Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

What It's Like to Open a New Bar During the Pandemic

The owners of four new bars share how they’ve made it work.

Drink with hand in glove

Getty Images / Ekaterina Rekina

“I didn’t get to open the doors, so I’m going to have to file for bankruptcy tomorrow,” thought Blake Cole, the owner and operator of Friends and Family in Oakland, California, when Alameda County announced its first shelter-in-place order on March 16, 2020. After more than three years of pitching her bar to investors, finding and building out the space, hiring staff and waiting for six months for a water meter to arrive, her team only got to work a soft opening a week before the city and its surrounding area went into lockdown. 

Cole found herself in the difficult situation of grieving and mourning the dream of owning her own bar. “My partner was witnessing me in this depression and told me I was going through a heartbreak,” she says. “And as soon as I got myself to let go of the idea, there was no choice but to get back up and try and see what happens.” Friends and Family opened for to-go orders the following month. 

One of the challenges Cole and her team faced was letting the public know the bar existed. Through active social-media promotions and charitable auctions in exchange for limited-edition bar merch, Friends and Family built a reputation of a neighborhood bar that cares about its community. “It was a blessing and a curse that we weren’t open before the pandemic,” says Cole. “Since we had never established a customer base, we had the freedom to experiment and try different things, since nobody had any expectations of us.” 

With Friends and Family’s close proximity to local artists’ studios, Cole and her team organized Friends of Friends, a seasonal outdoor market where people could shop from small local businesses while enjoying a cocktail and meal. 

Making a Market

The small multibusiness market model to attract guests has been gaining popularity in many parts of the country. Paul Shanrock and Cera Grindstaff of Dreamland Bar and Diner in Seattle saw an opportunity to keep their new business afloat with a holiday gift market they hosted every weekend of December 2020. Dreamland, which opened in July 2020, had the advantage of having a large outdoor patio at its location in Freemont’s former Red Door building, right across from the PCC Community Market, where, in addition to selling food and drinks to-go, they could seat plenty of guests for outdoor dining. 

But when Washington state announced its second lockdown in fall 2020, the team had to pivot. “We thought, OK, so restaurants can’t be open, but stores can be, and that’s how our Santa’s Disco Village came to be,” says Shanrock. Their holiday market offered more than cocktail sales. Local artists and bartenders who were out of work were able to set up booths and sell their creations. The property’s 32,000 square feet allowed Shanrock and Grandstaff to implement sufficient distancing measures. 

A More Casual Concept

Just a month after Damian opened in downtown Los Angeles for outdoor dining in October 2020, California announced its second shutdown. The restaurant didn’t lend itself well to takeout service. “Damian is more of a sit-down experience,” says Jun Kwon, the restaurant’s beverage manager. Instead of merely waiting out the pandemic, Kwon and his team decided to open a more casual concept, Ditroit, in order to keep their staff employed. Inspired by Southern California’s taco trucks, Ditroit is a taqueria located in an alleyway, operating through a small window where guests can pick up cocktails, tacos, specialty agua frescas and fresh masa made in-house from heirloom corn delivered from Mexico. 

The team intended Ditroit to be a casual drop-by neighborhood spot, and it proved well-suited to the to-go model that became ubiquitous during pandemic times. “When we opened Ditroit, we had to repaint every tile of the path that led to it to signal to people that there was something special down the path, and you were lucky to find it,” says Kwon. “With the parking lots next to it, it has been nice to see people pick up food and drinks from us, set shop in their trunks and have informal block parties to safely enjoy their time.” 

Saved by Social Media

When bar and chicken-sandwich restaurant Double Chicken Please opened in July 2020, owners GN Chan, Faye Chen and Mark Chou were limited to two counters and four high-top stools for guests. A bus stop right outside the bar restricted outdoor seating. Fortunately, the team’s approach to branding gained them recognition from sources they didn’t expect. 

“Double Chicken Please is basically a design studio,“ says Chan. “Our to-go containers, plates, utensils and merchandise are very design-oriented.” The team approaches its design and service with humor, as well. The staff uniform includes a mask with a smiling chicken beak on the front. 

The DCP team’s efforts got noticed by editors and food bloggers who flocked to try the bar’s food and drinks. “People would come to DCP and show us videos of our food and drinks on TikTok. I didn’t even know people that are old enough to drink were on TikTok,” says Chan laughing. But it proved that organic features on social media apps are more important than ever. 

Looking Ahead

As situations continue to change and the permitted indoor capacity continues to expand in many areas, many bars treat every day as a learning experience. “The second lockdown was the hardest for us, especially as a new business that did not qualify for any grants or loans from the government,” says Shanrock. “But now every day feels like our opening day, except we’re more prepared than we were the day before.” 

“If there’s anything that I learned through this year, it’s that we are even more invested in creating a safe community space and facilitating connections between human beings,” says Cole, who recently celebrated Friends and Family’s first anniversary and opened the bar for indoor service for the first time. “I think there’s an appreciation for that, because we’ve been starved of it for a year.” 

Double Chicken Please will be opening its backroom bar this month, which will focus more on the cocktail program and offer more traditional-style bar service as opposed to the fast-paced casual-dining concept of the front room. “We’re excited to keep showing more and more of what we want to do, as we’re learning how to adapt to the new normal and see what people are looking for,” says Chan.

Ditroit now has dining tables surrounding its service window, while Damian is operating at the currently permitted 50% capacity and preparing to transition to full capacity in June. “Now we’re facing a different issue, where everyone is hiring,” says Kwon, who says it’s challenging to attract staff when they have “offers from everywhere.” At 100% capacity, Damian alone will need to employ more than 100 people. Know anyone looking for work?