The Coronavirus Economy: How my job as a bar manager has changed so far
Fortune spoke with Chris Filan for a new series, The Coronavirus Economy, to ask about how COVID-19 has affected his employment status and his plans for the future, and to get a sense of how he has been handling this news, both emotionally and financially.
By all rights, Tuesday should have been one of Chris Filan’s busiest nights of the year.
In November 2019, Filan opened House of Brews West Ashley, a beer bar and retailer in the Charleston, S.C., suburb. Despite the seasonal challenges of competing with holiday spending and the traditional January lull, the gathering spot has found a loyal audience. Last Saturday was its busiest day ever.
But on Monday, the Charleston City Council limited public gatherings at restaurants and bars to 50 people or less. That followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the White House issuing strong guidance to limit gatherings to 50, and then to 10 people, respectively, and many other states ordering restaurants and bars to close because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Now, Filan worries that House of Brews’ strong start might not be enough—even with the arrival of St. Patrick’s Day, typically one of the highest-traffic days for any bar.
“For me, it is, at this point, how long can I sustain before they shut me down?” he says. “How much money can we make here in order to keep the doors open further down the road? I feel like I’m walking a tightrope right now. I just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Filan, the store’s managing partner, and assistant manager Cayla LaCosta are the sole employees of House of Brews West Ashley. (Her dogs, Mrs. Maisel and Twiggy, are unpaid goodwill ambassadors.) The store has a sister location on the Mount Pleasant side of town, but it operates independently.
Business, initially, hadn’t been dramatically impacted by the coronavirus outbreak, says Filan. But that was before things changed on Sunday, when Gov. Henry McMaster declared a state of emergency and shut down state schools. Now it’s a lot more uncertain.
House of Brews is a bit different than some other beer bars. While it offers a number of craft and local beers on tap, it has a much more extensive selection of cans and bottles, allowing the business to offer a wide array of choices. To keep revenue flowing, the company announced Sunday it would begin offering pickup service, letting people phone in orders for a six-pack or mixed pack and grab them without mingling with others.
“My business is more community driven,” says Filan. “I’m a bar that sits in a very high-traffic neighborhood area, surrounded by a lot of neighborhoods, which really helps in a situation like this. If people want to go out and buy a six-pack and take it to their house, I do offer that. If it comes down to it, we will just offer pickup service.”
He’d be willing to deliver beer, he says, though South Carolina law prohibits that—and even with the pandemic-related shutdowns, that’s unlikely to change.
A 20-year veteran of the Charleston food and beverage industry, Filan has worked through plenty of hurricane scares. And that experience is helping him guide House of Brews through the current environment. (“I am very versed in the art of ordering conservatively,” he says.)
House of Brews is as much a neighborhood gathering spot as it is a bar. It has a wide, open backyard area, and patrons frequently bring their children and dogs along with them. Filan, who classifies himself as a germaphobe, says he and LaCosta have increased the store’s precautions, wiping down door handles, sinks, and surfaces even more regularly. And a container of disinfectant wipes sits on the bar counter these days.
So far, coronavirus concerns for the business haven’t really impacted Filan’s life beyond the bar. He’s single and doesn’t have kids, he says, so he was already hyperfocused on the business in his off-hours.
“I just have to throw another aspect onto that,” he says. “I have to wake up, check Twitter, and see what has been going on and see if they’re shutting me down.”
Filan’s concern, he says, is that Charlestonians regularly face down crises, such as the near-annual hurricane evacuations, so they tend to be blasé about warnings sometimes—even when they’re serious. That could be problematic this time around.
“This has always been a social town,” Filan says. “Unfortunately, I think a lot of people are going to treat this like they do hurricanes. It’s going to be a free-for-all. They’re going to have places open, and they’re going to do what they want.”
Making matters more complicated is the arrival of spring, when the entire city longs to be outside, and people often have a tax refund burning a hole in their pocket.
“If you’re a restaurant or a bar that has an outdoor porch or patio, you can’t print money fast enough,” Filan says.
Should city or state officials order restaurants and bars closed, though, and should House of Brews be able to ride out that outage, Filan says he has high hopes for the business that will come once life begins to return to normal.
“People are going to go stir-crazy,” he says. “There’s going to be a lot of cabin fever. If there’s a red light, then as soon as that light turns green, there’s going to be a drag race. People are going to want to get out again.”
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