Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

Four Bartenders Remember How They Coped with Crises Past

“Even in desperate times like these, the idea of hospitality doesn’t go away.”

phoenix illustration / Lauren Rebbeck 

Right now, the industry is doing its best to work through the unthinkable: a global pandemic. It’s frustrating and frightening, and many are wondering how and if the hospitality industry will find a way to come out the other side. The following stories are excerpted from interviews and emails with bar industry professionals who have been through other major crises over the past couple of decades, ranging from economic recessions to natural disasters, and emerged as survivors. 

These accounts aren’t meant to offer solutions, although perhaps they will inspire some ideas. Instead, these remembrances, many candid and raw, were shared in the spirit of offering encouragement and a sense of solidarity during difficult times. “This is unprecedented. We’re just trying to band together and do the right thing and hope it all works out,” says Ryan Maybee of Kansas City distillery J. Rieger & Co., because even “in desperate times like this, the idea of hospitality doesn’t go away.”

Kirk Estopinal, Partner/Bartender at Cane & Table and Cure, New Orleans

On getting through Hurricane Katrina’s effect on New Orleans (2005):

I was in New Orleans during 9/11. If you weren’t in New York City, my experience in New Orleans was it was just a bump in the road; it didn’t turn off everybody’s revenue. With Katrina and the current thing, it has. It stopped everything here. There are a lot of “what-ifs.” Those “what-ifs” are scary.

The parallel between the two right now is the uncertainty on the job side of things. When the storm came, the good thing about a storm is you have a heads-up. Not much, but a heads-up. Now, too, but not much; things could be coming, but I can’t tell how bad. Now you see it will be bad and have to figure things out.

After Katrina, the city was shut down for about 30 days, with not a lot going on. I didn’t have a job; I was a server at the time. I thought, I may not survive. I had $250 in my bank account then. I was a musician working tables; I had no reserves at all. What I did was I sat around. We left town, stayed in a friend’s apartment, stayed home. Thankfully, they had some drinks; we watched TV and let everything sink in for a bit. That was helpful. Instead of watching the news constantly, I found centering things I could do. I would go for a walk; there was a lake down the street, and I’d go fishing. (I never caught a fish.) 

At least some people I knew were with me, and that was the solace I had. Keeping in touch with friends or family is a good idea. I don’t know if it’s a good idea to do that in-person now, but you can still be plugged in with your friends with technology. We didn’t have that option then. And the good thing is that now the power’s not going out. I’m looking at the positives. I’m not in a physically stressful environment; it’s not the summer with no AC, no phone and no technology and it’s just you and your thoughts. We still have our normal lives in some way; it’s not complete upheaval. I’m just trying to stay positive.

I basically didn’t work for three months or so. I didn’t know what I was going to do. There was nowhere to work back home. I could either go to Houston, where my parents were, and sponge off of them, or join a friend in Chicago. That’s where I went. My wife was working at Saks Fifth Avenue at the time, and it caught fire. They offered a transfer for her to Chicago. My friend there helped me get a job with One Off Hospitality, [and eventually I became a founding bartender for craft cocktail bar] The Violet Hour

This is where this whole story changed my life 100%. I was in a rut, personally. I had the music thing, but I knew it was time to move on to something else. Having my life turned upside down, I knew I had to change my life in some way. It led to where I am now: a partner in three restaurants. I learned how to be a fancy bartender. It opened up a million avenues for me. I always talk about that, how terrible Katrina was, but it was a moment of reflection for everybody. Without it, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. I might be working at an insurance firm. Who knows?

Ryan Maybee, Co-founder J. Rieger & Co., Kansas City

On opening bars (and keeping them open) during an economic recession (2007 to 2009):

Manifesto opened in 2009, right during the recession and the crash in mortgage housing prices. I’ll never forget walking through the space and talking to the landlord. It was a phenomenal conversation. [The bar] is in the basement of a 100-year-old hotel that was neglected in what was then a run-down part of downtown. I walked through and showed him what I wanted to do. 

He looked at me and said, “Let me get this straight: You want to open a bar, hidden, no signage, in a dark basement, with no marketing, in a part of town no one wants to go to, with the most expensive cocktails, in the middle of a recession?” And I said, “Yeah!” I had an investor with me. He looked at the investor. “You’re OK with this?” he asked. The investor said, “I believe in them.” And the landlord said, “This is the dumbest fucking thing ever.” I felt the idea so strongly, it just made me more determined. When he said that to me, I said, “Do you have anyone else willing to rent this space from you?” He said no. “Then what do you have to lose?” I asked.

