Behind the Bar My Take

What It's Like to Be Behind the Stick Right Now

As bars and bartenders deal with the challenges of COVID-19, wildfires, ever-changing laws and more, these are some of the specific issues they’re facing.

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Liquor.com / Laura Sant

Gabriella Mlynarczyk is a veteran bartender currently based in Los Angeles.

Let’s face it: The question on everyone’s mind is: When can we get back to normal? And the answer for most of the bar industry is that normal no longer exists and probably won't for a long time to come. As I write this, we’re hitting seven months of living in the “Upside Down,” where every day brings a “Stranger Things”-type revelation. Currently, Los Angeles bars and restaurants are closed to indoor activity due to COVID-19, and with fires raging on the West Coast, outdoor dining is becoming untenable because of falling ash and the hazardous air quality. Alas, this is not a TV show. This is our new normal.

Doing More with Less

For those of us still operating, we’ve made drastic cuts, working with skeleton crews who don’t mind mucking in and acting as human Swiss Army knives. These employees have become our MVPs. At Winsome, we’re running the show with just myself and our food runner, who also happens to be a killer line cook and an obsessive cleaner. I manage the delivery apps, do kitchen prep, serve any to-gos, answer phones, mix cocktail batches and can them for our growing preorder business. And that's about the extent of what we can afford payroll-wise.

My fellow industry veterans around the country are all in a similar boat, constantly making shifts in order to stay afloat and tackling this ever evolving obstacle course in order to pay the bills. Melina Meza, the bar director at Olivetta in Los Angeles, had planned to open the doors again in May. Staff were rehired and trained, but within two weeks they were being let go, the bar shutting down a second time because of rising infection rates in the area. With no outdoor seating, Olivetta was forced to pivot, moving operations elsewhere as a hotel pop-up. Meza was unable to reemploy her team for this enterprise due to hotel union requirements. “I was heartbroken!” she says. “To tell them that even though we were reopening I couldn’t hire them back immediately was devastating. I desperately wanted to provide for my team; they’re my family.” Instead, she was tasked with training new bar staff within 24 hours to start work the next day.

In New York City, Lynnette Marrero, who runs the bar programs for the Llama group of restaurants and others, dug in to consider all aspects with her teams. “Know your strengths, weaknesses and talents,” she says. “We really took time to understand who our guest is at each location and tailor the experience to that. Even during full shutdown, there was a real thought process on how to keep the business as financially strong as possible, streamlining logistics and purchasing and reviewing costing. We had to be nimble to keep learning and expanding our own thinking.” And on her menus? “We’re rotating the cocktail list three drinks at a time—the same with wine, beer and sake. Thoughtful choices help us turn the tables more efficiently.”

I checked in with Jeffrey Morgenthaler to gauge the climate in Portland, Oregon. The city is limited to outdoor dining and has been the scene of mass protests, plus as of mid-September is besieged with historically intense fires to boot. Clyde Common reopened in May 2020 after a remodel, a task that was undertaken by Morgenthaler and a staff of volunteers. The former dining room has been removed to make way for more bar seating; the rest of the space will eventually become a market. 

When I asked him about the future of his award-winning bar, he sounded pretty hopeful. “I feel lucky to have a team that will do anything to help keep the bar running,” he says. “It’s rad that they love it as much as I do.” As for changes in the industry going forward, he thinks the architecture of venues will be drastically redesigned. "I’m not sure people are comfortable going into small dark spaces breathing in the same air, which is why we had to do the renovation at Clyde Common,” he says. “Architecture has always had to adjust to reflect changing times.” Morgenthaler believes one of the changes in new building constructions will be the end of communal restrooms.

And then there’s the issue of revenue. Indie bar operators are facing closures due to exorbitant rents, with no assistance from anyone. “No one is making it easy for businesses to survive,” says Morgenthaler. In NYC, Marrero says, “We’ve been doing more with less while building a culture of innovation and creativity.” She has also been working with her teams on improving efficiency. “One of our biggest challenges is getting quicker turn times in order to make the financials work,” she says. 

Morgenthaler reports that Clyde Common can no longer afford extraneous staff such as hosts, floor managers or even somms, so all staff on shift pitch in. “If you’re not selling or making something, you’re dispensable when it comes to cost-effectiveness,” he says, echoing Marrero’s more-with-less ethos and my own “Swiss Army knife” requirement. 

Legal Battles and Changing Laws

For some, like NYC’s darling boite Nitecap, closure is the only solution. With their bar shut down since March, co-owner Natasha David and her partners decided to be as transparent as possible with their landlord, with the intention of renegotiating the terms of their lease. But weeks went by without a reply. “It's complete insanity,” says David. “After we closed in March, we reached out to our landlord immediately to say, Let’s start working on new lease terms. We got no response and had to get lawyers involved. It’s panic mode at this point. We’ve closed longer than we ever thought we’d be closed. We need rent based on capacity.” 

To finance her legal battle, David sold off the bar’s inventory in a small series of “bottle shop sales.” Nitecap was inundated with support. But still, she says, “A couple of extra blows were that we couldn’t have any outdoor seating and we don’t have a kitchen.” New York City laws, ever-changing during the pandemic, currently require that any bar or restaurant selling alcohol must also require each patron to purchase food. 

