When a week feels like a year, it’s hard to remember March 17. That was the day Minnesota’s bars and restaurants shut down to the public to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
For most everyone, it seems forever since then. That’s especially true for bar owners, forced to lay off the vast majority of their employees and shut their doors. The pandemic poses a crisis for the third spaces that have long been the cornerstone of public life in the Twin Cities. For the most part, the bar remains stoic, but underneath it, everyone is really worried.
Time for spring cleaning?
“Staff has been in cleaning,” said Randy Segal, who manages the CC Club, arguably Minneapolis’ most famous bar. “We more or less just did a full Clorox scrubbing of all the shelves, the freezers, and everything that we have. It’s like a real good spring cleaning, so to speak. We also moved a lot of stuff into the freezer, and we’re basically going over all the equipment.”
In the meantime, Lyndale Avenue is quiet and the CC Club’s servers are on hiatus.
“Our employees are all filing for unemployment,” said Segal. ”Some have pitched in and come in and worked, but the rest, like everyone else, are filing.”
They’re not alone, and the city’s bartenders and servers are all stuck in limbo.
“We’re OK, kind of in stasis; we’ve been pretty proactive about canceling any non-essential services, like garbage and towels and CO2, and the list goes on,” said Robb Jones, the owner of The Meteor Bar in north Minneapolis.
Unlike most others in the city, Jones’ bar is relatively new. The Former Stand-up Franks, and Donnie Dirk’s Zombie Den, it opened only three months ago. Now that it’s shut down, for Jones, it’s like “starting from zero again.”
“It differs from place to place,” Jones explained. “We’re asking for rent forgiveness from our landlord, and doing what we can to avoid costs ongoing that we can’t control, and just working with the people that provide those to ask for leniency.”
Like everywhere else, Jones has laid off his staff, and is just hoping to weather out the closure.
“Our biggest concern is the well-being of our staff,” said Jones. “We only have nine people, we’re relatively small, and they’ve all been great through this whole thing. Our team is our most important asset, and it’s more important to keep that than it is to, you know, worry about anything else.”
Jones does point out that if the state changed its liquor regulations, he would probably try to offer to-go cocktails, maybe in partnership with a food truck.
While the folks at the CC Club are trying to keep their spirits up, they’re also moving their spirits down the stairs, out of another increasing worry for bar owners: security during the shutdown.
“We don’t want stuff exposed in the bar, because we don’t know what’s going to happen,” explained Segal, who has managed the CC for the past seven years.
Now more than ever, barkeeps are talking to each other and trying to keep ahead of fast-changing events. And over the last week, rumors of break-ins are flying around Minneapolis and St. Paul with greater frequency. Without staff or patrons around, lots of places feel exposed.
“It’s one of the things we’re just afraid of, desperate times down here on the West Bank,” said Tony Zaccardi, who owns Palmer’s, the legendary local dive and music hangout on Minneapolis’ West Bank.
“Everyone knows where you can find booze, and bars are putting all their liquor down into the basement in a locked cage. I’m fortunate here that I don’t have much for windows,” he said.
Like everyone else, Zaccardi had to lay off all his staff, though he comes in to the bar every day to do some lonely maintenance work, making the best of a bad situation. Zaccardi and his team also have a nightly meet-up on Google Hangouts, where they all do a shot together in solidarity. Thankfully, he’s had some success selling gift certificates, and there’s been a GoFundMe set up to directly support his staff.
“I can’t afford to pay anyone to do any extra odd jobs,” Zaccardi said, “so I’m trying to do some painting, deep cleaning the patio, and putting in a new POS [point-of-sale] system, which I’d been planning to go live today. Trying to stay positive the best I can, but it does go in waves.”
Help at the margins
While the fundamentals remain bleak for every bar, there are some things that can help at the margins. For example, the deadline on its sales tax payments has been deferred.
“I can’t pay [last month’s] sales tax, which they thankfully extended. That would be a make-or-break for a lot of small businesses,” explained Tony Zaccardi at Palmer’s.
Each month, bars have to back-pay the sales tax on their previous months’ sales. And for most places, that comes directly out of the current revenue stream. But during a shutdown, without any customers, those payments are all but impossible.
