Cocktails in the Time of Corona: Harlem’s Pioneering 67 Orange Street Bar
We spoke to Karl Franz Williams, the owner of acclaimed bar 67 Orange Street, about how he has reinvented his business and is finding a way to survive the coronavirus pandemic.
On a recent Monday, New York City inspectors were out in full force in Harlem.
A Department of Buildings officer lurked around a recently constructed makeshift restaurant patio on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. He took photos, jotted down notes, and was soon joined by a colleague. They conferred, pointing here, there, and over there, too.
Karl Franz Williams watched all this from his perch on a stool at a high table on his own makeshift patio. It extends from the sidewalk in front of his cocktail bar, 67 Orange Street, into what would normally be a parking spot. The area is delineated by a hip-high barrier built of raw lumber that’s 18-inches-wide. There’s more than eight feet of space between the tables and the entrance to his establishment. It’s exactly what the law requires, but Williams still kept an eye on the inspectors. He was visibly anxious for his neighbor.
In normal times, navigating the rules and regulations around operating a bar or a restaurant in the Big Apple requires a flamenco dancer’s agility, the reflexes of a NASCAR driver, the tenacity of a triathlete, and the strategic instincts of a chess master. It doesn’t hurt if you also have a Madeleine Albright knack for diplomacy, too. But as the city haltingly advances through the many stages of reopening, with the novel coronavirus lurking in the shadows, those skills are just a starting point.
Williams originally spent $750 on planters to demarcate his outdoor dining space, in accordance with the city’s direction, only to be informed a few days later that the rules had changed. He was then required to build a more substantial barrier, which set him back an additional $3,000—no small sum for a business then operating on a fraction of its margins.
But the outdoor seating has proven very popular. We barely started chatting before someone from the neighborhood stopped to catch up and then one of Williams’ regulars sat down to eat, nearly giddy at her first visit since before the coronavirus pandemic.
I first met with Williams at his bar on a Saturday in mid-May. 67 Orange is a study in exposed brick, raw wood surfaces, dark leather, pressed tin, and wrought iron. It’s gorgeous. It was the first Saturday of Phase 2 of reopening, and he was behind the stick making drinks for outdoor diners who filled a few of the dozen outdoor seats and for the to-go orders that were called in.
Especially popular were the punches, he explained, which he added to the menu because they hold up well over travel time. He’d funnel a cocktail into a small bottle or would pour it into a mason jar. Each was marked with a sticker with the drink’s name and an illustration of the kind of glass it should be served in.
Williams offered me a taste of his Caribbean-style ginger beer, a piquant, thick, nourishing homemade concoction that he’s planning to produce for broad retail sale. At his bar, he serves a spiked version.
He surveyed the empty room. On any other Saturday, it would be standing room only with people laughing and shouting over loud music. On that day, as he did the jobs of several at once, that empty room felt like a death sentence. But if anybody can beat the odds, it’s Williams.
When he opened 67 Orange in 2008, a cocktail bar wasn’t a sure bet. There are, in fact, just a handful of modern cocktail bars older than his establishment. (Pioneering Pegu Club, which recently announced its permanent closure, would have celebrated 15 years this summer.)
Williams has also owned two other businesses in Harlem over the years—Society Coffee, a since shuttered coffee shop that he opened while still working in corporate marketing for Pepsi in 2008, and Solomon and Kuff, a rum bar that he closed last August after four years.
But 67 Orange Street is his stake in Harlem, a neighborhood that taught him so much about being an entrepreneur, and he was not going to let go of it easily, no matter how doggedly a fatal microorganism would test him. And test him it did.
Business got off to a herky-jerky start after New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo’s March 16 edict that restaurants shut their dining rooms and pivot to takeout and delivery. Williams took a few days to figure out a plan and when he opened on March 22, he offered punches and cocktail kits. His bar manager had come down with COVID-19 around St. Patrick’s Day. Then five days later Williams began showing symptoms. He was on a jog up to the Bronx and his chest gradually tightened. He had no choice: He had to close the bar for two weeks.
