The Best Bars in the Country Pivoted to To-Go Drinks. Can It Save Them?
The to-go cocktail renaissance is keeping customers happy, but may not be enough to keep the lights on.
As a recent spike in coronavirus cases further delays the dream of normalcy, there are things we miss that simply can’t be replicated at home: the buzz of a night out with friends, the adventure of stumbling from place to place, the inviting darkness of a dive bar, the reward of sliding into your favorite seat at your favorite watering hole and ordering the usual. At the very least, you can bring home the tipple required, with several cities sanctioning to-go cocktails to help throw bars a lifeline. But while many of the best bars in the country have risen to social distancing measures with creativity and optimism, they continue to face uncertain futures, as the pandemic has left the industry irrevocably changed.
Even though bars are considered to be the perfect environment for spreading the virus, major cities are beginning the transition to phase 4 of pandemic restrictions, where they can open with social distancing precautions and at reduced capacity. But with numbers rising across the country, some cities are extending permissions for businesses to reopen only to find that they must immediately rescind that permission and order them closed again.
Meanwhile, the list of establishments closing permanently grows longer. The bills keep coming in every month. To-go drinks can help keep customers happy, employ remaining staff, and bring in the much-needed bucks, but is it enough keep a whole business afloat in the vicissitudes of these quarantimes? It would seem to depend on the budget and ambiance of the bar, and whether they're able to offer food as well.
In Chicago, the pandemic had a devastating effect on Chicago’s beloved neighborhood bars. Popular Black-owned M Lounge in the South Loop hosted a successful GoFundMe for their staff, announcing a pause in business on social media, along with an eloquent Black Lives Matter statement. As the city moves into phase 4, they're taking tentative steps forward but co-owners Reginald and MaryAnn Marsh also want to deliver the same quality of experience to their regulars.
"The city is allowing 25% occupancy and we're reopening, but it is the great unknown," said Reginald Marsh. "We're already a small lounge. Now we can't even have the live music because the band would take up the 25%. Right now, it's an uncertain time for us."
Initially M Lounge decided not to offer drinks to go, because their establishment is all about ambiance. An intimate live music lounge known for strong, delicious drinks, the business flailed when everything shut down. "We did not do to-go drinks because we found it economically unsound," said MaryAnn Marsh. "We would have had to charge a lot to keep people on payroll and to create our specialty cocktails, we couldn't do that at a level that would be profitable, unfortunately." Now that the bar has been able to reopen, they are considering to-go drinks as a future option for patrons who may not yet feel ready to slide onto their favorite barstool.
Dave Jemilo has owned Chicago’s Green Mill Cocktail Lounge for 34 years, and the drinks-at-home concept isn’t doing much to keep the venerable Northside bar and jazz club afloat. “We sold six packs and cases of beer to go a couple of times," he admitted. "Not sure that drinks to go is worth it."
Other places have found some success selling supersized versions of their most popular concoctions. Sage Room on Chicago’s South Side, which has reopened their outdoor seating, is still offering a to-go menu that includes 32 oz. mixes of their super strong punch, made of cognac, Triple Sec, orange, cranberry, pineapple and lime juice with fresh orange and lemon slices.
"What's keeping us alive right now, is being able to utilize the patio. The sidewalk patio is keeping us alive. If we hadn't been able to do the patio, we would be in trouble," said owner Kenny Johnson. "This teaches me lessons. We're building our business to survive. We're gonna push drinks, food to go. We'll be more on top of that for the future, now that we know this can happen."
South Loop’s gourmet restaurant and bar Acadia is inviting customers to their new walk-up outdoor bar, where carryout drinks will be available. “We will be following all social distancing practices set by the city and state,” said chef Ryan McCaskey. Acadia’s offerings include beer and cocktail kits, and a robust wine selection with curated themed collections like "summer whites" and "reds for dads."
Chicagoans looking for swanky cocktails from The Aviary have been enjoying to-go offerings, including cocktail kits since mid-March, as additions to any carryout meal from Roister, Next, or Alinea. You can get a barrel-aged old fashioned, a pina colada, or a sidecar, as well as more experimental offerings like their pear spritz or tropical whiskey sour. “Each kit makes eight to twelve cocktails and includes everything the patron needs, plus detailed instructions on how to get a professional result,” said co-owner Nick Kokonas. “These have been very popular and we've sold hundreds of thousands of dollars of kits in the past eight weeks.”
Las Vegas, another cocktail hotspot, has had to rethink just about everything, completely changing the setup of nightclubs, pool parties, and buffets. As the Strip starts to re-open, some bars are offering to-go drinks for cautious visitors. However, at the higher end bars, this can water down the experience. The Petrossian Bar & Lounge at the Bellagio now offers to make its cocktails to-go, but wasn’t the whole point in the first place sitting at an elegant bar and sipping the finest spirits from crystal glasses enhanced with diamond-shaped, hand-cut ice cubes? You can get your cocktail to go in a cheaper cup, instead. There will be more to come on July 1, when more major resorts on the Strip open their doors to the public again.
Read more: Bars Must Change for Good After Coronavirus
New Orleans, which has famously always offered to-go drinks, is beginning to relax the rules. The city is about to enter phase 2 of reopening, where restaurants and bars are allowed social distanced seating at a reduced capacity. Over the past few months, T. Cole Newton of New Orleans’ 12 Mile Limit has had to figure out the new landscape for his business, as customers pine to leave their homes and others just aren’t ready yet.
“New Orleans has a unique go-cup culture… [but] as soon as this happened, we pivoted to doing batch cocktails, either pint or quart size,” he said. “We’re still doing a mix of some of our house specialties and classic cocktails to go—including margaritas, daiquiris and old fashioneds. We also offer some signature drinks, like The Boudin specialty cocktail—bourbon, honey, lemon juice and Tabasco. You can come enjoy a drink on our patio, as of this weekend you can come in to the bar, and if you’d like a larger format drink we can serve it to you as well.”
Despite the industry’s dire predictions, bar owners have to try to remain optimistic and flexible in order to survive an industry that may have permanently changed. Things will not return to normal anytime soon for consumers or for independent bar owners, who faced razor-thin margins even before the pandemic. Turbulence is predicted for the foreseeable future, as many cities re-order the closure of bars and restaurants.
But thanks to the continued creativity of the drinks industry, you can still find ways to financially support the places where you had good times and cut out the part where you figure out how to get home safely.