Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

Bars Are Starting to Reopen. Owners Share Their Thoughts and Ideas.

They have big ideas, big concerns and plenty of questions.

bargoers wearing masks

Getty Images / Jim Heimann Collection; photo composite: / Laura Sant


As the U.S. continues shifting toward reopening businesses, bar owners from coast to coast are left struggling with the question of how to proceed. How can a bar become financially viable while limited by social distancing? Where might relief, guidance and even the best and latest information come from? What types of systemic changes are needed to help bars survive and also to help the industry and its employees thrive?

"We don't know when we will be able to go back to the basic idea of what restaurants, bars, hotels and hospitality represent to us," says Maxwell Britten, a managing partner at The Django at The Roxy Hotel in New York City. "It's a moving target, but really it comes down how we can operate while guaranteeing public health and safety in a post-pandemic world."

Contactless payment solutions and disposable or digital menus only scratch the surface of what's required to move forward. "There's so much to say about what should change, what should be scrapped and what we’ll do in the 'new reality' that it’s a little overwhelming,” says Derek Brown, the owner of Columbia Room in Washington, D.C., and author of “Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World.”

They and other bar owners and managers shared some of their biggest issues, concerns and ideas.

Taking Care of Employees

The havoc of the pandemic spotlighted some of the larger issues throughout the hospitality industry, including the health and well-being of its employees. "Our priority, hand-in-hand alongside survival, is making sure we carry our staff with us," says Julia Momose, a partner and the creative director of Kumiko in Chicago."I believe the next stage is completely revamping the model, starting with fair wages for everyone."

Numbers vary state by state, but with current unemployment benefits, many former hospitality workers are actually making more money while unemployed than they did while working their former jobs—and without enduring the health risks of a crowded workplace. "I think the tipped model must go out the window," says Momose. "The first thing is to make sure as we're hiring back our staff that they’re making enough without relying on tips and also—and this is a weird thing to say—that we can compete with the unemployment that they're making right now." 

Jamie Boudreau, the proprietor of Canon in Seattle, can't provide cost-effective health insurance to his employees, so instead he pays a livable wage that allows them to purchase their own. Dishwashers start at $22 per hour, for instance. "Hopefully more owners will care for staff in ways that they haven't in the past," he says.

Owners will need to be able to afford to do so, of course. Brown believes the current pricing structure essentially forms a power struggle between customers, owners and employees. "Bars and restaurants have to stop subsidizing customer experiences at the cost of their staff and well-being," he says. "Now don’t get me wrong, service is built into our DNA, and we'll continue to do our absolute best to meet and exceed expectations. But the inverse of that is that you have to pay for it." Customers might feel a $16 cocktail was already too expensive. Soon, the same drink might have to cost $20.

Brown believes another inequality is found in the disparity between different teams within a single establishment. "Chefs work as hard as servers who work as hard as bartenders who work as hard as barbacks who work as hard as dishwashers," he says. "That doesn't mean we flatten everyone's rate. It just means an adjustment is due.” It also means, he says, that service charges may need to be incorporated into checks, putting an end to tipping.

Of equal importance is providing a safe working environment for employees and ensuring they feel comfortable returning to work. No universal solution exists, although measures may include employee temperature checks and/or testing, providing masks and other PPE, proper social distancing, hand-washing protocols, and more.

Financial Relief

Proposals to improve the PPP and similar programs have been made but are generally insufficient. Broader measures are needed to ensure bars’ survival.

Britten is currently working with THIRST (The Hospitality Industry Re-Imagined Security Trust) as the state organizer for New York, aiming to change and improve legislation for state bills on how disaster relief insurance is defined and distributed. "Nationally, insurers are holding over $860 billion in reserves," he says. "We estimate it would take half of that in order for us to inject our small businesses with the funding that’s needed to help us all survive a return. Currently, few businesses are able to access disaster relief funds that are included in business interruption insurance policies, and we’re in a state of emergency."

More immediately, many bar owners believe reduced rent is needed. "Truly the only way we will survive this is if I can work out a deal with my landlord," says Boudreau. If Washington State repeals to-go cocktail and spirits sales in August, as expected, Canon’s only source of income will be cut off. In that case, “We are done,” he says.

With bars being forced to operate with reduced capacity, rent adjustments need to be made to reflect the reduced value of the space. "If we can’t continue to monetize significant percentages of our space due to social distancing and capacity restrictions, how can we fairly renegotiate commercial leases to reflect a wildly different reality for how existing spaces can be valued?" asks Joaquín Simó, a partner in Pouring Ribbons in New York City.

