As thousands of bars remain closed across the country, new patterns of serving and enjoying drinks are emerging. Here's how America's grandest social tradition could change forever.

By Dan Q. Dao
June 08, 2020
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Leyenda, a bar in Brooklyn, NY.
Courtesy of Leyenda

With Texas introducing one of the country’s most aggressive reopening campaigns last month, prolific Houston restaurant-bar owner Bobby Heugel faced a tough decision: Reopen sooner than many deemed safe, or potentially struggle to meet the tedious loan forgiveness requirements outlined in the government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) for small businesses.

“Most of us would rather not reopen, but for the financial wellbeing of our staff, we’ve got to figure out a way,” Heugel said, noting that his six venues are in partial reopening mode. “It’s the attitude of the state, and it’s something outside of our control.” To meet new standards of social distancing and sanitization, Heugel and his team set about rewriting rules of service: “We’ve got a 20-page manual with new cleaning standards and guidelines for interacting with guests. We’ve moved tables. Our goal now is to learn some lessons and see what’s possible.”

This is the reopening path the American restaurant and bar industry is navigating as it becomes ever more clear that there’s no going back to the way things were. This means unprecedented measures—a regularly updated CDC page cites installation of barriers, staggered usage of spaces, and posted signage. And for some, it also means confronting the longstanding labor injustices that were laid bare as venues laid off entire teams. By now, some 40 million Americans, including many in the hospitality space, have sought unemployment benefits.

But independent venues that function primarily as bars, rather than restaurants, are facing a unique existential crisis. Even before the pandemic, the notion of the essential neighborhood bar was already waning: These days, bars might be mistaken for full-service restaurants, drawing guests in with premium bar bites, while craft cocktail menus have become standard fare even at fast-casual establishments. Then there’s the fact that while all the bars were closed, Americans adapted to virtual happy hours and drinking at home. U.S. alcohol sales saw a 55% increase, according to Newsweek, as folks turned to e-commerce to order deliveries of booze en masse—a behavior experts predict will continue even when bars reopen.

All of this begs the question: What comes next? Razor-thin margins, exorbitant rents, and underpaid labor are just some of the issues that have plagued the industry for years. But now the upheaval from coronavirus could offer the bar industry a chance to reinvent itself—operationally, technologically, and ethically.

Before any changes can be made, of course, bars must find the funding to reopen. And not all of them will. Most notably, the crisis has already claimed Pegu Club, the lauded bar opened in 2005 by industry pioneer Audrey Saunders. With the government haphazardly rolling out assistance programs like PPP, Ivy Mix, a bartender at Leyenda in Brooklyn, said many bars are finding themselves without a seat at the table as large restaurant chains and franchises leveraged their resources to sweep up funds early on.

“There are many issues here, but a big one is people gathering in clubs and music venues to cram in and listen and be together,” Mix said, nodding to high-volume venues such as clubs where social distancing would be next to impossible to enforce. “The other obstacle is that many bars and clubs do not serve food, so it can be much harder to lobby for them.”

Indeed, lobbying for bars has been difficult in general, partly because there isn’t a clear platform through which to air grievances. To the anger of many, the Food and Beverage Economic Revival Industry Group, President Trump’s official organization for rebuilding the hospitality industry, included zero women or people of color. But it also did not include a single bar owner. To that end, Mix is a part of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which is seeking a stabilization fund to bail out the industry as a whole.

In many cities like New York, which has been suffering one of the world’s worst outbreaks, rent relief is still urgently needed, says Jordan David Smith, spirits director and head bartender at HALL by ODO in New York City. “In most cases, you aren’t paying your rent to a mom-and-pop landlord—you’re paying it to a subsidiary of a hedge fund who only cares about their return on investment, not how many people will be out of work if they evict you for breaking the terms of your lease,” Smith explained. “What needs to happen is a stand the likes of which has never been seen. There has to be a collective action strong enough to force the government to remedy this illogical and untenable situation, to grant true rent relief, and to lessen this burden in the future.”

Smith said that underpaid labor must go, and that health insurance for bartenders must become a priority, although he doesn’t believe many independent venues can bear the cost. “The status quo is the reason this pandemic hit us as hard as it did—rallying cries of ‘being in this together’ have to engender actual humanism,” he says. “Health insurance should be a basic human right, but asking independent restaurateurs to saddle another cost right now seems misguided.”

Creating more equity over time may mean simply charging more, according to Claire Sprouse, owner of Brooklyn’s sustainability-focused restaurant-bar Hunky Dory, which will operate without dine-in or drink-in service for the remainder of 2020. “Our industry will no longer be able to tolerate artificially low pricing,” Sprouse said. “I don’t believe that the cost of food and drink in places like San Francisco or New York are realistic. We need to consider the cost of providing care to employees and providing equity in spaces. If diners say they care about their favorite bartenders or baristas, they should be willing to pay for that person to be healthy.”

