No matter what was going on in the world, someone, somewhere, needed a bartender. Bartending was always tragedy proof.
Then COVID-19 happened. And the whole world changed.
Suddenly people were afraid to go outside, hiding in their houses, washing their hands 100 times a day, and ready to run the second someone sneezed.
How did I never predict this scenario? Why wasn’t I ready?
Well, it turns out the industry as a whole was entirely unprepared for this kind of disaster.
Overnight, businesses shut their doors – some for good – unsure when or if they would open again. Bartenders, servers, chefs and dishwashers were left scrambling for scraps, looking at insufficient savings accounts, wondering where all those long hours abusing their bodies and mental health went. For some, desperation quickly gave rise to innovation, but the vast majority had limited skills and certainly no back up plan.
It quickly became clear that now is the time to create a more lucrative business model which includes the support systems badly needed throughout the hospitality industry.
The classic industry back of house model is a brigade. I’ve never been a soldier, but I imagine by the way many chefs run their kitchens a few of them have known a drill sergeant or two. In the back of house, the kitchen ranks fall in with the long hours expected, these extra hours appreciated by most because overtime is the only way many cooks can make ends meet.
Although the disparity in pay between the front and back of house can be vast, back of house generally gets to go home when their shift ends. On the other hand, bartenders and servers only get to clock out when the guests decide. And by that I mean, when enough of them leave that the closer can manage by themselves. Then, in many cases the person cut first, posts themselves up at the end of the bar, orders a shift drink and stands on alert in case another rush comes through. We are used to this. We are also used to not calling in sick, and not getting benefits Ike sick pay, paid vacation, retirement plans or maternity leave.
This has to change.
It’s widely reported that businesses with employee benefits have higher retention rates, better employee morale, and more engaged and supportive staff. Why is it that more hospitality industry employers do not provide these basic amenities that are taken for granted in most other industries?
It’s generally not because the owners are money hungry vampires – although these do exist – but because they are barely making ends meet themselves. Narrow margins and high overhead are the daily struggle of even the most successful bar or restaurant owners. Oftentimes these businesses are running on projections that change day in and day out, running 30, 60, or 90 day credit on their purchases.
Unfortunately, these are the businesses that got hit hardest when the government shut them down due to COVID-19. Leading hospitality consultant Tobin Ellis, owner of Barmagic whose work has been instrumental driving the revival of the industry with his guide says, “Get your business healthy, but then remember, we have a bigger job to do.”
That job is still ahead of us. With bills to pay and Uncle Sam tying their hands, many great establishments had to close their doors for good. Luckily for some, Uncle Sam removed the ropes from their wrists…but quickly wrapped those ropes around their necks with a little thing called the PPP. With the small percentage of restaurants and bars that got approved to begin with, receiving just enough cash to keep employees on the payroll, it was clear independent bars and restaurants were in trouble.
A number of employers, big and small, decided the government teat wasn’t for them and they found other ways to support their employees. Ron Prokaski and Andrea Kardaras, owners of Mom’s Place, a small bar in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, reached into their own pockets and made sure the staff who needed it most had the money to get by, and food to put on their tables.
One of their bartenders, Ergys Dizdari, was, like many in the service industry, working two jobs. He is also employed full time running the bar program at the Radisson Blu hotel across the river. Like Prokaski and Kardaras, Radisson saw the need to do what they could to support their staff through this unprecedented tragedy. Dizdari explains, “We are all on furlough, on unemployment, and they (Radisson) have been very supportive of that. They keep offering us benefits, all the employees of the hotel…we are all taken care of.”
Stories like this show the industry isn’t just a job, but a community. It shows that well run businesses are able to quickly adapt and creatively direct their resources to where they are needed most. The people in our industry who have already taken care to have their house in order had enough room to step back, take a hard look, marshal resources, and think creatively about their next step.
These are the kinds of people who have made some serious progress. One success story is Bob Frankis of Frankis restaurant group in Maryland. One of his restaurants, Humagalas, is doing 120-130% revenue compared to pre-COVID-19, even with reduced capacity. He is one of the proprietors who spent the time to reinvent his business and it’s paying off.
“Before COVID we never focused on delivery,” says Frankis. “We’re a local sourced, real neighborhood style restaurant. What we noticed is we were getting 50-60% of our dine in revenue and created a revenue source that’s not going to go away. Before COVID we did about 3% of our revenue with delivery and take out. We think we are going to trend at 30-35% of sales…As soon as we layered in dining in, we took off.” This new revenue stream combined with just patio dining has allowed them to be even more successful than before the pandemic.
But is this something they would have pursued had the need not arisen? Probably not. Frankis says, “We were so focused on what we did, we never focused on what we should be doing.” Creative reconcepting has allowed some like Frankis to increase their margins and create a healthier business and stronger staff.
Success stories are starting to pour in and businesses that have been able to critically examine and shift their models have begun to thrive. Many small businesses don’t consider the impact of leaving their staff without benefits, but in times of a public health crisis the need has become much more apparent. And it is important we take this opportunity to shift gears.