“That was big help,” sighed Zaccardi. “Now, it’s working with my lenders, trying to find out what the Small Business Administration emergency relief thing is. I own the building; how do I pay my mortgage? It’s that kind of stuff, just the fears that I have.”
There are other changes, too, that might help out at the margins.
“We’re hoping that the state and the city will hopefully make extensions on when liquor license rentals are due, and we’ll get some breaks that way,” said Meredith O’Toole, the owner of St. Paul’s legendary Spot Bar on Randolph Avenue. “The MLBA [Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association] is working on our behalf, to talk to liquor and beer and wine distributors, to give us a little leeway on the 30-day COD.”
As O’Toole explains it, each month bars are required to pay their liquor tab to distributors in cash, or else they get listed in a statewide database prohibiting anyone from purchasing more inventory. O’Toole is hopeful that over the next few weeks the normally stringent rules can be relaxed.
Then there’s unemployment insurance, a system that’s primarily designed to help out people with salaries. For tipped employees, like most in the bar and restaurant industry, unemployment insurance is not necessarily a panacea.
“These employees are tip employees. Their salary is one bit, but they work on tips. So sometimes 70 or 80 percent is tip money, not minimum wage money. So that’s still a big setback,” explained Randy Segal, the CC Club manager.
Food or cocktails to go?
Some bars have become more resilient during the shutdown by instituting delivery and curb-side food programs. Brunson’s Pub, a neighborhood hotspot on St. Paul’s East Side, has been trying to mitigate the shutdown with a to-go food program, though even that is not a seamless transition.
“We employ 40 people, but 38 of the would-be affected don’t draw a salary,” explains Thomas LaFleche, the owner of Brunson’s. “Everyone else that works here depends on an hourly wage and some tips, and it’s definitely way less hours for them.”
Though the door is locked, LaFleche takes orders and delivers meals to customers waiting in cars on Payne Avenue, in latex gloves, of course. It keeps a few of his staff employed and working, but hasn’t really offset the ongoing closure.
“It’s a positive thing, too,” said LaFleche. “We put a social media post up yesterday — a reminder that we are doing take-out — and we were really busy last night [last Wednesday]. People have been incredibly generous with gratuity on tabs.”
That said, LaFleche is answering the orders on his single phone line, and with a lot of callers, people can sit on hold for a while. But for many of these improvising bars owners, investing in a better system might not make sense for a strictly short-term situation.
An uncertain future
The pandemic has affected everyone differently, depending on the size of the place and details of the operation. But for everyone I spoke to, the fundamentals situation remains the same: People can weather the closure for a while, but with bills to pay, the future appears deeply uncertain.
“We’re 50 percent beer, a lot of imported beer and the beer we make,” explained Tom Helm, owner of Yoerg Brewing Company, a small brewpub on the East Side. “We don’t do a lot of takeout food, so there’s really nothing we can do about this.”
Like some others, Helm would like the ability to sell beer or beverages to-go, but for now, he’s just had to shut his doors. He has about $8,000 a month in on-going expenses, and can survive with relatively low overhead. But for the last year, Helm and his partner haven’t drawn a salary, and so insurance won’t do them much good.
“We’re lucky that we had a really strong January and February, usually two of the slowest months of the year. We’re paying our bills. We can probably make it about 30 days, but after that it’s going to be really tough without help.”
Predictions about when bars can reopen are all over the map, but everyone agreed that the existing March 27 date is not realistic.
“I’m guessing 30 days, but we’re going to have to see positive [pandemic] numbers,” said Helm.
Meanwhile, others guess it might be as long as two months, while Meredith O’Toole at the Spot Bar was thinking they might reopen around Easter. It goes without saying that if the shutdown lasts that long, lots of the Twin Cities bars and restaurants are going to disappear without help.
And yet, it’s worth remembering that for some of the city’s oldest bars, this is hardly the worst thing to have happened. After all, St. Paul’s Spot Bar, the oldest continually operating bar in the city, somehow survived 15 years of prohibition.
“We’re going to be optimistic,” said the Spot Bar’s Meredith O’Toole. “We’ve been around since 1885, and I’m hoping not to let COVID-19 be our demise.”