Death & Co. in New York City.
Elliott Clark

Bars will need to learn some other new tricks, particularly where technology can help address post-coronavirus realities. “We are making many creative changes at all of our locations in Tulum, Miami, and NYC—there will be electronic waiting lists with QR codes and QR codes at every table to allow diners to order and pay for food and cocktails by smartphone,” says James Gardner, founder and owner of Grupo Gitano. “These will be integrated with our POS, kitchen, and bars for ease and items will be delivered right to the table. We are also implementing new private, outdoor hand-washing stations featuring contactless faucets.”

The use of new technology extends, significantly, beyond a bar’s physical space. Under stay-at-home orders, many states, including New York and New Jersey, allowed for to-go cocktails and cocktails via delivery. Some bar owners took that opportunity to build out new interfaces for takeout and delivery, while others went as far as launching full digital storefronts to compete with the likes of cocktail kit companies, booze delivery services, and liquor stores.

“We've designed a new program that allows our customers to take a little bit of the experience of Grand Army home with them,” said Damon Boelte of Grand Army in Brooklyn. “In addition to putting our entire bar catalog on sale in a brand new online shop, including large format cocktails and cocktail kits, we've got t-shirts, beer koozies, stickers, bitters, and branded oyster knives. We've also started selling cocktail books from some of our favorite local authors, who have generously signed them and donated a portion of the sale back to our staff.”

In light of social distancing, many bartenders and brands are also creating video tutorials and tastings for drinkers who want to interact with them on-demand. Boelte and his partner, Julian Brizzi, said they’ve appeared in cocktail and cooking videos and online chats to reach their audiences at home. Spirits brands, likewise, have followed suit, seeing tremendous growth through online channels. “Our business has doubled from what it was last year at this time—just in digital commerce,” revealed Adrian Parker, VP of marketing at Patrón. “We’re continuing to invest in new technology. We have 500 cocktails on Amazon Alexa that you can make in the comfort of your home; people can visit our hacienda in Mexico via virtual reality on Google Cardboard.”

Online education may also present opportunities to market to those who would make cocktails at home. “So many people have started bringing cocktail culture into their homes and as a result, the general consumer awareness  and education will likely be very high for some time,” said Dave Kaplan, the founder of Death & Co in New York City. “People will know and understand their palate and they’ll be able to engage in more meaningful dialogues, and have higher expectations of their bartenders. I also think we’ll see a wide range of products geared for the home cocktail market, including syrups, ready-to-drink options, and barware.”

For smaller, less tech-savvy bars as well as independent spirits producers, however, learning how to bring in business via more sophisticated e-commerce platforms, from social media channels to paid search advertising, will present a learning curve. Sprouse has been particularly active in bridging tech with bar service, collaborating with a nonprofit called Social Builder to connect digital marketing professionals with small businesses.

“One of my concerns about websites is that these mom and pop stores are going to be left behind because they won’t be able to fully adapt,” she explains. “To that point, I’m working with this tech non-profit to help specifically immigrant businesses set up their website, set up their email, and create an e-commerce presence.

Gitano in New York City.
Courtesy of Grupo Gitano

As bars and restaurants do what they must to survive, it’s worth examining what would be lost in a future where cocktail hour might mean ordering a bottle on Drizly and watching an Instagram tutorial by your favorite bartender. For one, it’s neighborhood institutions like pubs and dive bars that have been rendered most helpless during this time. Unsurprisingly, as Vice reports, one Philadelphia dive bar owner who filed on the very first day SBA applications became available was notified soon after that the fund had run dry.

It’s also nightclubs and lounges, which often times serve as community spaces for queer and other marginalized communities yet don’t receive the airtime granted to high-end cocktail establishments. Sure, more clubs will always come along, but years of declarations that “nightlife is dead” suggest that a little something is lost each time the industry suffers displacement. And what of venues that might have been opened during these last few months?

“The masks and gloves will be temporary,” Smith said. “We will lose truly storied places; institutions that we’d never imagined would close. We will pay the unseen cost of missing the bars that don’t ever open, the ones that in other times would have been part of the next great wave, because their operators were too discouraged by the economic climate. We have only begun to see the tip of this iceberg, and these costs will be hard to bear.”

Looking forward, reaching the next generation of drinkers—members of Gen Z who grew up with smartphones and who are now entering the workforce—will be paramount in ensuring longevity of bars and the grand American tradition of social drinking. Some studies have suggested this group drinks less overall, while others reveal Gen Z-ers are also the generation most interested in trying new things and opportunities for self-education. As we brace for an economic recession caused by COVID-19, it’s hard to not draw parallels to that of 2008. It was a moment that would forever shape the millennial generation, whose aversion to Wall Street’s extravagance would help usher in a casual fine dining revolution. Suffice it to say, it’ll be interesting to see what Gen Z does with the world it inherits.

But when it comes to the future of the neighborhood bar, Bobby Heugel offered some hope. “Neighborhood bars are the one constant in hospitality that haven’t changed at all over the last 100 years,” he said. “Restaurants went on more of a roller coaster cycle. But I think that bars that are truly focused on being those neighborhood meeting spaces will be just fine.”