How will bars survive in a post-pandemic world?

COVID-19 brought bars to their knees, but bartenders and owners are hustling to get them back on their feet

By Zak Kostro
Published May 31, 2021 5:30PM (EDT)
Bartender women working with protective face mask and surgical gloves in night bar. (Getty Images)
Bartender women working with protective face mask and surgical gloves in night bar. (Getty Images)

It was a long, cold winter for Toby Cecchini and other bar owners, but warmer weather brings hope.

In May 2020, in the thick of the pandemic, Cecchini—a writer and native Midwesterner who has tended bar in New York City since the 1980s, is credited with creating the Cosmopolitan cocktail and owns the Long Island Bar and the Rockwell Place in Brooklyn—explored an existential question in an opinion piece for the New York Times: Can anyone save New York's bars and restaurants? Since bar and restaurant operating costs rely on full bars, close contact and intimate conversations, how could these establishments possibly survive in a socially distanced world?

Sadly, many are gone, but some have pushed through. Barely a year later, Cecchini and other bar and restaurant owners across the U.S. have managed—with grit, hustle, agility and faith, and the support of loyal, ever-thirsty regulars—to survive the pandemic's crushing economic toll. As the weather thaws and more people become vaccinated ahead of an expected summertime surge in business, how will bar owners and other hospitality pros keep their establishments afloat while navigating hurdles like staffing shortages, ongoing limited capacity and the threat of another shutdown?

"Obviously we lost money, and we're still losing money," Cecchini tells Salon. As winter loomed, he considered shutting down but ultimately decided to "hang on by the fingernails." 

Even during the busiest days last summer, however, "we were still doing up to about a third of our normal revenue, which is not going to get you anywhere near a profit," Cecchini says. "You're running at a loss—paying money in order to serve people 12, 14 hours a day and bust your ass on the sidewalk. It's kind of this long experiment in suspended disbelief. 'Is this crazy? Are we going to be doing this for the next two years? Or is this just a question of hanging on for a year, things will bounce back, and this will all be kind of a bad dream?'"

Support from local drinkers proved a lifeline. "We're kind of a small neighborhood tavern," Cecchini says. "Our customers, the people who kept us afloat, were unbelievably kind and welcoming. We got this incredible outpouring that gave us a big boost of morale and made it, in a way, so much easier to deal with all the hardship of working on the sidewalk having lost a lot of your staff." 

Then, fortunately, the vaccine arrived, and on March 19 indoor dining capacity in New York City expanded to 50%—the lightest restriction since the city first shut down dining rooms in March 2020. "With that and warm weather and outdoor dining coming back, the prognosis looks much less bleak than it did eight months ago," Cecchini says.

Meanwhile, in Harlem, Alibi Lounge—one of the city's only Black-owned LGBTQ bars—has fought relentlessly to stay alive. The bar, which opened in 2016, has survived vandalism and robbery; in March 2020, owner Alexi Minko reportedly was brutally beaten inside the bar by six strangers and sent to the hospital. Alibi struggled to pay rent and utilities since the start of the pandemic, yet Minko kept the bar afloat by cobbling together funds from the bar's sales and donations from a GoFundMe campaign created last May. 

"Myself and my team, we've worked extremely hard to survive all the challenges and obstacles thrown at us," Minko tells Salon. "It's love, it's sweat, it's tears, it's blood—and it's the support of the community. It's what I like to call a perfect storm."

Indeed, Alibi might have shut down long ago if it weren't for Minko's resolve to keep the place going. "The basic thing is I didn't want Alibi to close, because of the importance it has for the community" he says. "That means waking up every single day to make sure we were adjusting to the new reality—sometimes, it meant asking for help—but also to keep doing the work." Thankfully, "the end seems to be in sight" as more people get vaccinated and warm weather draws drinkers to the bar's sidewalk and patio, which is "a huge plus" boosting revenue, Minko says. "We still worry because you never know—is [COVID-19] going to come back? Is it gone forever? Are people going to come out of their homes and trust us and trust themselves? But for now, things are looking up."

It's also been an uphill battle for Alibi's Harlem neighbor, Clay. "We've had to dynamically shift our style of service, while still making sure that people understood our heart was in hospitality," bar director Andrea Needell Matteliano says. "It's a tremendous challenge." Additionally, Clay lost a bulk of business from outside its own neighborhood. 