David was hoping the New York City Council’s 1932-A law, which temporarily suspends personal liability provisions for businesses unable to operate due to COVID-19 (which is to say, landlords can’t go after business owners personally for rent owed by their closed businesses) would be extended. Without this, the Nitecap team will be personally liable for six more years of rent at the pre-pandemic rate. “The one lifeline we’ve been holding on to is this law that expires on the 31st of September,” says David.

Sadly, there’s bad news on this front. Landlords mobilized to protest the ruling as unlawful, and David’s attorney advises that in any court proceedings the case would almost certainly be thrown out due to this challenge. ”COVID-19 has brought the once-vibrant hospitality industry to its knees,” says David. “These past few months have been debilitating.” As for a new ruling allowing indoor dining at a limited capacity, beginning at the end of September, she tells me the city is forming a new task force to monitor it. “If they’re going to form this new police unit, why not pay the thousands of unemployed restaurant workers to do the job instead?” she wonders. “That way, they can implement the rules with some compassion for the situation.” 

Protecting the Industry’s Workers

The biggest casualty is, of course, those out-of-work employees. “COVID has exposed the dark underbelly of how little people care about the working class,” says Morgenthaler. It’s a feeling shared by Mitch Ono Bushell, who at the beginning of the pandemic was traveling 40 miles a day to and from work to prep to-go cocktails in the hopes of keeping his staff employed at Gran Blanco’s takeout window near the boardwalk in Venice, California. His core lament is the misplaced financial support from spirits companies, who he feels are more focused on growing their followings than assisting those who have helped bring them on-premise revenue. “While brands are pumping money into Instagram bar influencers, many of whom have never worked a bar shift, working bartenders are moving back in with their parents or driving delivery trucks to make ends meet,” he says. 

Undocumented workers, with no safety nets or medical coverage, have been getting some help in Los Angeles from the bartender’s initiative No Us Without You. Financed by donations, the charity says it’s able to feed a family of four for $33 per week. 

Meza, a member of the board of directors of USBG SoCal, was put in charge of a health and wellness push and has been leading the charge on a relief program called Project Cornerstore, funded by large liquor brands. Their contributions enable the distribution of groceries and other essentials to unemployed hospitality workers. Meza’s current plan of action is focused on the mental health side of getting bartenders back on their feet. While we spoke, she was scouting locations for outdoor sites where she plans to schedule complimentary yoga classes.

As we chatted, Meza mentioned that she had been infected with COVID-19 twice—first in February and then subsequently during the second lockdown, when she became even sicker. Even though her doctor told her she’d be fine after 10 days, she continued to test positive after a month of being infected. “The first time, I lost my sense of smell for three months and was quarantining as we went into lockdown number one,” she says. “The second time I tested positive, I was much sicker for way longer.” This has become one of the most significant fears of bar staff returning to work.

Morgenthaler says health has been his biggest personal concern. “Striking a balance between trying to make money and staying safe was doable when we were getting the unemployment subsidy, but now that it no longer exists, I have to find a way to pay the bills,” he says. “I want to go to work and make money, but I also don’t want to die or be responsible for killing someone by passing them the virus.”

Marrero gets straight to the heart of the financial issues our community faces. “Our industry clearly is a huge part of the economy,” she says. “We need more protections at a federal level to help restaurants change the way they operate and to compensate employees. We have proven we are a career-driving industry; the "gig economy” aspect isn't going to cut it anymore for most people in the system.” 

Throughout the industry, I’ve heard horror stories of guests not being respectful of changes and new requirements, making staff feeling expendable. I myself served a couple who came to pick up takeout; when I asked them to wear a mask, they replied that they would when “someone came close.” I asked if I was the proverbial chopped liver! 

But both Marrero and Morgenthaler say they’ve been fortunate with guest-facing experiences. “Those coming out are very appreciative,” says Marrero. “They’re also the more experienced diners. They’ve been very good about the rules. We implemented the strictest of standards, including taking temperatures. I’d say 95% are super-cool about it.” And at Clyde Common? “The majority of guests returning are seasoned regulars who will do whatever they can to support us,” says Morgenthaler. 

Looking to the future, says Marrero, “I hope this is a chance to rebuild stronger, with better systems.” Nitecap’s David agrees. “I keep hoping there will be an end in sight, that we as a community find ways to make the industry better and come out of this with better solutions,” she says. 

Meza, one of the few lesbians running well-known cocktail programs in California, turns to the conversation of bias. “My number-one desire is to increase inclusivity in bar teams and those running bar programs,” she says. “I want to see more women in charge, more LGBTQ people in charge and more hiring of people who are beautiful inside and out and less hiring of people who are cookie-cutter attractive.” 

These dark times come with a few silver linings. Marrero and Morgenthaler both say they feel they’ve been given time well spent mentoring their teams. And according to Ono Bushell, “We’re seeing a lot of pop-ups and takeovers of parking spaces. Los Angeles was really missing outdoor drinking spots, and I think a lot of those will be here to stay.” Which is wonderful for L.A. but begs the question: What about states like New York and Oregon, with colder climates? Has the summer generated enough income to keep their struggling venues alive, or will the government finally step up and pay us some much-needed attention? Until it does, we can only anticipate more closures and increasing job losses as winter approaches.