Breathing Room: How Barrel Oak Continued to Serve Customers at a Tenth of the Cost

Open air space is a valuable commodity for a winery during a pandemic, but serving guests outside can be a challenge during the cold weather months.

One Virginia winery has found a solution in social distancing “bubbles” that allow its guests to enjoy a glass while staying warm and dry. Needing to form a cost-effective contingency plan ahead of potential stringent statewide mandates, Barrel Oak Winery and Farm Taphouse in Delaplane purchased and installed several Garden Igloo bubbles on its grounds.

At a total cost of $14,000 to purchase and install, the eight bubbles that added 1,152 square feet of sheltered outdoor space were a palatable alternative to a permanently covered expansion of its existing concrete patios, Barrel Oak Proprietor Brian Roeder said.

“I was a builder in a past life and building out 1,150 square feet of space on our existing exterior concrete patios would have cost at least $125 square feet, or $144,000,” Roeder said. “Plus, we would have had to build about twice that space due to social-distancing table spacing requirements.  Bonus, the bubbles are relocatable and disassemble-able and with some effort can be repurposed away from their very desirable outdoor location when we get back to nice weather.”

With much unknown about the pandemic and how it would affect the future, Roeder placed the order for the bubbles in September and received them in mid-November. To prepare, they built platforms, filled them with roll insulation and decked them with plywood. When the bubbles arrived, they were assembled and screwed onto the platforms. Staff then ran extension cords to each to provide power for lighting and small electric heaters and furnished the spaces with outdoor lounge furniture and rugs.

Doing nothing and hoping to successfully weather the pandemic was not an option, he said.

“Based upon the broad-based and repeated warnings of epidemiologists, it seemed likely that we were looking at a potential complete shutdown of our interior 8,000 square feet of seating space in the winter,” Roeder explained. “While this has not yet happened, it remains likely.  

“Our business carries a very large amount of debt and we need to generate revenues beyond our offsite and shipping sales. Because the bubbles are self-contained and available only to each individual group that rents them, we believe that an indoor seating shut-down will not prevent their rental no matter how bad things get.

“Finally, in looking at the probable psychology of our potential guests in the dead of winter, we believe that the desire to escape home will drive business our way provided that we can accommodate visitors in a safe and legal way. Clearly, our bubbles were the only complete solution to this challenge.”

Between uses, the bubbles are electrostatically sprayed with sanitizer, then aired out with a box fan, then again sanitized and wiped down.  

“We also do not allow our staff to enter the bubbles when occupied by guests and all ordering and delivery is provided from outside the bubble,” Roeder said.

The bubbles rent for $95 an hour during the week, $145 an hour on Saturdays, and $125 an hour on Sundays. Just 12.5 hours after going live and retooling its website with off-the-shelf software, Roeder reports that Barrel Oak had received 83 bookings for total prepaid revenue of $22,500, offset by a cost of about $1,000 marketing the bubbles on Facebook.

Customer feedback has been positive and appreciative.

”Our Facebook page has lit up with 750 comments and 1,895 likes in three postings since December 5,” Roeder said on December 17.  “In fact, it is the most popular business promotion in our history.”

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