Meet a Tavern Owner: Eric Christenson of Christy’s Landing (Madison, WI)

Eric Christenson is an owner of Christy’s Landing, one of Wisconsin’s oldest taverns on the Madison side of Lake Waubesa. Founded by Eric’s grandfather, Christy’s Landing has been family-owned and operated since 1936. Eric also serves on the board of the Tavern League of Wisconsin – the largest trade association in the U.S. to exclusively represent the interests of licensed beverage retailers.

Take us back to early 2020 when the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. What did that mean for Christy’s Landing and other taverns in the area?

We were forced to close down at 5 p.m. St. Patrick’s Day 2020, which would have been our first busy day of the year. We were closed completely for about 70 to 90 days, and then were limited to outdoor seating, curbside pickup and carryout service for months and months after that. While it was a bit easier for us to make it through since we could set up picnic tables outside to accommodate social distancing requirements, it was a stressful, stressful summer and has continued to be stressful for years. There was a point when I didn’t have enough work for my general manager, so he was let go. We were only able to keep a few people on to serve, and my hours went from 60 to 75 hours a week.

Levels of stress in our industry have been the highest I’ve ever seen. Early on in the pandemic, if alcohol comprised over 50 percent of your sales, you had to shut down completely. I was fortunate enough to not have my alcohol sales be more than 50 percent, because I have other streams of revenue like my food. So, while we were able to be open in a limited capacity, others had to shut down for at least six to eight months – forced to float that time and money before they could get any PPP or other relief.

Christy’s Landing has been a staple in the local community for decades. How has the pandemic affected your customers? Is your customer traffic back to pre-pandemic levels?

Not being able to get together with anyone brought people down so badly – mentally and spiritually. Everyone was counting down the days when their favorite bar or restaurant could open up again for the sake of their own sanity, craving the opportunity to mingle and talk with friends. People were starved for socialization and wanted to get out beyond drinking in their backyard. It was rough for everyone – both for our employees and customers.

We weren’t able to bounce back immediately, but lately our traffic has been pretty good. However, I am concerned about what’s happening now, because it’s starting to remind me of 2008 when the economy crashed. People were evaluating their finances and as a result, were more conscious of the costs associated with going out. I remember when the people who had been going out four nights a week dropped to two, and the people going out two nights a week dropped to one. It was all economy-driven. And now, with inflation at a record high, I think that the resurgence of business we’ve been getting may slowly start to level off.

Beyond customer traffic, how else have inflation and supply chain issues affected your business?

For starters, we’re not quick to print new menus anymore because we can’t put a price on anything right now. We’re having to regularly rotate our food suppliers to get what we need – one week we may be able to get chicken and pizzas from a supplier, and the next week we’re not. Another big challenge across the industry right now is staffing. If you can’t make enough money to pay your staff well, you’re not going to have a staff. As business owners, this is the fine line we’ve all had to walk over the last two years.

And, it’s been such a tough two years. We still need some time to rebound as an industry. Many of us are just trying to hold on right now – trying to make a little money on what we sell so we can continue to pay our employees well, because we know employees’ costs are going up too. Most owners I know are having to take a cut of their own pay in order to pay their employees better.

Speaking of your fellow industry colleagues, what have you been hearing from them? How are they fielding inflation and supply chain challenges?

I get to mingle and network with a ton of people in the industry through the Tavern League of Wisconsin. Everybody is having the same issues. We’re concerned about business plateauting. The general consensus is that the past two years have been the most stressful of everyone’s career. People don’t know if they can take it much longer. Most people in our association are owner-operators of a small business, where you’re the accountant, the plumber, the HR department, and even the cook and bartender at times. Everyone has said they’ve been more stressed out than they’ve ever been.

Even though the hospitality industry is still reeling from the effects of the pandemic, some lawmakers still want to increase excise taxes in order to raise revenue. What would you like your patrons, colleagues and our lawmakers to know about the effects of higher excise taxes on businesses like yours?

An excise tax is an inflationary tax and we already have inflation. I think we’ve almost pushed customers to the limit on price increases. I know my locals don’t want to pay $3 more than they paid for a drink two years ago, but we have to move up with our cost of goods sold. When you raise excise taxes on top of this, it drives up the price even more. I never feel right about raising prices too high, especially for the sake of my local customers. We have a group of retired guys who come in four days a week for happy hour. None of them will want to pay an extra $2 to $3 dollars a beer. They’re just going to quit coming down and drink at home.

Our core customers are working men and women. Wisconsin taverns are well known for how they bring communities together. Raising excise taxes on beer, which leads to more price increases for the consumer, would take away one of the simple pleasures of life: relaxing and meeting with friends and neighbors out at the tavern.