Checking in with NYC Bars Operating During a Pandemic
Back in April, we caught up with two New York City bars to find out how they were faring during this--yes, it’s overused, but it’s just the truth--unprecedented time. New York City has been through so many unthinkably tough times, and has shown its classic NYC combo of heart, strength, and resolve to get through all of them. That classic combo is still very much on display right now, but Covid-19 is arguably the toughest of all the tough times. Bars are especially feeling the heat, because indoor seating isn’t allowed and might not be until 2021, and it’s impossible to keep a bar afloat in New York on to-go sales alone.
Right now, bars who can are offering outdoor seating. There are hurdles: some bars have fire hydrants or bus lanes in front of their doors and can’t put out enough tables, some are dealing with health risks among their staffs, and oh yeah, rain. Outdoor seating may be a bit of a help, but it can’t compare with being able to run at bars’ normal capacities, and, well, winter is coming. Winter is coming with nary a word from the governor or the mayor about how the state and city are actually going to help bars stay in business.
New York City bars are suddenly an endangered species. Bar owners are forced to respond to regulation changes in less than 24 hours to avoid being shut down, and are working harder than ever to do less business than ever, all while trying to connect with local representatives and figure out how they’re going to make it to the other side of this winter. To find out how the superheroes behind our favorite places are actually balancing all of this, we checked in with the owners of two of the city’s greatest craft beer bars: Chris Maestro of BierWax, and Megan Rickerson of Someday Bar.
Some key takeaways for us, the customers? Wear a mask. It protects others and the bars get fined if they serve you and you’re not wearing one. Be kind. Bar employees are juggling more than we can possibly imagine right now, while worrying about their safety and whether they’ll have jobs next week. And, keep supporting your favorite bars, but remember that that’s not enough to help keep them alive: we need to be writing to our representatives to get our bars long-term support.
How did the arrival of Covid-19 and the resulting shutdown play out for your bar--when and how did you realize you’d have to close, and how was that process and decision-making like?
Chris Maestro of BierWax: Going back into that mindset of that critical weekend, I believe it was around March 15, we were waiting to see what would happen and anxious to see what the governor and state would mandate. A lot of folks think there’s a secret special e-mail bar owners get directly from the state. We just get the same information everyone else gets.
Megan Rickerson of Someday Bar: We were watching other bars voluntarily close for safety precautions and wondering, what should we do? There were a lot of question marks. We don’t have the luxury to just close for a few months. Every hour we’re open is an hour that’s really important for us.
What level of being open did you land on after taking time to strategize and why did that make the most sense for you?
Chris: When the mandate came that we could do beer and wine to go, we decided to take advantage of the opportunity. We didn’t even have a day we were fully closed; we decided to pivot immediately.
Megan: The bar just hit a year on July 6th. We’re super new...We had just started picking up steam and getting busy, and then Covid hit. I talked to my partners about what to do; they have other bars and they’d decided to close their bars. But I was looking at it from the perspective like, we just started really getting going, and I was concerned those relationships we built with our regulars over the last six to eight months, we’d lose. We didn’t have the history other bars had. I made the choice to stay open for to-go drinks, but I had to furlough everyone.
How did that end up working for the bar? What was most difficult?
Chris: As a relatively new bar [BierWax opened in 2017) we were doing really well before Covid, and had just turned the corner on profitability. But our success was based on having a packed bar. Having a capacity of 74, it’s about having that full on weekends. Operating as a to-go only shop was extremely challenging. But I figured, we will take that over nothing.
I realized quickly: I don’t know how long this will last, and we’re not going to have the same revenue, and I had to let go of our entire staff. I had to let everyone know that first week that I would have to lay off everyone. It was such a tough decision, but we had no choice.
For the most part, I was behind the bar, serving beer and wine to go. We realized we had to beef up our online presence, and started doing pre-orders to allow people to pick up their beer with as little contact as possible. Then we started doing delivery...We did what we could do. We weren’t getting near our monthly expenses, but it allowed us to get to this next phase.
