Surly to reopen after failed union effort

The destination beer hall has been mired in criticism since announcing its closure two days after employees declared an intent to unionize last year.


Image by Audrey Rauth

Megan Caswell, former Surly bartender, poses for a portrait at Sheridan Memorial Park on Saturday, April 17.

by Lydia Morrell, City Reporter

Surly Brewing Co.’s beer hall and beer garden will tentatively reopen June 1 after a November closure that came amid lockdown challenges and a failed unionization attempt from its workers.

For ex-Surly workers who lost their jobs in November, the news is less than welcome. Multiple restaurant employees said that management had not contacted them for their jobs back, but they would not go back even if asked.

“For me, there’s just better beer in town with employers that treat their employees better. So that’s where I would go,” said Megan Caswell, a bartender who worked at Surly for five years and helped lead unionization efforts.

Surly’s Instagram announcement said it would reopen “thanks to the remarkable progress being made on the vaccination front in MN.”

The Prospect Park mainstay closed in November, citing an 82% decline in on-site food and beer sales during the pandemic, reported the Star Tribune. Management announced the impending closure two days after workers declared their intent to unionize in August, in what many workers and customers called a union-busting tactic.

The vote to unionize then took place in October, a month after management announced the impending closure. It failed by one vote.

“After everybody lost their jobs, it was really hard for them to have any interest in the [union] election anymore,” Caswell said.

Though Surly’s was going to close no matter what, workers could have had more influence in negotiating their prioritization for rehiring if they had a union.

Surly’s Senior Marketing Director Holly Manthei said the company is going to start by hiring key leadership positions, like an executive chef and general manager. In an email to the Minnesota Daily, she said that “all qualified candidates and former employees are encouraged to apply to any open positions.”

Manthei declined to answer questions about whether the company would offer jobs first to former employees. She also declined to answer questions about the unionization effort or its impact on the Surly image and business model.

The timeline for reopening may be adjusted due to pandemic restrictions, Manthei said.

Surly beer production has continued throughout the last few months, even as the beer hall and restaurant were closed.

Katherine Huska, a former food runner at Surly, said workers started the union efforts because “we really just cared about each other’s safety and wanted each other to have a better job and to be heard.”

Employees’ discontent began once Surly reopened with limited capacity last June, Caswell said. She said management changed the business model, service model and employee wages.

“I technically got a wage increase because my hourly pay went up, … but they effectively took our tips away,” Caswell said. Caswell said her daily wages plummeted without tips.

The new service model stopped table service and instead encouraged customers to line up at the bar to order, said ex-server Jacob Ruff, adding that it seemed wrong to have all of the customers in one place during a pandemic.

Dozens of customers commented on Surly’s social media posts asking management to recognize the union before returning.

Longtime customer Scotty Imberg said he loved spending time at Surly’s in past years because of the good food, beer and friendly staff. He said in an Instagram message to the Minnesota Daily that he “would like to see the owners take accountability for their actions against their loyal workers, and offer jobs back to any employee who wants their old job back” before he returns.