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Enterprising Spirit: A simple decision to boost business may have saved Millwood Brewing Co.

Editor’s note: Our series Enterprising Spirit documents how businesses and workers are managing the economy’s slow return to life after its sudden shutdown in March – and adapting to new challenges ahead.

When Chuck Watkins and Shelley Eslick-Watkins put in an order for a case of 32-ounce custom beer cans they could fill themselves at Millwood Brewing Company, they didn’t realize it would be their saving grace.

The Watkins opened Millwood Brewing two and a half years ago as a place for the Millwood community to “social” as Watkins called it.

Watkins has spent his career working for Cisco Systems in what he said is a fast-paced corporate environment that rewards those who think ahead. After his wife, Eslick-Watkins, shut down Bigelow Gulp Espresso after 14 years, the couple wanted to start a new business.

Watkins was inspired by his time in Ireland with his cousin, Sean Maloney, who now is in charge of the branding for the brewery.

The pair spent time in Ireland as young men, and Watkins loved how neighborhood bars became the place for people to socialize, or as he puts it “their local where they can social.”

Once it was decided they would open the brewery, Eslick-Watkins just knew it had to be in Millwood. She went to West Valley schools growing up, just like her father, Jerry Eslick, had before her.

“My roots are here,” Eslick-Watkins said.

The pair bought a lot with “two little dumpy houses” and an old shop on it. They gutted the shop and made it their own.

Eslick-Watkins’ father was in the beer industry for 35 years and worked for Joey August Beer Distribution in Spokane for decades. Part of Eslick’s vintage beer sign collection decorates Millwood Brewing Co., and his nickname “Jslick” is on a blonde ale.

The brewery is a family business with brews named after family members like Shay’s Rootbeer and Beckett’s Cream Soda named for the couple’s grandchildren.

Just days before Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order closed their doors, Millwood Brewing Co. received new cans designed by Maloney.

“It was a blessing that we got these cans right when this started,” Eslick-Watkins said. “It saved us really.”

The couple were able to offer their customers curbside pickup of their favorite beers, canned by hand in the brewery. They also partnered with Can’t Stop Smok’n BBQ to offer barbecue for takeout on Fridays and Saturdays.

During their first weekend, the truck sold out of the meat they smoked overnight in the brewery’s parking lot.

With curbside beer pickup three days a week and a big weekend rush for barbecue, the brewery has stayed afloat.

As Spokane County moves into Phase 2 of reopening, Watkins plans to be open on their regular schedule but at 50% capacity.

Eslick-Watkins installed vintage cardboard cutouts of characters like John Wayne at the bar to remind people they can’t stand around and drink but must instead sit at one of the spaced-out tables.

The brewery received a license to sell Barrister wine and will offer Adam Hegsted’s monster pretzels over the coming weeks. Millwood Brewing also will venture into hard seltzer with a raspberry seltzer in the works.

Watkins said he feels for other businesses that haven’t been as lucky in losing nearly an entire fiscal quarter of business.

“For so many businesses, that’s not sustainable.” Watkins said. “We got lucky as all get out with these cans.”

The couple is beyond excited to see their customers, many of whom have a #BeeritForward voucher waiting for them when they return. When people picked up their curbside beer, they could buy a beer voucher for a friend in the future.

Community connection is something Watkins said he has missed during the pandemic and something he hopes others have missed, too.

“I think people have started to see how important it is to be social.”