//Lila Mackey, the owner and general manager of Black Sky Brewery, pours a pint at the Denver brewery on Jan. 22. Photo by Ali Mai | firstname.lastname@example.org
The intersection of being a female business owner and purveyor of a DIY, underground metal bar is tricky any time, but now, in light of COVID-19, it’s nearly impossible.
Yet Black Sky Brewery is still standing, despite the odds. According to 5280, 140 Colorado bars have closed during COVID. Run by Owner and General Manager Lila Mackey, the South Denver restaurant and bar runs on beer, pizza, and heavy metal. All things that almost universally thrive, but have seen better, more party-friendly days. Like many other businesses, Mackey relied partially on government funding, community support, and general goodwill to stay afloat during 2020.
“It has been a rollercoaster ride,” Mackey admits. “We had to close the brewery during the initial shutdown in March. In April, we received a [Paycheck Protection Program] loan and a substantial donation from our metal family through a GoFundMe campaign. Had we not received those two things, and some help from our landlord, we would not have been able to continue as a business.”
In May, the restaurant started doing carry-out, and then eventually was able to open at 50% capacity. Over the summer, they brought all team members back to work. However, shortly after, more restrictions rolled out, only to followed by more changes on a seemingly endless rollercoaster. But they’re still standing, and part of that may be due to the fact that they treat their people well. Despite the harsh restrictions, they’re holding off on reducing the staff.
“We spent quite a bit of money updating our patio with outdoor heating and brought back in a third party to supplement our carry-out orders,” she said. “We created an online merch store as well. In November, the hammer dropped. Indoor dining was completely shut down. Like most small businesses, we have been on a downward spiral ever since. We have managed to keep all of our employees because another layoff is a last resort. They are our family and the most important part of Black Sky Brewery.”
Additionally, the bar and restaurant has received support from the community to keep their doors open. Continued merchandise, food and beverage orders have shown the Black Sky family how much their community cares about them, even if they can’t meet inside the space.
“The community has really stepped up to support us, and it has been amazing,” Mackey said. “I think this has been the greatest thing to witness, from the GoFundMe campaign in the early months to continued, daily support with food, beer, and merch purchases. Other than that, I think we have really sharpened our ability to be flexible as a business and to always be on our toes since things have changed so fast this year.”
Black Sky Brewery is a metal-themed bar. The bar is accustomed to throwing shows to generate extra income or to serve as a pre-game hangout for metalheads before they catch a show at another venue. Now, all that traffic has dried up along with local shows. Still, metal is another thing that has kept Black Sky going.
“It has definitely been a challenge. Our staff, patrons and community as a whole have been used to either going to a show at another venue, or Black Sky throwing a show for many years. I think a lot of us took for granted that we were able to choose from multiple events in any given week. I know that I did,” Mackey said. “Not being able to connect with our friends and metal family has been incredibly hard. We miss it terribly. But yes, we have been playing our favorite tunes and trading albums during the pandemic. There have been a number of new metal album releases in 2020 to keep us occupied.”
Through it all, Mackey strives to keep a positive attitude. The unifying spirit of metal, the same spirit that causes strangers to greet each other and fall into easy conversation, that brings together fans in the pit and in front of the stage, is still at work now, even though things are temporarily different.
“I think being a person who has gone through many life challenges has prepared me for this. I try not to see myself as ‘looked down upon’ because I surround myself with beautiful, accepting people. It has not been easy; don’t get me wrong,” Mackey said. “I have my moments of self-doubt just like everyone else. But, I am used to fighting an uphill battle, so giving up is not an option for me. Things will shake out eventually. When they do, I will pick myself up, dust myself off, and soldier on.”
This year, Black Sky Brewery plans to try and qualify for more PPP loans in order to keep the staff employed. They pledge to continue to be a safe space for all, and a haven for those who share their passions. And hopefully, we will all see better days soon.
“We got into this business for three things: beer, pizza, and metal. We are going to keep doing those things as long as we can. Oh, and once this is over, we’re going to throw one hell of a party.”
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