GLEN COVE, NY — Frank Bilello thought 2020 would be different. Noble Savage Brewing Company, which he started six years ago as a small home brewery in a backyard shed, struggled after opening at its new location on Glen Street in downtown Glen Cove.
After a lengthy — and costly — renovation, the Savage opened its doors in June 2019. After a seven-month sluggish start, the Savage finally broke through. People packed the brewery for Mario Kart video game tournaments, trivia, paint nights and beer dinners.
Bilello broke even. Business was trending in the right direction.
In March, the first cases of the coronavirus reached New York. As thousands fell ill and the disease tore through nursing homes, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered a statewide stay-home order for all non-essential workers. Schools became remote. Restaurants shifted to takeout and delivery service only.
An initial boost from a federal loan floated Noble Savage for a few months, but the money has since dried up. Now, Bilello is putting out a desperate call for help, launching a "Save The Savage" fundraiser through the online crowdfunding site GoFundMe. He hopes to raise tens of thousands of dollars — and avoid closing forever.
Bilello makes no bones about Noble Savage's rocky start. Renovating the vacant building on Glen Street, sandwiched mid-way between School and Pulaski street, proved far more daunting than he realized. The building was built in 1928 and was fraught with unexpected problems. It needed a new floor. Structural work. Engineer drawings. Fire alarms. After numerous setbacks and hurdles, the makeover cost three times what he'd expected.
"We opened in June 2019 as a new business and we were struggling," Bilello told Patch in a phone interview Friday.
He later added: "By the time we even opened, I was kinda of screwed."
His GoFundMe post goes even further, calling the seven months after opening "brutal."
"We were continuously losing money and wondering if we would last much longer," he wrote.
But not every race horse is quick out of the gate; many take a turn or two to reach top speed. In January, he focused on turning things around through a series of successful events, the Savage finally managed to break even in February.
"Then [COVID-19] came," Bilello said. "It was just deliveries and takeout and whatnot. That really cut down my bank account pretty substantially."
Like many restaurants and bars, Noble Savage sales all-but stopped with the arrival of the coronavirus. Living with two older parents with compromised immune systems, Bilello completely closed his doors for the first week out of an abundance of caution, fearing they could fall ill with the COVID-19 disease, which preys on vulnerable populations. He reopened after concluding he could safely serve customers through delivery.
But sales were in free fall, dropping 75 percent for typical Saturday in the coronavirus era. By May, his account was depleted to just a couple thousand dollars. He considered creating a fundraiser then, but staved off extinction with the help of a federal Economic Injury Disaster Loan.
"It kept me afloat until August," Bilello said of the loan. "I was sort of like in low-power mode."
On June 24, Long Island officially entered Phase 3 of the governor's reopening plan, allowing indoor dining to resume at half capacity with certain restrictions, such as mask-wearing and social distancing.
Business seemed to return close to normal levels at the outset of the reopening. The brewery opens Thursday through Sunday. Because of its location, the Savage offers about two dozen seats outdoors through a well-maintained alley. Patrons order food and alcohol inside and take them outside. On poor weather days, he opens for indoor service at half capacity with social distancing.
But in the coronavirus era, events are taboo. The Savage hasn't held the events that once helped it turn things around. Sales declined after two weeks of reopening amid poor weather, holiday weekends, a surge in cases in the South and general discomfort surrounding bar settings.
That aligns with findings by Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association, who wrote that a survey of on-premise consumers from June 19-21 found that only 36 percent were out to eat in the past two weeks. Only 11 percent went for a drink.
Watson said the industry is likely entering a "period of turbulent economic activity, with reduced spending levels that vary significantly place-to-place, and shifts in spending that will persist for some time."
Indeed, the Savage saw a monthly deficit of thousands of dollars. And being a small business that started slow, the brewery never accrued savings to weather the storm.
"I don't even have savings," Bilello said. "I have not paid myself — literally paid myself — since I quit my job as an environmental consultant in 2014."
"Save The Savage"
Once again faced with the possibility of closing forever, Bilello returned to the crowdfunding idea. He launched a GoFundMe account last week titled, "Save The Savage." The goal: A lofty $75,000. As of Tuesday night, he'd raised about $9,000.
"Despite continuous support from our loyal customers and the City of Glen Cove, we are struggling to make ends meet and in danger of closing our doors for good," the post said.
Bilello later wrote: "Without your help we will not last another month and will lose everything we’ve sacrificed and worked so hard for."
Still Partners in nearby Sea Cliff raised nearly $60,000 during the pandemic. By raising even half his goal, he would be able to survive a few more months. Bilello lives with his parents and his girlfriend works at the Savage. Every dime he earns goes back into the business, he said.
"I'll take what I can get," he said, noting that $30,000 kept him alive from May until August.
At that point, he hopes major nearby developments, including new residents at the massive Garvies Point development, will help increase business. Bilello believes the Savage makes good beer, and offers an "amazing place" where the community can enjoy that beverage. Plus, no one wants to see another local business go under, he said.
"So please help us stay afloat. If not for us, then for Glen Cove," Bilello said. "The City cannot afford to lose another business. We’ve become an important player in the revitalization and have been working tirelessly to create culture and bring Glen Cove back to its former glory."
Those who donate at least $50 will receive a "Save the Savage" T-Shirt. Neighbors can also help by simply buying a crowlers, gift cards, merchandise, sharing the cause on social media and even writing a review.
GoFundMe is a Patch promotional partner.