Meet a Brewer: Jess Griego of Bosque Brewing Company (Las Cruces, NM)

Jess Griego is the Chief Operating Officer and Owner of Bosque Brewing Co., a New Mexico microbrewery with taprooms in Albuquerque and Las Cruces. For the last 10 years, they have been specializing in American and European brew-styles and serving residents across multiple counties in New Mexico. 

Do you mind telling us a little bit about your business?

We opened October 26, 2012, and one small location with the 750-barrel brew system. We are in a strip mall in Albuquerque, New Mexico right down the street from the Balloon Fiesta Park, which is kind of what Albuquerque is most known for. The location brings most of the tourism to our state. Over that time, we have grown well. We stopped growing obviously during COVID for obvious reasons. 

Over the last 10 years, we’ve grown from six employees to just over 400. We have eight locations across the state. Six of them are Bosque Brewing Company locations and two of them are our sister restaurant called Restoration Pizza that sells Bosque beer. We try to hire individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities and to create opportunities for a living wage. About 40% of our individuals at those Restoration Pizza locations come from organizations throughout the state who helped provide and support employment, job coaches, that sort of thing. 

I started as a server on day one, and over the last 10 years, I’ve become an equity partner and now the Chief Operating Officer of the company. I’ve been with Bosque from the very smallest to as large as we are. In terms of production, we’re probably fourth or third largest in New Mexico depending on the latest data. Employee-wise and location-wise we’re the largest brewing/restaurant company in the state.

What have you noticed about your customer base over the past 10 years? 

Every state is unique, even each city. We’re in multiple cities across the state. Las Cruces, for example, always feels 10 years behind Albuquerque and then Albuquerque feels 10 years behind Denver. For New Mexico specifically, there’s a very local centric attitude about any product. The local economy has always been very supported. 

Going from one to two locations was the hardest. It’s hard every time but when you double in size, you’re not under the same roof anymore. You’re not sitting at the bar, having conversations with customers who are loyal to you and know where their money’s going. You get more and more separated. The expectations become a lot higher whether that’s service or beer or branding or all those things. 

That’s good, it pressures us to be better. It also puts us in this kind of interesting middle ground where we’re not the little, 600-foot brewpub anymore either. What we’ve tried to do is just be as inclusive as we can. So we have traditional styles, but then we’ll also put glitter in a beer and make a pickle beer and sometimes that makes certain that enthusiasts or loyalists mad, and we’ve had to just kind of accept that. As we’ve gotten bigger, we just want to democratize beer in New Mexico. We want to be somewhere people can find something regardless of whether that’s cool or not. That means having more locations and more opportunities for people to access us.

We’re interested to hear how your business has attempted to mitigate some of the effects of inflation and supply chain disruptions. Could you share with us your experience over the last two years? 

It’s been rough. We’ve been digging out of a huge hole for the last two years. The first year or two people were understanding and weren’t upset if we didn’t have something on tap or a certain menu item. 

New Mexico was also one of the strictest states in the country. We weren’t allowed to have indoor dining for a majority of COVID. We had a mask mandate within the last year. It hampered our ability to do a lot of things. Everyone else had those issues as well, but with multiple locations it was a big ship to steer. 

The aluminum shortage was a big issue, especially in New Mexico where we couldn’t sell beer over the bar. The only way we could sell our product was through retailers and in packages and in cans. Luckily, we have a distributor who was able to give us access to aluminum. If there was a shortage of cans, the quantity minimums would just skyrocket for businesses. Not every brewery could afford the new minimum order.

I’m pretty sure we’re the only brewery in New Mexico that has multiple full-service restaurants. We saw a lot of our issues on the food side more than on the beer ingredient side. We’ve been established long enough in the industry for 10 years. We had our suppliers who were willing to help on the food or the beer side, and make sure we had hops. We had a lot of the things contracted years in advance. It was more of a storage issue. 

When it comes to being a restaurant, we were a small player. We’re going up against Chili’s and Applebee’s and all these locals that just have food as their main source of revenue. I would say for us specifically that’s where we saw a lot of shortages. A lot of price increases with chicken and lettuce and supplies too. 

We were looking at our P&L (profit and loss statement). It was a lot of things that we weren’t expecting that caught us off guard. That’s where a lot of the challenges came from us whether it was sourcing or just the exorbitant price increases on those things that we had to have in order to stay in business. 

