For the past year, Sen. Tina Smith has been stuck communicating with businesses and Minnesota residents through video meetings and over the phone.
On April 8, Smith made the rounds, stopping at Channel One Food Bank in Rochester and Tilion Brewing Company in Cannon Falls.
Smith said she’s missed the personal connections and tours over the last year and is happy to be meeting with business owners and community leaders face-to-face again.
“I miss being out on the road and talking with people,” Smith said during a media availability at Tilion. “It’s one thing to be talking with people over ZOOM, it’s another thing entirely to come out and see what’s happening and buy a little beer.”
Smith is hoping to continue her travels throughout the stay into the spring and summer, asking businesses how the pandemic has affected them and how federal COVID relief has helped.
Tilion Brewing co-owners Ryan Seabright and Chris Larson were speaking with Laura Qualey, director of the city’s Economic Development Agency, when she floated the idea of Smith possibly stopping by.
Larson said to have a sitting United States Senator come and meet one-on-one is a big deal, saying sharing their experiences as business owners is vital.
The owners of Tilion had a number of changes they had to make last spring and summer to accommodate the various COVID-19 restrictions.
Larson said Tilion had a terrific 2020 and thanked all of the people who supported them during that time. Having primarily outdoor seating, switching from a counter service to a table-reservation service are some of the ways they’ve adapted and will continue during 2021.
Seabright and Larson said they’ve had to adapt and pivot to survive. Plans they had in 2019 weren’t necessarily applicable during a pandemic.
“If you would’ve talked to us a year ago … we were talking about how do we expand our wholesale operation, meaning more tanks, an assistant brewer, how do we bring on production, sales and distribution staff? Because that was our next growth period. … Now the next growth opportunity would be how do we get into liquor stores, bars and restaurants more,” Larson said.
Tilion received funds from the Paycheck Protection Program and a Goodhue County grant to help during the pandemic. Tilion also had a loan forgiven as well, making them an important business for Smith to meet with.
Smith sees breweries as a community gathering place, saying she often visits them with her husband, Archie Smith. But aside from a delicious frosty mug of local brew, Smith understands how vital a place like Tilion can be for a community.
“I think it’s really powerful the way homegrown food and drink kind of come together to create jobs and be a part of the community,” Smith said.
So in general, what are businesses telling Smith they need most of all? Customers in their stores and to have a sense of confidence that they can be open safely.
Smith encouraged residents to get vaccinated, wear a mask and stay socially distant as cases continue to rise after a lull in the beginning of 2021.
Before she left, Smith purchased two crowlers of beer. One for her, the Lazy Days Lager, and one for her husband Archie, the Mai Bock. She said she hopes to enjoy them over the weekend while Archie cooks a brisket on the grill.