Bartenders Tell Us Their Fears And Concerns About Reopening

Around the country, bars, restaurants, distilleries, and breweries are either in the process of reopening or, at the very least, preparing to. Most are also currently offering pick-up, delivery, and curbside options to stay afloat. Sometime soon they’ll be able to open their doors to customers again (though whether they do or should is a different matter).

If/ when bars do reopen, they’ll be opening themselves, their staff, and their customers to a new world of regulations, safety precautions, dangers, and fears. What will the socially-distanced seating system look like? How many people can enter at once? Are masks required? These are tricky waters and people’s lives are at stake — surely, within that context, we can all manage to drink beer at home. Even from an economic perspective, a second wave of COVID-19 cases could lead to another full-blown quarantine. These aren’t choices to be taken lightly.

To get a better idea of just how complicated the prospect of reopening is, we’ve asked a handful of bar professionals to tell us how they’re surviving through the crisis and what their plans are for the future.

Jacob Cantu, tasting room manager at West Fork Whiskey Co. in Indianapolis, Indiana

Cantu says that he and others in the distilling world have spent the past few months waiting. “Indianapolis has not given a clear description for when bars can reopen.” He adds, “Guidelines are in place for restaurants reopening, but we are behind the current state plan that has been administered.”

While he waits, he says his staff is ready to work. “Most of our staff is comfortable with reopening. We will be limiting the number of essential associates while the bar is open and operating.”

While they haven’t been able to have customers in their tasting room or bar area, West Fork has been open throughout the crisis as a bottle shop for pickups.

“We designed craft cocktail mixers for at-home cocktail development during this quarantine to pair with our whiskies,” Cantu notes.

The demand for liquor and at-home drinks has pushed the bottle shop to remain open seven days a week with a new online ordering platform.

“Balancing extra days with increased work and limited staff creates some resolvable issues from time to time. Our production team has also been working at capacity to fulfill liquor and canned cocktail orders for grocery stores.”

When they do reopen to the public, much of Cantu’s concern revolves around social distancing.

“The biggest worry is crowd control during service. Do we need more staff or to reconfigure responsibilities during service? The extra measures needed to be put in place and potential lack of business levels have also been topics of discussion.”

Cantu wants all visitors to read instructions before entering any establishment. “Many businesses have taken their own measures depending on staff levels and operation, so be aware of signs, be aware of your surroundings, and be courteous.”

Nate Simmons, bar manager at Garden & Grain in Pensacola, Florida

Simmons says that fear of the unknown is the hardest aspect of reopening a bar. “Just the unknown of what today brings,” he says. “Unknown brings anxiety. When are we opening? What’s next?”

He’s focused heavily on daily communication — upping his managerial and all-staff contact with Zoom meetings and group texts to help keep all employees on the same page. So far the biggest problem Simmons has faced is the ever-changing adjustment of hours for employees.

“We were pivoting our business model basically overnight from on-premise sales to becoming exclusively to-go,” he says.

Garden & Grain’s products changed, their top sellers changed, and their packaging changed. “But mostly the unpredictable juggling of schedules week to week has been difficult. Now, as we get back into the swing of things, we are now open later and adjusting to being comfortable with guests’ needs.”

Like many bars, breweries, and distilleries, Garden & Grain completely changed its business model to stay relevant. “We’ve been focused on to-go and virtual happy hours, and our community has supported us so much,” Simmons says. “We understand that this can’t go on forever. We are definitely ready to get back to full occupancy but we will balance that with the need to keep distance and keep our customers safe.”

Kurt Bellon, restaurant manager and beverage director at Chao Baan in St. Louis

Bellon, says that the biggest challenge is re-calibrating the business operations to adjust to the new challenges. These challenges are mainly centered around the supply chain. But he’s also anticipating a major adjustment period for the new expectations of his guests.

“It’s a good feeling to know that we can seek control on our side by implementing the most intentional and helpful strategies for reopening safely for our guests,” he says.

Chao Baan’s curbside service has been efficient during the lockdown so Bellon isn’t in a rush to change that. “We started offering curbside Thai cocktails to-go and they’ve been a huge hit with guests so while we are reopening to welcome our guests back, we were in more of a rush to implement curbside offerings at the onset to stay afloat.”

Overall, Bellon is most worried about the long-term timeline of the societal changes that bars will continue to face. “This requires long-term strategies now and thinking that still needs to be flexible enough to react to day-to-day developments that are still occurring.”

His goals for reopening are simple, “Consistent sales while also avoiding doing too much that could jeopardize any ability to deliver a safe and timely product. Safety and quality of product and service remain the top priority.”

Bellon says that Chao Baan is lucky to not have to worry yet about permanent closure. “But the unknown variable of the length of this period and long term shift in consumer behavior will likely affect any established business model’s feasibility going forward.”

Before customers return, Bellon wants them to know a few things. “You have to know the difference in the service steps and extra precautions we are talking as well as precautions that we expect of our guests.” He adds, “We’re all going to have to work together to achieve the common goal of keeping our diners and staff in a safe environment.”

Kelly Hogrebe, operations director at 200 South Restaurant Group in Pensacola, Florida

For Hogrebe reopening is a slow process that definitely shouldn’t be rushed. “Our customers’ safety is extremely important to us and we want to make sure we are taking all precautions for that. We are lucky to have so much outdoor space that we can utilize and spread people out between.”

Like the others on this list, 200 South adapted to fit the current needs of its customers. “We have tried to be innovative and use our outdoor space to the best of our ability as well as modify our ordering areas so we can service people in an acceptable, socially distant way.”

Hogrebe says that the staff of 200 South has gone to painstaking measures to organize clean and dirty pens, and systems to sanitize properly — new ways to set up to be more efficient, new merchandise ideas to help drive revenue. She says that when customers visit, they should be prepared for things to be a little bit different.

“We have rearranged all our furniture, changed equipment around. Our staff is doing everything in their power to provide a great experience. Just… please be patient.”

Throughout all of this, Hogrebe says that the bar staff’s main goal is to stay positive. “We have held staff meetings to keep staff informed, hosted car washes to help staff make money, and found any way we can to continue to support our staff along the way while so many of them are not making any or only very little income.”