"We had become a destination for a lot of folks who would come in from New Jersey, Connecticut, Westchester, Brooklyn and Queens, and of course all of that died immediately," Matteliano adds. Fortunately, locals stepped up to fill the void. "I was blown away by the number of people within our own community, both regulars and new guests, who said, 'We're going to make sure that we dine or order takeout from you at least twice a week, because we want to see you survive,'" Matteliano says. "It was overwhelming."

While that helped Clay keep its doors open, staffing up for summer is another anxious-making struggle. "We've hired some outstanding new talent, but we need so much more," Matteliano says. "We're relying heavily on our core team, asking for extra shifts, and it's tough, because these shifts are not just physically tiring anymore—they're emotionally draining. At the end of the day, the fact that we still have the restaurant we dreamed of and created keeps our fires lit. But we're also worn very thin because it becomes completely consuming."

The pandemic has also wreaked havoc for bar and restaurant owners far beyond New York. But chef Deborah VanTrece, owner of Twisted Soul Cookhouse and Pours in Atlanta, Georgia, refuses to give up. "What's helped us survive is really just determination," VanTrece says. "A refusal to quit. There's been so many things thrown at us throughout this pandemic—shutdowns, rules for carryout only, limited capacity seating, outdoor-only seating—and we've realized that the only way to maneuver is relying on flexibility and a prayer."

Similar to the Long Island Bar, Rockwell Place, Alibi and Clay, Twisted Soul is a rock for the people who drink and eat there. "We're very strongly seated in our community," VanTrece says. "When the pandemic started, our first pivot was to come back and start feeding people. Things were shutting down left and right, people were concerned, and our first thought was, 'We can try to help.'" Initially, Twisted Soul offered food on a "pay-what-you-can" basis, VanTrece says. "It was obvious from the very beginning, when I had a landlord that wouldn't renegotiate my rent, that I couldn't do anything but keep going," she adds. "I realized whether I could pay my bills or not, I could still feed people. And that's what we did."

Still, it's been a turbulent ride. Twisted Soul went full circle, from a full-service restaurant to all carryout before reopening its dining room last June at limited capacity with rigorous safety protocols. Part of the motivation to reopen, VanTrece says, was to provide a haven at a time when social unrest over racism and police violence targeting Black people was roiling America. "Atlanta is the birthplace of the civil rights movement," she explains. "When we watched a Black man [Rayshard Brooks] get killed on TV, it also [underscored] the importance of restaurants as a gathering space to strategize and just talk."

She continues: "People needed a safe space at that moment, and we had done everything we could to make sure we had one—not just from a physical standpoint, but from a social standpoint—a place where we can gather, we can cry, and it's OK. Because as a country, we were going through something that was bigger than anything we'd all experienced. Not just a pandemic—we were going through somewhat of a civil war."

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced that all remaining COVID-19 restrictions in the state would be lifted starting April 8, but VanTrece isn't rushing to resume full-capacity service. 

"We've not made that decision yet because we're not comfortable with it," she says.  "We're trying to balance survival of our business with survival of the human race. It's hard for me to say we're out of the weeds, because this is not over and we can't predict the future, but we remain steadfast in our commitment to just keep going." 

Despite the uncertainty, she insists Twisted Soul has "done more than survived—we have thrived"—to the point where she's looking to expand the venue into a bigger space. "It's a little bit scary, but our faith is stronger than fear," VanTrece says. "We're going to move forward to grow our business in spite of the things that are going on, believing that this is all going to work out."

Ticonderoga Club, also in Atlanta, initially switched to a to-go-only model before staging a limited, reservation-only return to in-person dining. "At best, this has gotten us back to well below fifty percent of [pre-pandemic] gross sales," partner Paul Calvert says. "But it's something, and we have seen a little bit of growth from the basement we were in last March." 

Georgia moved "relatively quickly" in allowing businesses to serve to-go alcohol, Calvert adds, which helped Ticonderoga Club stay afloat. There's now a bill sitting on Gov. Kemp's desk that, if signed, would allow to-go cocktails in the state to become permanent. "If we ever return to something that resembles January of 2019, [and we're] still able to sell to-go cocktails, that will be really helpful for the bottom line," Calvert says. But at the moment, "all we can do is just try to be safe, cautious, take care of our debts, take care of our staff, and hopefully grow our business back."

