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Orlando City brewery Broken Strings faces uncertain future during coronavirus pandemic

Owned by original Orlando City supporters, the brewery has become a staple of the Lions’ fanbase, but it faces an uncertain future due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Broken Strings co-founder and head brewer Charles Frizzell manages the bar as his business looks to overcome alcohol sale shutdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Julia Poe/Pro Soccer USA)

ORLANDO, Fla. — For the Ruckus supporters group, Orlando City home games start at Broken Strings Brewery.

Each match, the brewery is the starting point for the fans’ march to the stadium. The group is quickly engulfed in purple smoke and the rhythm of the supporters’ drum corps.

It’s a destination, and not just on game days. The brewery keeps a “Ruckus Till I Die” ale on tap and organizes offseason events for fans. Broken Strings hosts watch events during road matches, and held going-away parties for long-time player Cristian Higuita and former coach James O’Connor.

Over the years, Broken Strings has morphed into a home base for the Ruckus. So when Orlando mayor Buddy Dyer announced a ban on alcohol sales to help slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, the Orlando City fanbase flocked to support the brewery.

The train of cars looked like a line for drivethrough at Chick-fil-A, Broken Strings co-owner Jeff Thompson said. The brewery sold three crowlers of beer for $20 and eventually ran out of aluminum cans.

Supporters sent Thompson pictures of their front seats full of Broken Strings bottles and cans, giving him a rush of gratitude.

“That $20 they gave us could be the difference between us staying open and not staying open,” Thompson said.

But as social distancing increased across the country, that traffic dwindled. On Thursday, head brewer Charles Frizzell opened Broken Strings for bottle sales in the afternoon. By 6 p.m., he’d had only four customers — better than nothing, but nowhere near enough.

Even with that initial surge of purchases, Frizzell says business has plummeted by 90% since the suspension of Major League Soccer play.

Now, with the season suspended and the city-wide mandate still in effect, one of the original cornerstones of the Lions’ fanbase isn’t sure what comes next.

“There’s been a few bumps and bruises along the way, and we’ve always managed to survive and stick in there,” Frizzell said. “But I would have to say that this is the most challenging and scary thing we’ve come across. I don’t know what it’s gonna be like at the other end of this because we don’t really know where the other end is.”

Julie Thompson invited players like former Orlando City midfielder Darwin Cerén over to her family’s lake to fish. Photo courtesy of Jeff Thompson.

The Broken Strings ownership is composed of fans who helped build Orlando City’s fanbase. Thompson and his wife, Julie, attended the Lions’ first USL match against Philadelphia, spending the night tailgating and cheering with the fans who became the founding core of the Lions’ supporter groups. They purchased their first set of season tickets that night.

In the USL days, being a fan of Orlando City was different from supporting other teams in Orlando. Thompson described it as “being in the trenches,” and his sense of duty as a fan extended beyond game days.

Jeff and Julie Thompson drove down from Auburndale to bring sandwiches and fruit to the team after practices at Sylvan Lake Park in Sanford.

They hosted the team dinners at their home, took players like Darwin Cerén and Cristian Higuita out on their lake to fish. They learned the hard way one day that Higuita couldn’t swim — Cerén tipped their shared canoe, sending his teammate floundering into the water while Cerén roared with laughter.

“It’s always been more than just a team to us,” Thompson said. “Soccer in Orlando, that is the high altar, Grand Poobah, church for many of us. But what goes on on the field is about 10% of the soccer experience. My best friends are the ones I met through soccer.”

When the club moved up to MLS, it lost part of the familial sense that comes with a minor-league fanbase. Players don’t come to their house now, and when they come through the brewery, they’re greeted as rock stars.

But Julie still wears a shirt that reads “soccer mom” to tailgates and watch parties. It’s a reflection of how many original fans feel — they raised this club from birth.

For Thompson and Frizzell, that feeling also extends to their brewery.

“The closest thing I’ll ever experience to giving birth is the day we were told we were able to open,” Frizzell said. “I’m not saying that I will ever know what that’s like physically, but emotionally, I can’t explain the joy and the just this huge sense of relief.”