The concept was so clear. It was bold, aggressive and very clear. I wasn’t trying to be everything to everyone. It was hyperfocused on cocktails. I thought, The market is out there. They will find us if we do everything right. It was about escapism. And people really needed that.

The other thing I wanted to drive home with my staff: Don’t take any person, customer or guest for granted. Make sure they all feel appreciated and welcomed. There were nights at first where we had just one or two customers and $50 in sales. That’s scary and frustrating. I said, “Don’t take that $50 customer for granted. We need them to come back. We need them to feel valued.” I think over time that spread. It breaks my heart that right now we can’t do that. 

I said to my staff before we shut down, “People are nervous. They may not be here tomorrow. Make them feel appreciated and valued.” And now, there’s no one. So you need to show that hospitality to an extreme degree.

In the beginning, getting through the recession was definitely a challenge. You just have to fight through it one way or another, like we’re doing now. I have no idea what we’re doing. This is unprecedented. We’re just trying to band together, do the right thing and hope it all works out.

Right now, The Rieger is set up as a kitchen from 4 to 6 p.m. for family meal for the next two weeks, so people can get a prepared meal to go. If you don’t have money, you don’t have to pay for it. We’re still paying the staff there as well.

At the end of the day, it’s about taking care of people who need it. There’s this need to take care of others and feel good. In desperate times like this, the idea of hospitality doesn’t go away, even if we’re forced to shut our doors.

Ivy Mix, Leyenda, Brooklyn 

On getting through Superstorm Sandy (2012):

Sandy was different because if you were affected, you were affected; if not, it was a holiday.

During Sandy, I was working at Clover Club. I remember so, so clearly the night that I worked. It was the night after Sandy hit, which was the day after my birthday.

People were going crazy because they couldn’t go to work. Lower Brooklyn and lower Manhattan were without power, so people were in rough shape, except for those who weren’t. Clover Club is in Cobble Hill—emphasis on “hill.” Not only did Clover Club never lose power, it never lost anything, including business. We were open. I was working a private party in the back room. But we couldn’t get any delivery orders because deliveries had to go over bridges and through tunnels, and all of those were closed. 

I remember so distinctly: This guy came in and burst into the private party in the back room and said, “I want …” I can’t remember what the name of the cocktail was. It was Magic Pumpkin or something, it was a joke Pumpkin Spice Latte drink with egg white. Tom Macy created it. I said, “We don’t have Laird’s, which was one of its ingredients, so I can’t make it." He said, “Well, why not?” I said, “We just don’t have any, we didn’t get the delivery." And he said, “Well, why not?”

He wasn’t even supposed to be in the back room, but the front bar was so insanely packed that he came into the back to get a drink, and no one noticed. I looked at him and said, “Are you completely unaware of what’s happening in this world? There are people who are dead, who are dying; there are people who have nothing. And yes, you’re well-to-do and live up on this hill, and you can come to this bar and order a fancy drink, but you have to be aware.” It was the busiest shift I’ve ever worked, that night after Sandy. It was crazy. And it was crazy to see how unaware people were. 

But with this? Nobody has that luxury. No one can be the busy bar right now. That’s the real sad shame. There is no “Well, this will be over in a day or two.” When will this ever end? No one knows.

I feel like in a natural disaster, in any of the blizzards we’ve had here, there’s a certain amount of jubilation to it. “Ooh, we can hunker in, it’s almost like a party, it’s almost like a vacation!” This is not a vacation, this is quarantine. There’s no semblance of normal; there’s no light at the end of the tunnel for as far as I can see. 

Moe Aljaff, owner, Two Schmucks, Barcelona 

 On owning a bar during the time of the Barcelona terror attacks (2017):

The attacks that occurred in 2017 left Barcelona quieter than I've ever experienced it before. The streets were full, but no one was talking; everyone was going from point A to point B, and any sound, like the one of a gate closing, could make a herd of people sprint in the opposite direction out of fear. When the attacks happened, we had only operated our bar for around three months, and this was a defining moment for us. Every bar on our street was shut that night, but we decided to stay open. We told ourselves that if we shut out of fear, [the terrorists] would have won.

We played reggae the whole night, and we made sure to be extra loving and supportive to anyone who walked in. Those people included a man who lost his phone as he ran away from the attack and just wanted to use the Wi-Fi to contact his family; a couple who just wanted to have a beer and not be locked up in their homes; a bunch of friends who used the bar as a gathering hub to make sure everyone was OK.

Looking over the bar that night, I realized the importance of staying open in difficult times. It almost becomes our responsibility to do so—to be there for our neighbors, for our neighborhood and for our city.