Staten Island brewery cheers can-do spirit in face of COVID-19 pandemic

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The COVID-19 pandemic derailed a lot of small businesses in New York City. But with smart thinking, Gotham-style grit and a devoted customer base, The Flagship Brewing Company on Staten Island has been able to keep the suds flowing.

The Island’s first local brewery in decades, Flagship was founded in 2014 by pals Jay Sykes and Matthew McGinley, who grew up sharing adjacent backyards in the North Shore neighborhood of West Brighton. Father and son craft beer fans Gary and Sam Angiuli joined in as operating partners.

The partners’ love of their home borough is celebrated in brews like their Pizza Rat pilsner — a collaboration with the Staten Island Yankees minor league baseball team, which has played games as the Pizza Rats. There’s been a chocolate stout made with crumb cake from the island’s venerable Holtermann’s Bakery as well as a brand-new hard seltzer line flavored with Ralph’s Famous Italian Ices, another SI staple.

Before COVID-19, the team had been focusing their efforts on draft beer. “Seventy percent of our business was selling kegs to bars and serving draft in our own taproom,” Sykes, 38, told The Post. “Back in March, overnight, that business dried up. We had to close our taproom, and nobody was drinking in bars.”

But just weeks earlier, they had acquired the materials to can their beer in-house for the first time.

Flagship pours a range of homemade brews — and as of this spring, cans them on site.
Flagship pours a range of homemade brews — and as of this spring, cans them on site.Annie Wermiel/NY Post

“We saw the opportunity to produce more cans and ship them into supermarkets and delis. We immediately went to work on that,” Sykes said, adding that they also got a lucky break via a pandemic-driven change in New York booze regulations. “The State Liquor Authority said that we could deliver beer to people’s homes. Our business was impacted negatively, but by operating in a new way, we could stay afloat  and stem the tide.”

The Flagship website was quickly updated to process orders. Faithful customers stepped up to place orders for home delivery and contactless pickup, and the brewery was able to keep going without laying off any of their four full-time brewery employees. They even brought on a four-person part-time canning team. The Paycheck Protection Program helped Flagship cover eight weeks of pay for workers, Sykes estimates, out of the 14 weeks that have elapsed since the coronavirus crisis hit New York.

Plus, customers got to enjoy Flagship under optimal conditions: “We delivered beer that was just five hours old. That is the way any brewer wants his beer to be experienced,” said Sykes, who got a Staten Island ferry tattoo inked onto his forearm as the beer biz was launching.

In fact, the Flagship crew found a silver lining in the coronavirus storm clouds.

“We brought in some new customers,” Sykes said. “People didn’t want to go to supermarkets early on [during lockdown] and they liked the idea that we delivered — we even sold a few small kegs to individuals. Plus, people were spending more time talking to friends and they discussed our product. Some people who drank mass-market beers, like Budweiser and Michelob, wanted to support a local business and gave us a shot. They initially did it out of the goodness of their hearts, liked our beer and became customers.”

Last week, old and new fans had the opportunity to quaff the drafts that made Flagship famous — plus a newly released Belgian mango IPA, just in time for summer. The al fresco taproom offers five picnic tables and a couple of standing barrels for visitors, who can also order fish and chips from O’Henry’s Publick House or ribs via DaddyO’s BBQ & Sports Bar (two neighborhood food spots).

Inside the massive brewery is production equipment as well as the taproom, which feels like a sheltered beer garden with 16 picnic tables. When New York enters Phase 2, the taproom is allowed to reopen at 50 percent capacity.

Looking back on the virus and his business’s ability to weather it, Sykes said: “We feel grateful to get up in the morning and do what we love. It’s a testament to the people who stand by us, know who we are and love the quality of what we do.”

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