Frizzell’s dream of becoming a brewer began in 2007, and he became an Orlando City fan several years later after attending a game with his roommate. He started out by bringing his home brews to Orlando City tailgates, offering out free samples and testing out recipes. That’s how he met Jeff Thompson — sharing a beer and talking soccer.

It was a perfect match. They both loved Orlando City and wanted to create something for the fanbase, which was booming as the club transitioned into MLS.

The birth of the brewery was always intertwined with the rise of the club — selecting a site near the soon-to-be-completed stadium, clinching a parking lot for fans to use on game days, opening the same summer as what was then called Orlando City Stadium.

From the beginning, Broken Strings was a brewery made for Orlando City fans.

“What other kind of company’s gonna spend money to put Porta Potties in their backyard just so the fanbase can use the restroom before a game?” Thompson joked.

The emphasis on Orlando City has paid off for Broken Strings. Thompson estimates anywhere from 65-75% of the brewery’s revenue comes from Orlando City fans on game days. That business is bolstered by its relationship with the Ruckus supporters group, where Thompson and Frizzell have both been leaders in the past.

The Ruckus tailgated in the Broken Strings parking lot that first year. As the supporters group grew in numbers, it had to branch out to find a larger space to host its tailgate, but the group still parks at Broken Strings on game days.

They also partner for offseason charity events, raffling off an opportunity for a fan to brew with Frizzell and selling co-branded cups to raise money for Ruckus Cares.

And Broken Strings remains one of the main starting points for the fans’ traditional game-day march to the stadium, setting the tone for every home match.

“It’s still a base of operations for us,” said Erin Russel, chairwoman of the Ruckus. “It always feels like family, and that family feeling is very important to us because we lean on each other for a lot more than just handing each other drink at a tailgate.”

Broken Strings is no stranger to hard times.

The brewery opened on June 4, 2016. Eight days later, the city ground to a halt for weeks following the Pulse nightclub shooting, leaving the new brewery empty during its first few weeks of business.

Even after Orlando returned to normal following Pulse, the brewery’s business model creates its own obstacles. With the majority of the brewery’s revenue coming from Orlando City fans on game days, Broken Strings typically sees a massive slow-down during the offseason.

Frizzell and Thompson have learned to plan for this — holding tailgates for U.S. national-team matches and college football games at the Citrus Bowl, hosting private events for businesses coming into town for conventions. The annual hurricane season brings additional trials, forcing most local businesses to hunker down.

The business has managed all of this, and more, but the coronavirus pandemic is uniquely challenging.

Broken Strings doesn’t have a kitchen to supplement alcohol sales with food sales like other Orlando restaurants. Beer doesn’t keep — it loses its freshness after 60 days — so the brewery has to sell off its current product. But Broken Strings can’t even offer delivery, relying entirely on in-house bottle and crowler sales.

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Frizzell isn’t sure how his brewery will weather a weeks-long shutdown, not to mention a months-long suspension of the MLS season.

“I don’t know where the tipping point is,” Frizzell said. “I don’t have an exact date. We’re gonna do whatever we can to survive. But there’s a limit.”

Thompson is trying to take things one day at a time. He’s afraid to dwell on the negative possibilities, on what will happen if bar closures or the soccer suspension drag on even longer than expected. Instead, he’s taking this time to plan for the future re-opening.

When he was in the Air Force, Thompson spent a year in Saudi Arabia and when he returned, his family threw a week-long celebration of every holiday he’d missed. Thompson imagines a similar week of festivities at Broken Strings — graduation and birthday parties, a belated St. Patrick’s Day, a second home opener for Orlando City.

Ultimately, Thompson has put his faith in the Orlando City family to see Broken Strings through the uncertainty of the coming months.

“The Ruckus is our tribe,” Thompson said. “They come to the brewery and they’ve made us part of their family. Where are you gonna go drink beer? You’ve got a choice of 24 breweries in Orlando; where do you go? You go to your place, your family. And we’re their place. We’re their home.”

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