What Re-Opening Looks Like For Cocktail Bars Across America

Billy Sunday in Charlotte.

When COVID-19 caused cocktail bar closures across American in mid-March, some quickly pivoted to selling to-go cocktails, as a means to generate revenue and keep their businesses afloat. Now, as many states re-open, bar owners across the country are asking a simple question: How do we do this? We checked in with a few bars that are re-opening in Texas, North Carolina, Florida, and Alabama to get a sense for how they’re handling the next phase.

Going Beyond The Basics
“The CDC doesn’t have a lot to say about bars specifically, so we have taken their guidelines and used them as a starting point, adding things based on our feelings of safety and those of our clientele,” says Michael J. Neff, proprietor and beverage director at the Cottonmouth Club in Houston. To reorient the space from bartop service to table seating, Cottonmouth implemented a reservation system and table numbers, things most bars have never needed to do. “We have put up a barrier inside the door of the bar so people have to wait before they are seated. Sanitation stations everywhere. Contactless menus. Very strict and non-negotiable rules.”

For most places, masks are a given, as is this new model of table service only. Spaced seating, ample sanitation options and contactless menus are also common. At Queen’s Park in Birmingham, Alabama, owner Laura Newman pivoted to to-go cocktails immediately and started doing patio seating in mid-May with a QR menu system to eliminate the need for physical menus, a move that has been adopted by other bars around the country, including Half Step in Austin, where they have also “published all the safety measures online so everyone can come prepared and feel safe,” says director of operations Steven Robbins.

“We are starting out only serving drinks in disposable cups, with straws. We are only serving beer, wine and cocktails on draft so eliminate and contamination with bartenders using tools over and over again and the taps are extremely easy to sanitize,” says Stephanie Andrews, beverage director of Billy Sunday and Spindle Bar in Charlotte’s Optimist Food Hall. “At Spindle it is a take-and-go situation where guests come up to a register to place their order, so we are using paperless menus and have jars of Q-tips for guests to use on the screen that then can be disposed of. Going cashless is an additional step we are taking.”

Reduced Capacity
Many states currently only allow bars with food licenses, or restaurants with bar programs, to open at reduced capacity to enforce social distancing. In North Carolina, that figure is 50%, while in states like Texas and Washington, it’s just 25%. This reduced figure makes re-opening not feasible for bars like The Doctor’s Office in Seattle, where owner Matthew Powell re-opened only for takeout service in May. “We would likely lose more money with the additional labor costs than we probably make with such limited seating. Unless those limits change, we won’t plan to open the bar until phase 4, which is at some undetermined point in the future,” he says.

In Miami, Cafe La Trova has been back in business for the past few weeks at half capacity. “We have two bars, the main bar and one in the back of the building—that one is closed right now because we can only have 100 people in at the same time and everybody has to be seated at tables. I know a lot of people come here to talk to bartenders and have a few drinks, to have that experience, so with the bar closed a lot of people aren’t coming in,” says founder Julio Cabrera. “We knew it would be slow in the beginning, but it is rough. We cannot make a profit at 50% capacity. I hope by the end of June we will be able to move forward at 75% capacity, but I don’t know how long we will be able to survive like this.”

At Half Step in Austin, Robbins is thankful for the bar’s large outdoor patio, because it has made the mandated 25% capacity more manageable. “For many bars this was not feasible, the only way it worked for us was simply that our layouts allowed for a revamp of the entire service model while maintaining the distancing,” he says. “We are glad to be back up and running and serving at least a few guests, but we hope that it is safe to go back to a normal business model soon. This interim model will be very difficult on the industry, especially restaurants with slimmer margins.”

Challenges and Concerns 
“My biggest fear is just…are we doing this right? Am I keeping my staff as safe as possible while keeping the guests needs in mind?,” says Andrews. “I want to bring back staff with the promise of employment at a once busy bar, but are we heading in that same direction? I want to make sure they understand we have their best interests in mind.” How to maintain the nuances of good hospitality is also a big question mark. “How do we create the same warm, welcoming environment while wearing masks, 6 feet back? [We] want to be able to give the guests the full experience, be able to joke, smile, have just a conversation—limiting that interaction limits their experience,” she adds.

For others, the mix of alcohol and the persistent threat of potential infection makes for the most concerning blend. In Birmingham, Newman worries about guests not adhering to the safety guidelines. “It’s challenging living in a conservative state where people value autonomy and limited government. Part of living here means I have to consider those viewpoints more,” she says. “I am going to do as much as I reasonably can to keep people safe.” 

“We are used to having a certain level of danger from the fact that we deal with people who have been drinking,” say Neff at Cottonmouth Club. “The public health component of this adds another factor, especially when you think about how the whole thing is supposed to work in the first place. If we all aren’t as safe as possible, the chances of the experiment failing go up substantially. The consequences of failure are dire, both from a health and economic standpoint. So we are trying very hard to make sure every step we take is the best step we can imagine at the time.”


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