It’s a terrifying time for all. But it’s a dire time for small businesses, especially our beloved restaurants and bars. Not only do our independent restaurants and bars bring the color and literal and figurative “flavor” to each of our cities and regions, they are the cultural backbone, communal gathering places, places of education in taste and history… and they are sheer pleasure, when done right.
Millions of our hospitality compatriots around the US and the world are without jobs overnight as forward-thinking cities are on lockdown and most major cities have shut down bars and restaurants, with takeout/delivery the last option left only for restaurants.
Our bartending community is suffering greatly on the front lines, even as this is a big blow to all businesses, including distilleries (many are full steam ahead producing hand sanitizer). As many suspect — and government is already saying — it’s not likely this will be wrapped up by early April, but could go on for months, which other hard-hit countries have already shown us. Even two weeks ago, business owners were telling me they wouldn’t survive much longer with the massive drop in customers. Now that they’re all shut down without much financial aid, the real concern is many will not be able to reopen (Eater explains it succinctly for the restaurant world, which also translates to bars, “Restaurants Are F—ed.”)
Nicolas Torres, bar manager of one of the most innovative cocktail menus and excellent bars in the world, True Laurel in San Francisco, says, ”Right now is ground zero, in all honesty: providing resources and assistance to all the folks that I have to lay off. Making sure employees that may have fear of working through these systems can get through it. We will pull every string we can to make sure True Laurel opens again and can provide for its family.”
This is a massive loss not just in jobs, income and provision for millions but of some of the shining destinations of our cities. Yet without our bars, we would not have the spirits revival. No doubt about it: the cocktail renaissance of the last three decades has brought people back to spirits. It has shown people “booze” can be as imaginative, innovative and delicious as food, mirroring the dining renaissance, with the best bartenders showing chef-level creativity. Make no mistake: the reason the world now pays attention to your craft spirits is because of the bar renaissance.
I couldn’t drink any spirit neat before I fell in love with QUALITY cocktails. Within a year of getting into cocktails, I was privileged to learn from the best bartenders, who schooled me as I started to ask, “Now what exactly is in that base spirit you’re trying to play off of in this cocktail recipe?” Soon I was not only drinking spirits neat but on press trips to distilleries the world over, learning how the spirits were made and falling irreversibly in love with a subject I never thought I’d care about (especially growing up in a teetotaling household). For 15 years now, I’ve written about and judged spirits and cocktails (SF World Spirits, IWSC, ADI Judging of Craft Spirits, Tales of the Cocktail, Good Food Awards, to name a few). And I’ve been following the renaissance even longer, as I first visited the great Angel’s Share in NYC in the late 1990s, precursor to the speakeasy “trend” even before Milk & Honey opened in 2000.
As one-by-one, these pioneering bartenders schooled people like me — early writers and “fans” — over the years, this revival began to spread well beyond NYC and San Francisco, where it started, to cities far and wide. Now I can even go to my birth town of Oklahoma City and find multiple bars attempting craft cocktails alongside local distillers. It has happened everywhere and spread the world over, first starting with bar revivals in the major cities of a given country.
The general populace would never have become as broadly interested in spirits without cocktails/bars. I still face this regularly as I make (gin, aquavit, whiskey and beyond) cocktails for friends and acquaintances who think they hate (or don’t even know) certain spirits without first experiencing them in a good drink (a bad drink just further isolates). Historic and innovative cocktails have been painstakingly rebirthed the last couple decades by bars and bartenders, thus bringing millions around to spirits.
Our bartending community is hurting now. So profoundly. Without a backup option indefinitely, some of the biggest names in the bar world are telling me they aren’t sure they can reopen. The smaller “names” have even less of a chance. This is a massive cultural and communal loss the world over and will change our drink world irreparably (think many years of building back, not months).
Isaac Shumway, a longtime San Francisco bar vet who recently opened the excellent California Gold bar north of the city in Marin County, says: “We just opened less than 4 months ago, after working every day for a year to get open… We [had] been very successful day-in and day-out, which is exactly what it takes to survive with such opening debt and thin margins. Every day I live with fear because of the reality of needing so many people to survive. Now, in light of [this week’s] events, it’s impossible to know what’s going to happen. I do know every success or gain we have built up to is slipping away every day we are shut down. I’m praying we see everyone on the other side.”
