Yes, Bars Will Reopen. This Just Might Be How to Do It.
Our columnist talked to bar owners and bartenders across the country about the steps and measures that will need to take place in order to reopen bars in the post-pandemic world.
The fall was fast and steep.
Bar owners, bar managers and bartenders in major cities who had been steadily scaling a mountain, basking in sunlight and adulation, woke to find themselves at the bottom of a canyon, staring up at a small sliver of sky, wondering if anyone could hear them shouting.
They’ve been in the abyss more than a month now, all the while scheming how to climb out, and wondering what new landscape they’ll find when they re-emerge.
“Everybody is thinking about this, and it changes almost every day and every minute,” says Kenneth McCoy, bartender and owner of The Rum House and Ward Three in New York. “Do you have to make disposable menus? Or am I wiping the menu down? How far apart are people going to be? Is there a manager walking through saying you’re standing too close? How do you police that?”
Every person in the bar world I spoke with during the last few weeks agreed on one thing: the new world will bear little resemblance to the old. That’s especially true at the outset, although some hold out hope that we’ll gradually work our way back to the old normal. Given the vast sea of uncertainties yet to be crossed, few said with any confidence that they knew what to expect. But all were pondering the many possibilities and starting to plot their reopening strategies.
“I think we’ll see as dramatic a change as when bars came back from Prohibition,” says Nick Detrich, a partner of both Manolito and Jewel of the South in New Orleans. “Back then, it was trying to remember what was forgotten. Now, it will be retraining for a new world. I don’t know how it’s going to look, but it’s going to be different.”
The reinvention of bars is likely to occur in two phases: first, the Transitional Bar—places that will reopen after weeks or months of being closed. In some states, this could start happening in May. Whenever this occurs, the initial round of openings will surely take place at a time when a resurgence of Covid-19 cases is a real possibility.
This will evolve over time into the New Normal Bar, a more permanent place that will come to be the standard, likely emerging when vaccines start to appear, but before public fears and anxieties have fully ebbed.
These two phases will be built around two different bar-goer states of mind. Transitional Bars will be designed to calm public anxiety, while the New Normal Bars will be built to address public fears.
The difference is subtle but real. “In general, fear is seen as a reaction to a specific, observable danger, while anxiety is seen as diffuse, a kind of unfocused, objectless, future-oriented fear,” as doctor Shahram Heshmat recently explained in Psychology Today.
Bars will start reopening in the age of anxiety. How far should I really be from strangers? How many people have touched my drink before it got out to me? Why isn’t my bartender wearing a mask? Over time, these worries will coalesce around a more defined set of proven concerns. Bars will be designed and managed around each of these as they evolve.
Among the most noticeable changes in bars during the transition will likely be capacity. Municipalities or states are likely to reduce the legal capacity of bars to reduce crowding, and allow customers and staff to maintain reasonable distances from one another. Even if governments don’t mandate this, fewer customers will be willing to plow into the crowded scrum of last year’s Friday night.
Reduced capacity could emerge as a key issue as to whether bars make it out of the transitional phase. Given that many craft cocktail bars make but a few cents profit on every dollar spent by patrons, reducing how much they can take in each evening could prove devastating.
Sean Finter is the proprietor of Maryland-based bar consultancy Barmetrix, and recently ran the numbers for dozens of his clients. “Fewer than 10 percent can survive at even 80 percent of revenue, if they continue to pay 100 percent of rent,” he says of bars with leases or commercial building loans. Not a single bar could survive if revenues dropped 50 or 60 percent. The best bet for bar survival, he said, is for landlords and banks to offer breaks, probably with the support of the government.
Expanding sources of revenue to make up for the shortfall will help establishments make it through the transition period. Changes in rules in many states have allowed drinks-to-go to flourish, albeit temporarily. This could be extended longer or made permanent, effectively offsetting the reduced capacities at bars.
“Everything is hypothetical at this point,” says Emma Hollander, managing partner at Trina’s Starlite Lounge in Somerville, Massachusetts. “But we’re expecting to reopen but with capacity cut in half.” She says that with proper staffing and careful inventory control, that might be manageable over the near-term, and she anticipates that customers will be slow to return at the outset. “I don’t expect there will be lines out the door,” she says, and those who do return will do so warily. She hopes the reduced demand and capacity will sync up for a time. (Drinks-to-go will not be a lifeline, she says. “Massachusetts will never let us take a drink outside anywhere for the rest of our lives.”)
Bars may also look more like medical wards. “We’re all planning to do service with masks and gloves,” says Hollander. “That is going to be part of our reality for the next whatever.”
Staffing needs will also change. Several bar managers said they would hire someone to run the door every night to closely monitor the reduced caps on capacity—something they’d done previously on weekends only.