Information and Direction

Business owners are routinely being left in the dark on the specifics and timing of new policies and have been left scrambling. There's a need for information and clarity and a failure to convey it to them.

"It has been more than two months since we were shut down. We need answers, we need information, we need transparency," says Simó. "We’re an enormous generator of jobs, tax revenue and neighborhood character. We deserve to be heard, and we deserve to be told what it will take for us to survive as resilient and creative small business owners. Give us actionable information so we can make informed decisions about how to best proceed with the time-sensitive decisions about our businesses."

Most people understand that this is a fluid and evolving situation and will continue to be so. However, a hodgepodge of last-minute regulations and allowances leaves them paralyzed and unable to take action or coordinate a viable strategy.

"If there was ever a good time for the federal government to put forward a plan, this would be it," says Bill Stephens, a partner in Hello Stranger in Oakland, Calif., along with his wife, Summer-Jane Bell. "It's every person for themselves. The result is a piecemeal solution for a pandemic. The opportunity for a unified and coordinated effort allowing for a much swifter recovery seems to have long been squandered."

Communication with Customers

Molly Wellmann, the bartender-owner of Japp's in Cincinnati, believes that success in this changed landscape is also going to depend upon communication with customers: “putting up reminders to people about how things are to have them remember there's no guidebook for changing century-old practices for going out to a bar or a restaurant.” Equally important, she says, is for the customers to communicate any concerns to an owner or manager, so they can be resolved, rather than simply posting on social media. 

Andrew Auwerda, the founder and president of Philadelphia Distilling, also emphasizes the importance of communication. "We're making sure all of our communication channels are functioning as seamlessly and efficiently as possible," he says. "That means syncing our web presence, digital communications, social media, shopping cart, email lists, menus and web advertising to promote the same clear message."

Unique Adaptations to New Circumstances

"Steve Schneider from Employees Only said, 'One thing I learned about owning a bar is that all bars are different,'" says Stephens. "Each one being uniquely its own and defined by the personalities, the architecture, the governing bodies at play, and both history and circumstance. During these times, the idiosyncrasies of every bar and restaurant are pushed to the surface. What was once a feature is now a bug. What once was an afterthought is now the primary business model."

Ultimately, while everyone needs to adapt, not every bar will be able to adapt in the same way. "At Hello Stranger, we shifted from a high-volume, craft-cocktail dance club to a very specialized bottle shop," says Stephens. "In the next few weeks, we will pivot again to a restaurant model."

Philadelphia Distilling isn't just an operating distillery, it's also a full-service bar and events space. Auwerda expects to heavily promote its large outdoor patio off the distillery tasting room, since research shows outdoor spaces are safer environments, as well as a spacious fourth-floor event space with small minimum spends, great for smaller groups to practice distancing.

Boudreau, meanwhile, can't foresee opening his bar as-is until a vaccine or viable treatment is available, due to Canon’s size and the six-foot distancing rule that Washington State has implemented until at least August. Canon has instead pivoted to takeout cocktails and merch, and Boudreau plans to next offer cocktail classes and dinner for three groups of four at a time, since the 48-person room’s capacity has been diminished to just 12 people.   

Wellmann realizes that keeping Japp’s sit-down bar open isn’t an option, as guests would be likely to cluster together, which leaves her with a maximum of eight tables and 24 seats. Turning those tables quickly is now essential. "I need to get people in, have them stay for an hour or hour and a half, then somehow politely get them the hell out," says Wellmann with a laugh. She plans on offering customers to-go cocktails at the end of their allotted time so they can continue enjoying her bar's beverages after they depart.

Wellmann also plans to institute a reservation-only policy for the first time. It’s essential, she says, for efficiently turning over tables in a reduced-capacity environment and also for customers to commit to being part of the solution. "When I take reservations, I'm going to have everyone agree to certain things,” says Wellmann. Guests will need to wear masks until they sit down and remain seated except to visit the restroom. “There are rules,” she says. “It's about getting people trained that this is the new way of going out."

Reason for Optimism

There's reason for concern, but there's also room for hope. "One thing that won’t change: Humans require interaction," says Stephens. "We cease to exist without it. And so we will find ways to return. The models may change and they should. Restaurants and bars have lived on margins too thin for too long."

And when the bar industry does return in earnest, its owners need to create a better quality of life for all employees. "We need to be healthier—financially, mentally, physically," says Brown. "As owners, we have a responsibility for all the souls under our roof, not to set moral standards but to professionalize our workplace and make it safe for all."