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Bars are fighting to stay in compliance with their states’ changing regulations

August 11, 2020, 2:00 PM UTC

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Just steps away from Philadelphia’s “Singing Fountain” and the sounds of Sinatra rolling through its speakers, Manatawny Still Works lured in customers with music of its own. People killing time around Passyunk Square before their dinner reservations would turn to the sounds flowing from Manatawny’s French door window, noticing its huge flower box and then its “tasting room” sign.

When Gov. Tom Wolf ordered restaurants and bars to stop dine-in services in March, the window went from passersby attraction to service window for whiskey to-go, operations manager Jennifer Sabatino tells Fortune. Then, when the new mandate said that bars had to serve food, Sabatino came up with a spiel for her newest menu item. 

Operations manager Jennifer Sbatino leans out the front window of Stillworks' tasting room on Passyunk Avenue.
Operations manager Jennifer Sabatino (right) at the front window of Manatawny Still Works’ tasting room.
Courtesy of Jennifer Sabatino

“Due to the current mandates of Pennsylvania we now have to serve you a meal. Tonight we have an incredible selection of handcrafted peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” she recites. “You are going to get half of one for 75 cents, and if you would like to order more, you’re more than welcome.” 

With a little humor and a lot of uncertainty, bar owners are thinking on their feet to keep up with their states’ changing regulations. Nationally virus cases continue to rise, and some experts are pointing their fingers at bars, forcing them to shut down completely in some states while restaurants are allowed to continue to operate. It remains to be seen how many will never open again. 

For bars that were fortunate enough to keep operating in some way, Sabatino says, the new challenge is to adapt to new rules. Every morning when she wakes up, she checks the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association website to see what might have changed. What will I have to do this week to keep my staff employed and this operation going? Sabatino asks herself.

“At first, we were going to be allowed to open outside dining, and then they put a hold on outside dining. And then we were going to be able to do indoor dining, but then they put a hold on indoor dining. We’re kind of just trying to keep up,” Sabatino says.

For the first two months, Manatawny Still Works did pretty well. The state had closed liquor stores, making them one of the few places to buy spirits. To enable the outdoor dining that’s keeping the tasting room alive, the city created a temporary outdoor dining permit. Now the cost of doing business involves dealing with the public, and Sabatino says patrons don’t want to be told what to do about anything—including wearing masks.

“It’s a lot to put on service-industry people to regulate how their guests and people outside of the realm of their guests are acting,” she says. 

Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Irish pub owner Matthew Bagley learned this lesson firsthand when he started selling “Cuomo Chips” at Harvey’s Irish Pub in Saratoga Springs, the birthplace of the potato chip. The pub has a full kitchen and dinner menu, but when the New York governor ordered that bars could not serve alcohol without food, Bagley wanted to give his customers a way to enjoy their drinks without buying a full meal. 

The pub ran out of chips in a day and a half as news of the offer went viral, but the joke had some unintended consequences. That same week, the state liquor authority called. The chips weren’t compliant, the authority said. The good news? The solution was simple: add salsa. 

His bar had also attracted clientele who thought masks were optional. 

“It was supposed to be like, ‘Look, we made a funny,’” Bagley says. “But now people think I’m some alt-right bar owner who wants to stick it to the governor and not wear masks, and that’s not it at all.”

Boise

Before it was called State Street, it was Highway 44, the namesake of the Boise karaoke bar, 44 Club. When manager Judy Smith passed away after running the bar for 30 years, no one, not even the owner, knew who could replace her.

Her daughter, Debbie, quit her job as an EKG technician to run her mother’s favorite place in the world. 

“I used to go down there and see her, and now I’m actually right in her shoes,” Thompson says. “I stand exactly where she did. I have her friends now. I have her dogs. Now, I have her job.” 

Pinto Bennett and his band plays at the 44 Club in Boise.
Folk singer Pinto Bennett and his band perform at the 44 Club.
Courtesy of Debbie Smith

Because the regulars loved her mom, Thompson says, they love her, too. They helped her learn how to run the bar, and with guidance from nightlife expert Jon Taffer—she watched every Bar Rescue episode she could find—55-year-old Thomspon has run the 44 Club successfully for the past seven years. 

That’s how Thompson planned on spending the rest of her life—until the pandemic left the bar’s future in limbo. Idaho Gov. Brad Little ordered bars to shut down in mid-March, then allowed them to reopen in May before shutting them down again in late June. The 44 Club has since remained closed, left with so little operating capital after all the fits and starts that Thompson isn’t sure if it will be able to open again. All the money the bar made in May went to paying property and corporate taxes that were due in June, she says.

“My mom went in every day knowing her life was coming to an end and did her job. She ran the place right up until she passed away from cancer, and I don’t want to get all sad here, but that’s kind of what I thought I would do, too,” she says. 

During the first shutdown, all her beer expired. The second time around, Thompson was on it: She suspended her trash service immediately and cut the cable off. Then the phone. Then she turned the coolers down low to save as much power as possible, and she returned the expensive bottles of liquor to the store. 

With unemployment checks running out, Thompson is worried she’ll have to find another job.

“My son said he can hire me to run parts; he runs an auto shop,” Thompson says. “Right now, I mow my son’s lawn to make a little extra money because he works hard all week.”

A painting inside dallas bar, The Standard Pour, a paint depicts a man using his beard to mix drinks.
Inside the Standard Pour, in Dallas.
Courtesy of Eddie Campbell

Dallas

Over the years as a leading mixologist in Dallas’s bar and restaurant scene, Eddie “Lucky” Campbell has been able to put together a pretty outstanding private collection of rare whiskey, including all of the rare Pappy Van Winkle bourbons. One 23-year-old bottle of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve can sell for as much as $3,000, and Campbell sold all of them at half price to collect as much money as he could for his family and the three bars and restaurants he co-owns. 

“When the closure ends, and they allow you to reopen, everybody thinks that the struggles are over. But with such high occupancy restrictions, no one’s really making money,” says Campbell, who also sold his Ford F-150 Raptor pickup, both his dream car and the bestselling truck in the U.S. for the past 40 years. “If we had to go through another one? It would bury us.”

But the hardest part, he says, is being separated from his 5-year-old son. Because Campbell comes in contact with new customers every day at his cocktail restaurant, the Standard Pour, he’s been careful to keep his distance, sticking to FaceTime calls or visits from the front yard. 

“I think for every parent in the hospitality industry, they are terrified of exposure,” he says. “After dealing with guests every night, they’re sanitizing themselves like crazy in their cars out of worry and fear.”

After the initial shutdown, bars in Texas were allowed to reopen in May at 25% occupancy, then forced to close again in June. July brought a chance to reopen—if a bar could make over half of its revenue from something other than liquor sales, technically making it a restaurant in the state’s eyes.

Campbell would be the first to admit that right now, bars are a want but not a need. But when states close bars and not restaurants, he says, it doesn’t mean people will stay home. They’ll just go across the street to open restaurants where they can still drink.

“It’s not an effective strategy at all,” says Campbell, whose bar Parliament is currently closed. “It almost encourages over-gathering in some of those places, because for young people, they feel like they’ve got the inside track on all the parties happening at restaurants tonight.”

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