The creative, artistic and hard-working bar community is also resilient and bold. Even in these initial days as the darkness is just beginning, signs of life and ingenuity are flowing as numerous industry Facebook groups are popping up to communicate with and help each other, giving childcare in the midst of lost nannies, offering support for those in 12-step alongside other online group meetings and personal check-ins.
An outpouring of gift certificates purchased at bars like Elixir in SF, are of huge help as bars go under. Elixir owner H. Joseph Ehrmann is attempting to launch online cocktail classes and an online store to sell books, t-shirts, hoodies, etc. His bar managers are working on a virtual version of their popular Tuesday night Pub Quiz, looking to monetize it as another aid for survival in the coming weeks. “I opened Elixir after losing my dot.com job because I never wanted to face unemployment again,” says H. “My thought was that by having a ‘little engine that could’ make money every day, I’d at least have a base. I could have never predicted this uncertainty, but I know I’ll get through it. And so will you.”
Thankfully, Jameson (part of Pernod Ricard) made an important move first thing on Monday, pledging $500,000 to the United States Bartenders’ Guild’s COVID-19 Relief Campaign. The USBG has helped many in the bartending community when they’ve had medical issues or other life emergencies without insurance or windfall to cover it. There are hundreds of thousands in that position now (bartenders and barbacks, submit an application here, which is secure, will be vetted by trained staff, then evaluated by a separate panel of volunteers for “determination of need” and approved within 4-6 weeks). Take note: Jameson is also matching all your donations up to an additional $100,000 through March 31.
As the week progressed, others donated to USBG’s relief fund: Michter’s Distillery and Philip Duff of Old Duff Genever made a joint donation of $10,000; BeamSuntory and Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits pledged a total of $1 million, and Patron jumped in with $1 million going to three different organizations for restaurant and drink employees, including families and front and back-of-the-house operations. Guinness/Diageo just pledged $1 million to support bar staff in Great Britain and to UBSG’s COVID aid. Hopefully, this will continue and the funds will actually be available to industry folk immediately, although sorting through all this will surely take time.
Smaller brands are also jumping in to help. Ocean Beach-based Skrewball Peanut Butter Whiskey is actively raising awareness of the dire state the hospitality and bar industry is in through its SKREW COVID-19 campaign. They are donating — and encouraging others to donate — to USBG’s Bartender Emergency Assistance program. They also are creating care packages (food supplies, etc.) within their San Diego community. In maybe the best move of all (because millions of these little acts add up), they are donating $1 to UBSG (with a goal of $100,000) for every Instagram “share” of their SKREW COVID-19 campaign. As they wisely encourage: “No donation is too small!”
In fact, no gift, no donation, no act of kindness is too small at this time. Our now-maimed bar/drink and restaurant community is already exhibiting what they have long modeled: they show up and do community fiercely and bravely, as I’ve watched them do time and again whenever anyone is sick or struggling in the community. May we stand with them.
Rebecca Cate, co-owner of San Francisco’s Tiki bar great, Smuggler’s Cove, lays out a challenge, “I do believe this is our World War II moment, but please don’t tell me that all we as a nation are being asked to do is ‘sit on the couch and watch Netflix.’ Small business owners, particularly in the hospitality world, have been asked to do the unthinkable: to close our businesses with no notice, to lay off our employees, to figure out how we’ll make it through to the other side. We scramble to help each other navigate laws, find sources of financial help, do our best to help employees where we’re able, think up creative ways to make money while we’re closed… [We] update each other on the latest small glimmers of aid, much of which, at least so far, is only going to give us more debt, or promises us money later, when we need the money now. Millions of hospitality workers have had to shoulder an unfair portion of the nation’s burden, left without jobs and little, if any, safety net. After spending their lives taking care of others, they are left on their own. This week none of us are sitting on our couch watching Netflix. When we finally sit down on the couch at the end of our day, it is much more often simply to weep.”