Megan: I worked 30 days in a row...Our chef taught me how to make everything on our modified menu--we just didn’t have the funds after eight months to support a staff, looking at a huge rent we had to pay. I knew we wouldn’t make it on to-go only, but I thought, if we can just get some portion [of those expenses].
Once bars were allowed to open for outdoor on-premise consumption, what was the process for the bar? How did you start to plan what “being open” may or may not look like for you, and how did you start putting that into action?
Chris: Once we were able to have folks sitting out back [on the bar’s patio] and front, I could hire back more people, because we finally had that need. [Before that,] I’d been able to start bringing staff back with the PPP loan.
Megan: When the patio was given to us an option, we obviously jumped at it. Thank God for my chef, we went to Home Depot and bought plywood, hit up IKEA and bought patio tables--we had no budget for any of it, but if you don’t get it, you can’t open. We were measuring six feet and building partitions between tables. We’ve done everything we can to open and be compliant with the rules changing so quickly.
How is that working? What are the biggest challenges?
Chris: I realized especially how much payroll started to cost when we were mandated to serve food, because now we have to have a kitchen person at all times. Traditionally, Monday to Thursday, we’d have one person behind the bar, and only on weekends, Friday, Saturday nights, we’d have two-person coverage. Payroll, because now we need two people seven days a week, has doubled. We cannot keep up at this rate, losing so much every month, with what we’re bringing in just from having people outside.
I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on what we are going to do and how we are going to survive. If we’re losing so much money every month, with little cushion, can we even make it to November? I started having conversations with our partners, and being transparent with our staff. We are in dire straits now. Payroll is a lot, rent is a lot--our landlords are great but aren’t able to give us a meaningful concession in rent. We’re stuck and it’s scary. So much has been into this dream that is BierWax, into bringing to life this passion project. It’s disheartening that it can be threatened by this thing you can’t control. You plan for so many curveballs in hospitality but I never saw this coming.
One saving grace has been Open Streets. We just had our second weekend of it. It allows us to take over the street, itself, from Friday to Sunday, and how much space we can take up alternates weekend to weekend...for the first time, we’ve seen pre-Covid sales the past two weekends. But it’s ending October 31, and there’s no real messaging from the governor or mayor when we can have patrons inside again like upstate and Westchester where they can have 50% capacity. We don’t know what’s going to happen.
Megan: The biggest problem is the government. There’s no communication, and it’s really scary because Ciomo is talking about shutting bars back down in winter and de Blasio says no indoor dining until there’s a vaccine. I am all about keeping people safe. I don’t want 100% indoor dining. I’m from Florida, and I watched what happened there...but I don’t know how anyone will survive winter: no one can survive on to-go, and landlords aren’t getting mortgage breaks so they can’t give rent breaks.
How have you been connecting with customers during these different phases?
Chris: Even from the beginning of having people coming in with masks on and getting beer to go, the generosity was amazing and helped keep the lights on...BierWax is very unique because it’s not just craft beer, there’s the whole music aspect of what we do. When we had DJs, folks not just from across NYC but from other countries would come. We’re missing that element right now. We have a lot more folks that are neighborhood folks that are new to BierWax but are trying to show support, and they’re meeting us in a very different vibe from what we’re used to.
Are you experiencing any challenges with customers in the process of these changes?
Chris: A lot of people are having a hard time navigating the rules of frequenting bars during Covid. People get frustrated wearing a mask or navigating a website to order beer. With how much our tap list changes, it didn’t make sense to keep printing and sanitizing menus, so we went with a website, but some people are like, “Just tell me what you have.” I tip my hat to our bartenders and staff who are very patient.
Megan: We’re serving tables every day in 100 degrees in a mask...and we’re having to make sure when customers are standing they have a mask, that they’re eating food with their first round of drinks--it’s crushing. I had a guy curse my bartender out the other night because he didn’t want to wear a mask...these aren’t our rules. I don’t want to tell people when to eat, like, you can’t leave the table until you’ve finished your broccoli. That’s not why I got into bars. As soon as this is somewhat over, I’m taking my staff out. They’ve sacrificed so much.
