Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

How Bar Owners Are Taking Care of Their Teams Right Now

Bar owners are figuring out creative ways to help their employees.

illustration of bartenders / Alex Testere

Although as of the end of May a handful of states have allowed bars to open with reduced capacity, America’s nearly 66,000 pubs, cocktail bars, dives, clubs and lounges are slated to be among the last businesses to fully come back to life amid the pandemic. The need among industry workers is great. By early May, 295,000 people had applied for relief funding from the United States Bartenders’ Guild, overwhelming its system and team largely composed of volunteers. 

 With limited resources of their own, bar owners across the country launched GoFundMe campaigns and tipped virtual happy hours to help fill in the gaps for their employees. But a small group of owners are supporting their furloughed teams and communities in thoughtful, creative and often quiet ways. 

 Food and Lobbying

 Once a week, Alba Huerta converts the parking lot outside of Julep, her Houston bar, into a drive-through food pantry. In partnership with Houston Shift Meal, she works with chef Hugo Ortega and volunteers to package, label and sort bags of food for unemployed hospitality workers.

 “The second we open at 3 p.m., there’s a line of cars parked and waiting. It’s two blocks long,” says Huerta. “It’s always a heavy reminder that everyone is out of work. These are people who worked at places that define our city that are the fabric of our city. My employees come through too.”

 Even though Huerta received PPP funding for Julep and is surrounded by restaurant and bar owners who are eager to get back to work, she’s wary of exposing her team to the virus. “I don’t want to be an advocate for reopening,” she says. 

 Huerta has lobbied local clinics and the city of Houston to increase testing for hospitality workers. “Houston gives us one free test. We should be able to get tested regularly, and people need access to health care,” she says. Huerta has not been successful on the testing front, so she and other Houston Shift Meal partners are providing the only safety net they can. 

Similar models have popped up across the country. Among them, there’s the 18-city Restaurant Workers Relief Program from the Lee Initiative, ATL Staff Meal,Service and Furlough Kitchen

Unconventional Relief Fund

 In Colorado, bar owner Sean Kenyon and Woody Creek Distillers buy 50 hospitality workers a meal from a local restaurant each week. Kenyon also distributes Woody Creek’s hand sanitizer to first responders and restaurants that remain open. 

 Kenyon estimates that he has logged 4,000 miles in his car since mid-March. After he shut down his three bars—American Bonded, Occidental and Williams & Graham—he pivoted from bar owner to food delivery driver. 

 “I signed up for every delivery service and app I could. I had a car and a lot of time,” he says. For six weeks, Kenyon made $200 to $400 a day hauling family meals and bags of burritos, pizza and Chick-Fil-A. He deposited the earnings into a fund for his 53 employees (one of whom is this writer’s brother-in-law). 

 Kenyon raised a few eyebrows when he stopped into friends’ restaurants to pick up food, but the work sustained him emotionally. Diners were grateful. He could extend hospitality to everyone he encountered, and he hoped that his staff would worry a little less about groceries and bills.

 Occidental and Williams & Graham recently started offering to-go cocktail service, and Kenyon will continue his delivery gig—now just for his own businesses. Fortunately, everyone on his team was able to secure unemployment benefits, and no one yet has needed to tap the $3,400 fund Kenyon created with his food delivery earnings. 

 “It’s still there and growing, and it will be there when and if people need it,” says Kenyon. “If we get to open back up and there’s still money, we’ll all decide together what charity to donate it to.”

 Online Learning and Grocery Provisions

 In Portland, Maine, Hunt & Alpine Club owners Briana and Andrew Volk have also created an employee fund. “It’s in the thousands of dollars. It’s a decent amount and helps provide the staff with extra cash so they’re still able to pay rent,” says Briana. “Or they can save it and get a tattoo when this is all over.”

 In addition to sheltering in place with two small children and working on a plan to pivot the business, Briana is testing recipes for a forthcoming cookbook. She advertises her surplus cookies, cakes and pastries on social media and funnels proceeds from the sales to the fund. The Volks top it up with donations from brands and tips from online events.

 Beyond the fund, they’ve given their team of 12 subscriptions to MasterClass. They host Zoom happy hours once a week and promote team members’ knitting, cross-stitch and ’zine projects to Hunt & Alpine’s followers. Each week, the staff orders groceries from Native Maine and Stonecipher Farm, two of the bar’s purveyors. 

 “Suppliers who deliver to restaurants have minimum orders, so there has been some bartering going on,” says Briana. “You have to order 10 pounds of beans or 10 chickens. There’s lots of back and forth conversations about people getting 5 pounds of parmesan or someone taking four chickens. It’s been pretty funny.”

 The Volks have done their best to keep the Hunt & Alpine team spirit alive. And in their estimation, the most important thing they’ve done is regularly and clearly communicate to their employees. While Hunt & Alpine started to-go and mail-order service, it won’t reopen when the rest of the state of Maine does on June 1. 

 “By the end of June, we’ll have a solid answer for the team about what’s going to happen. We’re totally transparent about what we know and why we’re making decisions we’re making,” says Briana. “The one lesson we’ve learned, and what we try to do to the best of our ability, is always communicate what we’re thinking. You might not agree with us, but you’ll always know what we’re thinking.”