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Brix Cheese Shop & Wine Bar survives the pandemic with creativity and generosity

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Nick Craig explains the second phase of Brix’s pay-it-forward campaign in a Facebook video. — illustration by Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

Communities tend to display their identity in the small businesses that line their streets. When you visit a new community, you likely won’t remember the drive-thru fast food cheeseburger you had in between meetings, but rather the local beer at the watering hole on the corner, or the first edition of your favorite novel at the used book store, or, in the case of Brix Wine & Cheese Shop, the decadent cheese plate and bottle of cabernet shared with friends.

For almost eight years, Brix has brought a unique element to Iowa City’s Northside, a neighborhood where the city’s older-than-undergrad residents can get a quiet drink and have a conversation without competing with the stumbling masses. Brix’s cozy interior, gourmet cheese menu and impressive selection of wines make it the perfect spot for happy hour or a night cap.

So how do these small businesses so reliant on social interaction stay afloat when they are forced to shut their doors? They get creative and they help each other out.

Shortly after the reality of the coronavirus set in, Brix owner-operator Nick Craig launched a generous Pay-It-Forward campaign as a way to celebrate his girlfriend’s birthday in lieu of going out for live music and dinner.

Craig offered to match up to $10,000 worth of Brix gift card purchases by purchasing gift cards to other locally owned businesses. The community response was swift and strong, with the $10,000 goal reached in a matter of days. In appreciation of that response, Craig donated a further $3,000 out of his own pocket to the Englert Theatre, The Brian Cretzmeyer Trust for Young Musicians and Dead Coast Presents.

As the weather warmed and the curve flattened (kind of), Brix and their Northside neighbors banded together to populate Linn Street between Market and Bloomington with picnic tables and plants, creating the Northside Outside space. This Ped Mall-esque idea allowed them to safely serve customers in-person on top of their carry-out and delivery programs.

But as the leaves change and that cantankerous old coot that is winter in Iowa rears his ugly head, Brix will have to reinvent its business model again, adding a dedicated delivery vehicle and more to-go food options. One thing is clear: Brix and the other small businesses we love will continue to need our help.

Craig answered some questions from Little Village via email:

What do you consider to be Brix’s role in the community?

Brix’s role in the community is fairly simple: to actually be a part of it. We go out of our way to consciously offer products from upstanding citizens and companies within the wine and cheese community and then we sell them in a safe, inclusive, comfortable space. We also operate with the “rising tide lifts all boats” approach: if it wasn’t for our staff, guests, friends and neighbors we wouldn’t be here and we try to support them throughout our efforts to keep our business moving forward into the future.

In what ways has the pandemic impacted operations at Brix and that relationship with the community?

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The pandemic has obviously affected our operations at Brix in a major way. Before, we relied on our intimate space for others to come gather and take in what we had to offer. Now we are forced to find new ways to reach out to the community and get our products outside of our four walls in as safe a manner as possible. Closing our doors has surprisingly gotten us more engaged within the community through necessary social media promotions and hopefully will help us and others survive the tough months ahead.

What interesting or creative changes have you made to the Brix business model since the pandemic hit?

It seems like every day now we need to be ready to reinvent our business model based on the situation at hand. When the pandemic first hit I had to furlough all staff and I operated a delivery-only system by myself for over a month. Then with help from the City of Iowa City, the Iowa City Downtown District and all of our neighborhood businesses, we created the Northside Outside space which allowed us to bring back staff and serve menu items to the public outside via our sliding walk-up window.

A section of North Linn Street has been closed to traffic to accomodate “Northside Outside.” Wednesday, June 17. — Matt Steele/Little Village

As patio season winds down we are preparing to offset the loss of those sales by adding our own delivery vehicle. This go-round we will have a more efficient online ordering system with more menu offerings.

What is the plan for the future of Brix for the duration of the pandemic and beyond?

As we plan for the future of navigating this pandemic we will continue to offer and push online wine subscriptions, sustaining memberships that come with great perks, and continue to adapt our online presence by digitizing our offerings.

How can people help and support Brix?

Here’s the thing — we’re scared shitless. We’re scared for us, we’re scared for you, we’re scared for our community here and abroad. The only support we can count on at this time is from people like you who are reading this article. Without you we won’t make it. Please think of us and other small businesses when you decide your purchases. Shop local, be smart, be safe. Head over to brixcheeseshop.com to see our online menu and delivery options, sign up for our monthly wine club, become a sustaining member by joining Bottle Club or purchase a gift card or a T-shirt that we can mail to you.

A cheese plate from Brix Cheese Shop & Wine Bar, 2015. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

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