How the Atlanta Cocktail Scene Is Grappling With COVID-19 Closures and Re-openings

atlanta cocktail scene

Watchman’s, sister bar to Kimball House, remains fully closed at this time.

To enjoy dinner and drinks from Kimball House, the beloved Atlanta bar and restaurant located in an old train depot, the process is a little different these days. After ordering by phone, patrons line up to enter along the lengthy ADA ramp, minding the brightly colored tape that marks six-foot intervals. Should they want to add drinks, menus can be picked up from a sanitized stack and returned to the “touched” pile for cleaning. Credit cards are sanitized, charged, and handed back with a receipt that gets signed with a pen taken from the “clean” cup and returned to the “dirty” cup. At the next window—a door blocked off with tables—orders are picked up and customers exit on the opposite side of the building.

“No one crosses paths. We’re not accepting any deliveries inside, and it’s only been the same small crew of people, which we’re now calling ‘The Pod,’ working every day,” says Miles Macquarrie, partner and beverage director for Kimball House and sister property Watchman’s, which remains fully closed. “If one person shows signs of any symptoms, we’re done.”

In our May/June 2020 issue, we explore the Atlanta cocktail scene, which has evolved over the last decade-plus into a bright spot on America’s drinks scene. But as we wrapped this issue, COVID-19 was spreading across the country, and by the time the magazine launched, the bars and restaurants featured in this story were closed. And now, Atlanta finds itself in an especially unique position. With restaurants given the green light by Governor Brian Kemp to re-open for dine-in services on April 27—the earliest in the country—the state has been made to be a bit of a test case in a continually uncertain situation. And those in the hospitality industry again find themselves left scrambling to figure out what to do. “The governor, in our opinion, completely prematurely opened our city back up, and we do not think it was the right move. So we are trying to be as socially responsible as possible, which is what we have done from the beginning,” says Kellie Thorn, beverage director for Hugh Acheson’s restaurants including Empire State South and 5&10. “I feel like the hospitality industry has been left to lead the charge in all of this because there was no one on a national, state or local level setting definitive guidelines at any point in time. We’re just having to figure this out as we go, and the livelihoods of everyone involved on every level are at stake.”

Empire State South, like many others, chose not to re-open. Hugh Acheson added his name, along with more than 50 other chefs and restaurant owners under the banner #GAHospitalityTogether, to a statement appearing as a full-page ad in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution outlining their reasons, as stewards of the industry, for remaining closed. Currently, Empire State South is only offering meals and drinks to-go for special events, such as Easter or Mother’s Day, finding that the expense involved in daily takeaway simply wasn’t sustainable. Instead, the restaurant group pivoted to provide meals to those in need. “Empire State South and 5&10 have been working with World Central Kitchen, as well as some local organizations, essentially making 3,000 meals a week right now for different organizations in the community. So instead of making cocktails, I’m getting up at 5 a.m. and packaging [food] boxes,” says Thorn. And while the restaurant group recently had a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan come through to pay their staff, they are still choosing to operate with a skeleton crew for safety, explains Thorn. “Just because people are on payroll, we can’t justify bringing them all into the restaurant.”

Back at Kimball House, the robust takeaway operation keeps Macquarrie busy behind the bar, offering a full menu of to-go cocktails served in individual, four-ounce bottles, from classics like Negronis to crafty originals like a Tropical Gin & Tonic with clarified passion fruit. “We’re still using our centrifuge and clarifying stuff, and I’m still preserving things because I know we will open again. Right now it’s strawberry season and you can’t miss out on Georgia strawberry season. Nature doesn’t wait for anything,” says Macquarrie. “We’re just trying to give people a taste of what they once had and continue to pay our bills at the same time—at least at one of the restaurants.” But the team doesn’t consider opening for dine-in service again to be an option, both from a safety standpoint and economically based on the current restrictions in place. “To re-open at the capacity we were operating at, but then have to remove 50 percent of our tables would crush us financially,” says Macquarrie. “We wouldn’t be able to afford to operate Kimball House at 50 percent capacity. So for now, we’re just moving forward with what we’re doing and hoping that we don’t get forced to stop selling cocktails to go.”