In this industry it is rare we get to hit the pause button. Having a much needed second to breathe has allowed some creative individuals to reconfigure their business models and their lives. Rebecca Pinnell, a manager at San Francisco’s Bon Voyage was laid off along with the rest of her staff as well as the entire staff at their sister bar, Trick Dog. At first, she was devastated, losing her benefits and income in one fell swoop.
Until she was contacted by the owners of The Battery and asked to adapt an occasional cocktail class she’d been hosting at their venue and take it online. From the first class she hosted she gained two clients, then two more, to the point that this has become a viable business for her. “I was consumed with the bar,” says Pinnell, “I couldn’t put the energy or focus on my own personal business because I was focused on making the bar successful.” Through her classes she has been able to support herself as well as raise tens of thousands of dollars for a number of charities including Dress For Success and Canine Companions.
Another Bay Area bartender, Christian Suzuki-Orellana quickly shifted his focus to taking one of his side projects online. He states, “I never have time for myself, so despite everything that has been going on and as bad as quarantine and COVID-19 has been, for myself – and I can only speak for myself – it has honestly been one of the best things that could have happened for me. I have really been able to sit down and be creative, re-concept my pop up series and put more of my head and my heart into it.” He has since acquired clients among the likes of high ups in Spotify, Nike, and McDonalds.
While the online segment has been a lucrative avenue for some creative individuals, others are making a difference in the physical world. One forward thinking bartender from Atlanta, Keyatta Mincey-Parker, started a community garden for bartenders called A Sip of Paradise. Mincey-Parker says, “Members pay $25 for a growing season April to December. They can grow what they want, we share resources and advice for growing. You can sit in the garden and meditate, read and escape.”
What started as a side project on her journey to the Bombay Sapphire Most Imaginative Bartender competition ended up being her salvation. “I’m beyond grateful,” she says, “it has truly saved my sanity between being unemployed, the pandemic and the racial tensions in Atlanta.”
The desire for community and connection also led Sarah Young of Chicago to create a business that started as a way to connect with her coworkers after they were laid off, but quickly turned into a way to give back. “As a token of appreciation to our former coworkers, whom we already missed dearly, we decided to make fancy Jell-O shots to deliver so we could all join in a virtual “cheers” and try to keep morale up.” Young says of starting her business. “With the recent BLM protests, we’ve reduced our delivery window, but have also been donating most of our profits to BLM charities. At one point we were even ‘sponsored’ by Plantation Rum to make Mai Tai jello shots for Lost Lake to include in their take-out orders, and a percentage of sales went to charity.”
While success stories such as these abound throughout the industry, the majority were left struggling. Suddenly hundreds of thousands were unemployed and in need of support, but the majority were hung out to dry. Those who didn’t receive health insurance through their employers and relied on cash tips to cover the hefty premiums levied by insurance companies were suddenly left to choose between healthcare and paying rent; not a choice one wants to make during a pandemic with a stay at home order. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Acclaimed bartender Shaun Gordon was hired by Sweet Liberty, which is widely regarded as one of the best bars in the country (The World’s 50 Best Bars, Spirited Awards) and decided to move from Portland, Maine, down the east coast to start his new job in Miami, Florida. When he arrived the lockdown had already begun so there was no telling when he could start his new job. Like many, Shaun had no insurance when he came down with COVID-19 after arriving in Miami. “For me, it was tough. It was like fighting a battle,” said Gordon, “I’ve never been that sick in my life…I had a really bad case, so much so I fainted into a wall.” Luckily Shaun’s new family at Sweet Liberty came by with food and medical supplies as well as connecting him to a Facebook group for Miami bartenders where he quickly found support. Stefano Romo, a fellow Miami bartender Shaun had never met, quickly volunteered to walk his dog twice a day and was there to pick him up off the ground when he fainted.
In this industry we come to depend on generosity like that shown by Romo and Gordon’s crew at Sweet Liberty. But as we work toward rebuilding our industry to be more profitable and more successful than before, shouldn’t we include examining the support systems it’s clear we so desperately need?
Moving forward, it is time we begin to think about how our industry can reinvent itself to better support everyone from the top down. It’s clear that having this time to take a step back, look at what can change for the better, and implementing those changes has been overwhelmingly positive for the industry as a whole. Chris Lovett, market manager for Ten to One rum and father of three says what we all should be thinking, “I don’t reflect enough. I’m constantly looking at the things around me and looking for the next thing. I’ve never really thought about the day before. I’ve taken time every day now to reflect and think about what I’ve done.”
Only when the industry turns a critical eye on its current practices and makes an effort to develop systems that support everyone will we be able to truly take care of our own. It’s up to owners to come back strong so they can prepare for the future. It’s up to employees to work hard, offer their input, and collaborate with their employers so they can enjoy the tools they need to thrive.
Now is the time to build a stronger and more unified industry because we are all in this together; and nothing has shown us that more clearly than COVID-19.