Smuggler's Cove Co-Owner Rebecca Cate Reflects on the Meaning of Having a Family of Regulars - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Smuggler’s Cove Co-Owner Rebecca Cate Reflects on the Meaning of Having a Family of Regulars

The COVID-19 crisis has had an unprecedented effect on the hospitality industry, and will likely permanently reshape the way bars and restaurants operate. Throughout 2021, we’ll be turning to bartenders, bar owners, and other industry figures, asking them to share their stories about how the COVID crisis has affected their lives and livelihoods, and what’s giving them hope and direction for the months to come.

For this final installment in the series, we spoke with Rebecca Cate, a co-owner (with her husband, Martin) of bars including Smuggler’s Cove and Whitechapel in San Francisco. This interview has been edited for space, clarity, and context.

We’re really proud of our community at Smuggler’s Cove. Our rum club, the Rumbustion Society, it’s more than people getting together and drinking rum. Over 11 years, there’ve been deep friendships formed—they’ve become a wonderful group. I had one regular tell me, “You’ve created something special—a place where adults can make friends.

We lost three of our club members these past two years. None due to COVID, but it was a reminder that the bar is more than a bar—it’s a community and the important third place. We lost our first member just as the pandemic hit; he went into a coma as a result of complications from diabetes. His family and friends were joking that he’d wake up and he’d have no idea what was going on with the quarantine, but he didn’t make it through. He’d been a very active member in our rum club; he didn’t live in the area any- more, but he’d travel to San Francisco for our meetings. But because the bar was closed, we couldn’t get together to toast him properly, or hug each other. We just had to put an obituary on Facebook and have people write things—it was awful.

We had to do it again later in 2020 with another regular. He’d been involved in the club for a long time, then took a pause, then he came back and was a regular again. None of us knew that he was dying of can- cer. He’d come in and talk about rum and laugh with the staff. This past summer, as we were reopening, his brother stopped by the bar and told us how important Smuggler’s Cove had been to his brother as he was dying—apparently he’d told his family that this is where he went to help deal with it, and to enjoy himself.

We lost our third member last May—he was one of the victims of the mass shooting in San Jose. His death came about two weeks before our reopening, which made opening again very emotional and bittersweet. His wife was also a member of the rum club—we put a rum flight on sale to benefit the family, his widow asked our bartenders to bartend a private service, and we tried to do small things to honor him.

But through all of this, it was so hard for the members to not be able to grieve with each other in person. Zoom and social media just aren’t effective substitutes. We usually have quarterly meetings with our members, but we weren’t able to do that. And these people helped us get through the pandemic—they were heavy participants for our to-go cocktails, and did all of our online events. They really stepped up, bought a lot of merchandise, and helped us keep going.

I think our group was always appreciative of the bar and the club, but when they didn’t have it for a year and a half, I think they really realized what an unusual and special thing we had. All through the pandemic, it was, “When do you think we’re going to have our first meeting? When do you think it will be safe again?”

We did some pre-opening parties late last spring, but even those were weird because we had distancing rules, so we could only have like 12 people spread over our three floors. So we finally had people back together, but not really back together—they were waving at each other across the room. And the summer turned tough, because of Delta and requiring masks again, and the fear that we’re going backward in many ways.

I keep imagining it’s like Donkey Kong, and we have to keep jumping over another barrel. The pandemic has really taught us about the resilience of our industry, in a big way. One local group, the San Francisco Bar Owners Alliance, was a complete lifesaver for the community, and helped us realize we’re not alone in this. We banded together and decided to require proof of vaccination, when the city hadn’t done that yet. We knew it was what we needed to do to protect our people. Hopefully, we’ll be able to look back and say, “Wow, we survived, and we helped each other survive.” There’s definitely some survivor’s guilt in reopening, in having watched friends close restaurants and bars, and knowing so many places didn’t make it. We got lucky, but we also had this community that really stepped up and had our back.

That first day when we had the whole bar open, that was finally it. I’d been in a complete fog until we let everyone in that first day, and they were all sitting there and ordering drinks, and I just turned to Martin and burst into tears. It was like, “Finally, there are people in here, and they’re loving it again.” There’s nothing like that.

Enjoy This Article?

Sign up for our newsletter and get biweekly recipes and articles delivered to your inbox.

Send this to a friend