“The governor, in our opinion, completely prematurely opened our city back up, and we do not think it was the right move. So we are trying to be as socially responsible as possible, which is what we have done from the beginning,” says Kellie Thorn.

Meanwhile, Kimball House’s sister bar Watchman’s, which opened in the popular Krog Street Market food hall in 2018, remains closed altogether, gathering dust and accumulating debt. “I think that Watchman’s will re-open, but who knows? Our rent there is insane—we’re paying $17,000 a month,” says Macquarrie. “There hasn’t been abatement, just deferment, which means we’ll have to pay that back some time in the future, so it’s just piling up. I just received a late notice on the loan that still had late fees attached to it.”

Neighboring Watchman’s in the food hall is Ticonderoga Club, owned by Atlanta cocktail veterans Paul Calvert and Greg Best. They also shuttered the business early on and have chosen to remain closed. “We did not feel there was any way to open up safely for our staff or our guests,” says Calvert. “It was pretty clear to us, even with a rudimentary, non-specialized understanding of how viruses work, that it was not the time.” To try to remain financially viable while closed down, Best and Calvert initially got creative with their fundraising efforts. “We’re known for this crazy Bic pen culture, where we give away complimentary pens and regularly change the style—our fanbase has become rabid about collecting these pens,” Best explains. “So we created COVID-19 limited-edition pens, and that subsidized payroll for the first couple of weeks. It blew our minds.”

Eventually, though, the staff had to be furloughed, with Best and Calvert applying for loans and grants both locally and federally, with some degree of success. “But now, of course, is the altogether new reality of trying to figure out how to take borrowed money and use it in a way to perpetuate our business, protect our staff, and not come out the other end with a noose around our neck,” says Calvert.

Over at Cardinal, the elegant, backroom bar tucked inside the Beltline-adjacent Beacon development, the lights also remain off. Owner Kathryn DiMenichi pivoted her staff and resources to the small market she operates, Third Street Goods, but has yet to receive any financial assistance. “The margins of a retail food store are pretty bad, which was the idea behind this symbiotic relationship in the first place—the bar kind of supplemented that,” she says. “Now the store is doing really well, but it’s still not enough to pay rent. I’m basically buying product and paying my employees.” But DiMenichi is hesitant about reopening Cardinal, the bar that she dreamed of owning for more than a decade, for the same reason she chose to close before the mandate. “Why are we still exposing ourselves to the people who are being the least cautious? Those are the ones still coming out,” says DiMenichi. “It’s why I’m scared about opening, because as soon as you open, the people who are the least cautious are also going to be the first ones in the door. So we’re just checking in with the CDC and watching what the numbers are, and I guess over the next few weeks we’ll see if anything changes.”

It’s the larger question that business owners in Atlanta, and across the country, are grappling with despite any government-implemented dates—when, and how, to open again. “I don’t know if you can be a bar for a while, which is a scary thought as a bartender or bar director,” says Kellie Thorn. “How do you control that? Do you draw lines on the ground and tell people where to stand? Do you tell people that they can’t gather in large parties? Do you require every guest to wear a mask when talking to your bartender because you’re going to require your bartenders to wear a mask? I think the really scary thing is how fragile this has made us all feel.”

As weeks turn to months and unanswered questions continue to pile up, Atlanta’s hospitality leaders are left to forge ahead. They cobble together strategies to adapt, or at least survive, whether that means converting operations or simply turning off the lights and hoping to weather the storm until the day comes when they can open their doors to safely, and joyfully, welcome their guests back inside. “I think that many of our guests, though they have been drinking cocktails and interacting with their beloved institutions in their own way, are really going to be primed to come back to the actual communal, interactive process that is sitting at a bar,” says Calvert. “For us, the Ticonderoga experience, the profound importance, is about just that—the experience. We know we can bottle good drinks for people, but we want to be able to look them in the eye and toast it with them.”


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