Shortly after Williams got sick, his partner Valarie Wong, a nurse in New York Presbyterian’s cardiac ICU, which had transitioned to a COVID unit, also showed symptoms. Thankfully, their two-year-old son was spared. To this day, when his phone rings he instinctively looks at it, but really only picks up if it’s Wong calling. As a frontline worker, the mental and emotional toll has been intense and relentless for her. He knows she needs him.
His memories of recovery consist mostly of being propped up in bed, feeling dreadful, reading as much as he could about city ordinances and watching every Zoom meeting and webinar by a lawyer or accountant or restaurant industry figure so he could figure out how to get financial assistance and other support. (He was able to secure a PPP loan in the first round.)
And he willed himself to get up every day and move.
“This virus wants to get you. It wants you to stay down and keep still, so it can keep attacking you,” he told me. “You can’t let it.”
When he opened again on April 10, for advance orders only, Williams did almost everything on his own, since his bar manager had also come down with COVID. With the sales 67 Orange was doing, he could only afford to hire back a single cook to fill the food orders. As part of the reopening edict, he was required to serve food with all alcohol orders, so those who just wanted drinks were treated to a free container of hearty soup that he made himself daily.
Williams’ reopening plan has been measured and pragmatic, strategic in a way that someone with his business-oriented mind can accomplish. After graduating from Yale with an electrical engineering degree, he took a quick turn into the world of marketing and held jobs at Procter & Gamble and then at Pepsi, managing branding for Gain laundry detergent and Mountain Dew, respectively.
He opened Society Coffee while working at Pepsi and decided that corporate boardrooms were not the right forum for his ideas to flourish. Incapable of curbing his entrepreneurial instincts, he ventured out and dove in headlong. The recession was just taking hold when 67 Orange Street opened. That economic downturn was a brutal introduction to the disadvantages of being a Black business owner in an urban neighborhood, a standing that continues to present outsized challenges today.
“Harlem is one of the most diverse neighborhoods you’ll find, and it’s not going to change. It’ll always—I hope—maintain its indigenous Black population. And although there’s poverty, it will always be a mix. Hopefully,” he says. “One of the sad things is that there’s fewer Black-owned businesses. They’ve been closing, and it’s even worse with the pandemic. There’s two parts to the issue. In general, Black-owned businesses tend to have less operating capital on hand. Access to capital is a problem anyway.”
He showed me numbers from a JPMorgan Chase study that recently ran in The New York Times stating that 89 percent of Black-owned businesses have less than 14 days of cash on hand, while just 29 percent of white-owned businesses have that amount of reserves.
“If you’re an entrepreneur of color who’s been in business for this long, you learn how to maneuver,” he said. He jokes, but not really, that with a name like Karl Franz and his resume, he can get his foot in the door anywhere. But after that it’s been an uphill climb at times. “I survived the 2008 recession. That was a difficult one to survive because there was no access to capital, it all went away. A lot of challenges I had in the past several years have been related to that. I lost one business, made the decision to close one business. Getting capital to keep this one going, it’s just been really difficult.”
Meantime, he’s preparing for the future. He’s got the Caribbean ginger beer that he wants to get into bartenders’ hands, plus he’s working on a cocktail book with an autobiographical slant and he’s designing a bartending bag.
But first he has to get through this pandemic. When an old friend approached our table and asked about Williams’ son, it was clear that the community would bolster him in the meanwhile.
By late August, tables were full nearly every night, when the weather cooperated, at least. And in an unexpected twist, business hit more than 80 percent of his pre-COVID numbers. Outdoor dining helped him plant his stake more deeply in the neighborhood’s ground, he said, giving him the kind of visibility you don’t get from a compact bar with heavy curtains covering the windows.
“There’s more people out now, of course, and they’re tired of being cooped up in their apartments,” he said. “So we get people walking by and asking what’s happening and saying they never knew there was a restaurant there. We’ve always been kind of hidden. If you knew, you knew, that was it.”