Another staff person might be assigned to roam the floor, undertaking performative disinfecting—making sure stools, bar tops, tables, and menus are cleaned down between customers. While such actions will surely reduce the transmission of germs, it’s just as important to send the message to bar patrons that hygiene is being taken seriously. It’s like TSA checkpoints in airports after 9/11—they reduce the hazard, if imperfectly, but also serve to ease customer fears.
In addition, customer dynamics within bars will require more careful attention. Some people will be keenly attuned to their personal space—of keeping strangers at a six-foot distance. Others will be more casual about it, operating under the belief that bars are back to normal. Conflicts will inevitably arise, and a diplomatic floor manager will need to referee to keep tempers from flaring.
The drink offerings, even at the fanciest cocktail lounges, may also change noticeably at reopened bars. Many bars sold off their inventory to raise cash after closing and will need to restock.
“If you have a 20-cocktail menu, it’s going to cost you twice as much to restock as a ten-cocktail list,” says Detrich. That’s less of an issue if bars embrace simpler drinks. “I think you’ll see a big return to classics. People will be looking for Manhattans and Martinis, not shiso leaf Ramos Gin Fizzes,” Detrich says.
“I would trim to 50 or 60 percent off the menu,” Finter suggests to clients, both to reduce inventory costs and re-training. He says that about 80 percent of sales typically come from just 20 percent of the drinks and it makes sense to focus on those. “Customers won’t be looking for big menus.”
Managers at transition bars will need to constantly hone the best route between high-visibility attention to antiseptic details—like those masks and latex gloves—while also striving to reclaim their role as a welcoming spot. “We’ll all just want a warm hug, in whatever form we can get it,” says Amy Fisher, the manager of Meta in Louisville, Kentucky.
Within a few months of opening, bar managers will begin dealing less with vague anxieties and more with concrete fears. Problem is, nobody knows today exactly which fears will calcify and endure. How customers respond to the changes in the Transitional Bar will likely determine what the New Normal Bars will eventually look like.
Assuming that fears of viruses and other microbes will persist among many customers even post-vaccine, bar managers are starting to think of a new basic topography of future bars. “If any new bars open in the next two to three years,” Detrich says, “bar design will change dramatically. You’ll see less of the long 30-seat bar and more tables with servers in gloves.”
Daniel “Doc” Parks, general manager at Zombie Village in San Francisco, assumes that pods of seating spaces may well become the norm. His downtown bar has the inadvertent good fortune of having eight individual tiki huts lining one wall, each essentially a private cabana seating between three and ten customers. He also has a mezzanine space that can accommodate a couple dozen customers, which is often used for corporate events. He believes that such spaces will be in bigger demand for groups of friends wanting to meet up, and who want to be assured that they won’t be stuck in a crowded bar.
Parks also says that reservations may become more prevalent at bars. “Reservations will probably see a lot of action, because people want to know there’s a spot for them and their guests because everyone’s guard will be up about exposure,” he says. “And I would focus on convertible seating space,” he adds, where tables can be grouped and separated from other groups of tables in semi-isolated pods, then quickly rearranged as needed.
“And I’d probably think about anchoring barstools and designating walk-up ordering areas,” he says, noting that such ideas aren’t exactly new. “You can already see this in establishments that have stood the test of time.”
Hollander in Massachusetts believes that for bars such as hers, which is a neighborhood spot with an extensive but casual food menu, table service may be cut back to give customers more control over their environment.
Instead of being seated by a host, customers may float more freely until their order is called. “Maybe you ring a bell and call a number, then pick up your order and sit where you want,” she says. “It’s going to have to be whatever the guest wants to do. So maybe you have two people sitting at a six-top, which isn’t ideal but that’s the way it may have to be.”
Beyond that, the next generation of bars may boldly go where no bars have gone before. The Venn diagram where “concern about transmittable disease” and “thirsty” overlap may produce new forms of drinking as yet unseen. “The great thing with the craft cocktail movement is that it has attracted a lot of innovators and they’ll be able to find a new niche and a new life in this world,” Detrich says. “Those people will come back as potential leaders.”
New forms of drinking are already starting to emerge. In Aspen, Jimmy Yeager developed and launched a “Booze Bike” app for smartphones—through it, customers can order full bottles of wine or bottled cocktails (five on offer) from his bar Jimmy’s, which are then delivered to one’s home within an hour by bike bartender with a cooler/trailer between the hours of 4:30 PM and 8:30 PM.
And few would be surprised to see a revival of private membership clubs, places where members could be sure of reserved seats, and a certain transparency as regards to cleanliness and sanitary conditions.
“One vision I had was converting an ice cream truck,” said Doc Parks, “and have adults coming running for drinks with their wallets out.”
“I think there’s going to be an interesting awakening of what’s possible,” Parks adds. “Hospitality will never die, but it will certainly be affected by this.”