Across the U.S., ample outdoor seating has proved crucial for struggling bars, restaurants and other hospitality businesses. Michelle Foik and Katy Pizza, co-owners of Eris Brewery and Cider House in Chicago, adjusted to the pandemic by expanding their outdoor service area, as well as trimming their menu and investing in cans. 

"We converted our parking lots to extend our patio, which created about 96 seats for us to be able to host people who were willing to support us," Foik says. "Summer 2020 gave us a lot of hope," Pizza adds. "Winter was pretty bleak, but we set up to-go orders for food, beer and cider, which was primarily our revenue." 

They also purchased a canning machine so that people who loved their cider but had stopped going to bars could drink it at home. "Previously we were [sending beer and cider] in kegs to different pubs around town, but of course none of the pubs had business," Pizza says. "Getting it out there in cans was huge. We're looking at adding more capacity for cider production because we think that's going to help us a lot" in 2021.

As it did for so many others, 2020 upended Brian Bartels' plans, causing the bartender and author of "The United States of Cocktails" and "The Bloody Mary" to delay opening his Settle Down Tavern in Madison, Wisconsin. Instead of March, the tavern opened in May, but only for takeout and curbside pickup, Bartels recalls. "There were just four of us working, and the world got worse and worse," not just from the pandemic but also the protests ignited by the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. "We're located about half a block from the Capitol, so there was a lot of unrest from a civil and social standpoint for everyone," Bartels says. "There were businesses being boarded up and businesses being looted over on State Street, so our early days came with a lot of tension and anxiety, and it kind of snowballed for months and months." 

An extended outdoor patio with around 50 additional seats boosted business over the summer, but then came winter. "We found ourselves in some really difficult times in November and December when the weather got colder, so we decided to get creative," Bartels says. "We created something called the 'Tundra Club,' where people who were brave enough could sit outside and have a burger and a drink in harsh temperatures—and they really got into it."

As Settle Down Tavern's one-year anniversary approaches, Bartels says it's been "the hardest year of my professional life, but we're making the most of it, people are supportive and that's the silver lining." As far as the next few months, he too is concerned about staffing. 

"We definitely need a lot of people on weekends since we have a big outdoor patio," he says. "Even on days I'm not scheduled to be a manager, I'm behind the bar bussing glassware, taking out garbage, clearing tables, hosting—kind of doing everything to make sure" the bar functions. "The reality is the future is wildly unpredictable," he adds. "It's this delicate juggling act of finding your center between the day-to-day and the inevitability that something else could happen down the road. You have to prepare for these situations more now as a result of the last year, which largely means maintaining your labor, not exceeding or wasting product and just being diligent about those little margins."

Bar veteran and cocktail book author Eric Alperin, co-owner of The Varnish in downtown Los Angeles, believes that ultimately, bars will survive, albeit not quite the same as they did pre-pandemic. 

"This last year and a half taught us a lot of ways to operate differently, whether how we set up our rooms with tables and bar stools, or if we're fortunate enough to have an outdoor space where we can host people," Alperin says. "I think our local and state governments are going to see that those outdoor spaces are necessary, and hopefully they'll allow us to operate outdoors through the end of the year, and maybe consider" making them permanent. 

Jeffery Morgenthaler—bar manager at Clyde Tavern in Portland, Oregon, which closed for winter but is looking to reopen come June—adds that certain kinds of bars, like basement speakeasies where people tend to be "all crammed in next to each other like sardines," probably aren't going to come back "for a very long time."

While many bars and restaurants in New York and beyond simply could no longer afford to pay their rent, there are owners who decided, "Come hell or high water, I'm going to hold onto this place," Cecchini says.

Even if it meant struggling with an attenuated staff and still running at a loss for a couple years.

"Everybody had to make all kinds of strange commitments to try to keep afloat during the pandemic," he adds. "A lot of people lost staff that are not coming back because they found something else. It's crazy upheaval, but at least now it feels like there's light on the horizon. People are vaccinated, people are coming out." Still, he estimates it'll be "a solid two years before places like ours are back on their feet."

Minko shares a similar faith in the future. "I just want to work," he says. "I want to be able to open my doors to a safe environment for my customers, like I've been doing for the past five years. Nobody opens a business thinking, 'I'm just going to use government grants or community support.' We have a message, a mission to accomplish. I'm bringing new blood into the business. Fingers crossed—for myself, and for the hospitality industry to get back, somewhat, to where we were before."

 


Zak Kostro

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