is how we can build and cultivate a strong, authentic brand that speaks to people and then back that up with amazing products. Our focus has always been on making some of the best beer in Canada, while not taking ourselves too seriously.