There’s not a lot of patience or understanding from customers, which is disheartening. Everyone was excited for us to open, and that lasted a week. I’m not going to say people aren’t being nice, our regulars are so nice. But the general walk-up public, people who maybe haven’t been out, it’s not great. And, to work so hard and have the government ignore you like you don’t matter...we’re literally being criminalized. Yes, bars are absolutely breaking the rules. But it’s 180 bars cited out of 10,000 open bars--that’s a very tiny percentage. All you see on the news is that bars are breaking the rules. It’s frustrating seeing articles making us look like we’re going to be the cause of the spike. So many are following the rules, and we need to talk about the ones doing the right thing. We work so hard, putting so much time and thought into this.
What about your staff, how has that relationship been through all of this?
Chris: Sometimes I fear I’m too transparent. I don’t want people to worry but I also want to be very clear about how dire the situation is. I had a conversation with every single staff member recently that come September 1, there will be some staffing changes. I will have to behind the bar more to save some money, which will impact people. I err on the side of being very open and very communicative, because that’s what I would hope for myself.
Have you been connecting with fellow members of the hospitality industry in the city?
Megan: I’ve worked in beer for 11 years and owned the bar for a year, and have a large network of beer and industry people. This has cemented so many friendships...I’m grateful people have taken time to reach out and talk. That’s the only positive of all this, and that we can have dogs on our patio.
My friend, Rob Morton, a part owner of Fool’s Gold, [got] me on this email chain for Brooklyn bars and restaurants that, before the pandemic, was people asking like, “Hey, my exterminator didn’t show up, I need someone, can anyone recommend someone?” and now it’s people asking, “What are you doing with SBA loans?” or “Does anyone have patio furniture they’re not using?” Finback Brooklyn is a five minute drive from the bar, they’ve come over to support us, and a lot of reps, like from Fifth Hammer and Randolph Beer. People are taking care of each other, which is so nice to see. When this first started, my friend started doing meals for hospitality workers, but they’re all too nice--they’d be like, “Well, I don’t need it, someone else needs it more.” So all these meals were just sitting there. I drove them to every craft beer bar in Brooklyn and forced them onto the staff, like BierWax, Beer Street, Covenhoven, Hops Hill--it felt good, like fighting the good fight. I love beer for that reason, people are so good to people.
What are your biggest and most urgent concerns or needs right now regarding both your own business and the greater hospitality scene in New York?
Chris: Just to get a sense of some kind of communication or some kind of plan...so we can get ready for that. I understand, this is unprecedented, and from a science point of view, bars are a breeding ground for transmission--we have to tread carefully. We can’t rush to reopen and become like Texas or Florida who have experienced a huge spike in infection. But from the point of view of having to keep a business going, we need a sense of what will or should happen so we can plan, so we can do the numbers and see if it’s a viable option for us.
We know that as the weather gets colder, we won’t have outdoor space. There isn’t much money from the city to bail out bars and restaurants. So, then we need advocacy from our politicians to press [for] a way to help the hospitality industry. This is not a short term road block; this is becoming something that can last a year. Plenty of bars and restaurants have already started to close. Any effort to help save the industry from the federal government will definitely be welcome. And anything that our local government can do, I don’t know what that is--I don’t want another loan I’m on the hook for, I already have an SBA loan I’m going to have to pay back. Something in the form of a grant or forgivable loan is very much needed at this point. The folks we’re employing now, we’ll have to phase out those positions and start trimming down staff, and this is people’s livelihood.Megan: We’re so grateful for everyone that supports us but it’s not going to be enough...To help us survive, tell people you’re unhappy with the way things are going and the way the government is ignoring us. We’re absolutely not okay without the help of our customers and regulars not just supporting us, but actively calling people. If they close us down without 25% indoor dining...everyone will close. There will be no more bar culture in New York. All those amazing drinks and food will be gone. If they want their bars to stay, customers have to help.