Pretentious Glass and Beer Company, 131 and 133 South Central, Knoxville, August 2021
The gallery at Pretentious Glass opened up within the last two weeks for the first time since mid-March 2020. For the time, they are open only Thursday through Saturday. Pretentious Glass and Pretentious Beer Company owner, Matthew Cummings, said they didn’t know what to expect when they closed and that was borne out in their first pandemic surprise: That same week, ETSY sales (he is the number two seller on ETSY) went up 1,000%.
“I was freaked out. We started in a recession in 2005 . . . and I know once disposable income goes, art and crafts are the first things to get hit. Everybody wound up quarantining at home, alcohol sales went up and people went ‘I want good glassware’.” He said they put a lot of effort into the focus on online sales. Those sales had always been strong but had been eclipsed by walk-in sales and with that gone, they put money into upgrading photographs and video and added more product online.
The pandemic allowed time for new branding by Spadefoot Media, including a new logo incorporating more of a Tennessee connection. The logo uses a griffin, a mythical animal made of two different animals, reflecting how the brewery and glass company work together. Looking for two mischievous animals, they chose a raccoon and a mockingbird. A new website has launched and continues to expand. The new branding launched just before the pandemic hit.
Sales continued in a strong fashion into the fall and the holiday season. “This was four times bigger than any holiday season we ever had. We made it through, got all the orders sent out on the 19th. We had beers with the staff and celebrated: We made it through the pandemic holidays and kicked butt! We’re done!”
But not so fast. A small interview Matthew completed the previous summer was set to air on the 20th on CBS Sunday Morning. He enjoys the show with his family every Sunday morning and was excited to have it air. He confessed he was a little disappointed at the timing coming, as it did, after everyone had made their Christmas purchases.
Pausing from his task of making biscuits and gravy for the family, they all paused and watched the clip, before finishing their breakfast. “I didn’t check the Etsy shop until 35 or 40 minutes into the show. I thought I would check to see if we had any sales. The whole store was sold out. I got a hundred emails from people asking when” more product would be available. We got two years’ worth of orders in less than 24 hours.”
He said the volume was “life changing” and they were ecstatic until they began figuring out how they would deal with the volume of orders. The influx of business allowed for a new glass blowing furnace, named “Gladys after Gladys Knight: big, strong, sexy, classy, powerful machine. The furnace was built for them by Wet Dog Glass in North Carolina. “It’s the most high-tech glass furnace you can possibly buy.” He said it performs beautifully, freeing the glass blowers from the limitations of the previous machine.
In addition to using the influx of cash to purchase the new furnace, he was able to give the staff raises and bonuses. He was able to get the kind of signage he dreamed about, made Derek White and Bird on the Wire Studios. They were able to pay off the loan for the brew house. He liked the influx to an angel investor, except that it was made up of many people who bought glasses.
He said it took five months to fill the orders. The surge continued for two months, with two months’ worth of orders coming in during some seven-day periods. They had to close the website for two months so they would not fall further behind. They contacted many people to ask if they could wait for larger orders. He said people were very gracious and pleased to support them.
He has doubled his staff, but they still must restrict orders each week, as they’ve continued to outpace production capabilities. It is very hot work, particularly in the summertime, and Matthew was excited to be able to use some of the money to add duct work to blow cold air directly on the workers at each of the stations while they are making the glass.
He said the crews are great on both sides of the business, mentioning Alex Greenwood who moved here to work on the glass side. Alex Ward used to be the main assistant but has become a gaffer and is doing great. Steph Wadman is operating the gallery and keeping the fulfillment end in motion.
They have replenished some of the glass in the gallery. They are allowing people to come in and watch the process once more, but they are not allowing “make you own” events and workshops because they are simply too busy. The brewery has been open for indoor seating since about May, though he said business has been great some days and very sparse other days.
He said they saw both sides of the business experience, with the glass business doing well and the beer business diminished. They’ve upgraded their outdoor space, adding outdoor heating units among other things. He said the entire brewing community is monitoring the virus situation and take it very seriously.
He’s particularly proud of the Founder’s Series, which are specialty glasses he makes for himself and auctions off one a week just for fun. The glasses are more exploratory. He also continues his other glass art, much of which is on display in the gallery. A show featuring “Gestures,” will be mounted in the gallery for First Friday next week. He said they have missed community events and involvement and look forward to returning to that. “Knoxville lets us do what we love, and we want to give back.”
Orders may be made via the website (which contains some special glass not available elsewhere) and via the Etsy website. You can see a clip, in which Matthew waxes eloquent about dancing with glass, from the CBS Sunday Morning Show here.