As more in-person restrictions began to lift over the last 2 years, how has business been? Is it back to where it was pre-COVID? How have New Mexico restrictions affected your business? What does your rebound look like today?

We were the first brewery to electively close across the state. We closed on March 14, 2020. We had already seen that restrictions were coming. We looked at the numbers, and there were people who didn’t want to work. People were scared, so there were so many factors to juggle and to decide how to not lose thousands and thousands of barrels of beer that we were planning on selling in the next couple of days. We were the first brewery to say you know what, we’re just going to shut down. I’m not sure if I’ve even processed it all still, but it was just trying to stop the hemorrhaging wherever we could. 

Luckily, we have a distributor in New Mexico. We’re with retailers where we were able to convert a lot of the beer that would have normally been sold over the bar into packages and into cans, and to sell it that way. 

It was mostly just tackling one thing at a time. We had to do hundreds of furloughs. That was probably the roughest day, especially not knowing that there was going to be assistance coming. Then, once the assistance came out. It was a whole thing because no one wanted to work which was totally understandable, but it was just balancing. How are we just doing the right thing for the business and making sure we survive? 

There was a while where I wasn’t sure if we were going to make it. We just didn’t know anything. 

New Mexico had the toughest restrictions. For a long time, we weren’t allowed to operate at all. We could do to-go beer and food and that was it. 

Every day there was a new regulation and new mandates. At one point, we were open for a little while and we closed again right before Thanksgiving in 2021. We were just open, closed, open, closed. We had this change more than any other state in the country, which made it hard to make the right decision. People were mad at us. There was no right decision to make for a long time.

As we know, during the pandemic there was great uncertainty around mask mandates and in-person dining regulations, including a “ping-pong” of regulation reversals and reinstatements. How did that affect you and the staff mentally?

Every location was different. Everyone depending on their own personal circumstances had different opinions. At some point, as a business owner you just want to run your business.  

Every couple of days was difficult. We’re in the desert but New Mexico is cold in the winter. At some point, we’re allowed to open and it’s outside only and everyone’s out there freezing. It just felt a little bit similar to Groundhog Day. 

All the revenue that we were losing, we weren’t getting federal funding, which we appreciate, but we also were planning on growing a lot in 2020. We had leases and construction plans that were still on hold, but that we’re still draining funds out of our reserves. It’s just trying to stay out of the red and just completely change our whole business model from in-person dining to package brewers, where it was competitive. Just emotionally draining, exhausting.

Is there anything you would want customers and lawmakers to know specifically about how an added tax would impact your business?

There’s this misperception that small brewers don’t pay the same sort of fees to run their businesses or have the same sort of burden that other alcohol establishments do. That’s just not true. We just have invested money in different things. 

For Bosque, is that we’ve had great landlords who have worked with us, but all the building and the growth has been on hold so we’re still growing, digging out of this huge hole. We have two and a half, three years’ worth of damage control. We’ve had to make some emotional layoffs. We’ve had to cut back on a lot of resources. We’ve never been in our P&L more than we have in the past looking at everything that we spend and how we spend. I understand we all have to pay taxes. It’s a capitalist society. We all live in this world. It’s how it’s run. I just feel it’s not right. That’s not the right time for this industry to me, and the restaurant industry especially speaking for both sides.

We have good margins with the beer that we make, but running a restaurant is rough. If you make 2% profit margin, that’s a successful year, so anything added to that makes a huge difference. That usually gets passed along to the consumer. That’s the reality, and when you’re asking about what consumers think and they’re frustrated about price increases, it’s kind of similar to Groundhog Day where it’s getting passed along to the people. It’s the consumer who’s taking on that burden. It’s just unfortunate, and I wish I had an answer, but now’s not the right time to start increasing taxes.

If a new excise tax on alcohol were to be passed, what impact do you think it would have on your business?

We’d make it work but to be honest, there would be price increases. It would probably go on to the consumer, we’ve been doing our very best not to do that. Again, we’ve seen price increases on hops, malt, and aluminum. At some point, we have 400 employees, we have to pay as well. 

I think there might be a little bit of a misconception about being profitable and having everyone walking home with all this money at the end of the year. It’s just all the money that comes in and goes out during COVID. I know a lot of businesses took on a lot of debt to get through this pandemic. There are a lot of us who have done that and are working hard to pay that off right now. We got to make up that money somewhere. It doesn’t just come out of nowhere when the money is going out.