Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the restaurant industry is on the verge of an unprecedented crisis which could turn all those temporary closures into permanent ones. This week, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that as part of the new state-mandated take-out and delivery-only rule, restaurants and bars would also be allowed to sell alcohol to-go. Following that, the State Liquor Authority clarified the new rules, which added a few stipulations—including the fact that alcohol can only be sold in conjunction with food, and that delivery people must have a copy of the liquor license with them.
Restaurants and bars still reeling from the events of the last week are quickly adapting to the new changes. "They said we had to serve food with our cocktails," said Jeff Bell, general manager of Please Don't Tell (PDT) on St. Mark's Place. "I didn't bring any of the kitchen staff in, but I'm cooking tater tots to go with every order. So everybody gets tater tots and a cocktail if they order."
Bell had to lay off 11 people, most of PDT's employees, after the shutdown was announced Sunday: "Everyone's laid off so they can collect unemployment benefits." Usually for something like tater tots, he'd look to the staff of neighboring Crif Dogs for guidance. Not this time: "We serve food from Crif Dogs regularly, but their staff was laid off too. I had to learn how to use the deep fryer today."
Bell and his two remaining staffers spent Tuesday cleaning the bar, purchasing $500 worth of different-sized glass bottles for the to-go cocktails, and then creating a batch of 600 cocktails and dispensing them in the containers. They had lots of extra inventory to make their cocktails since they had no inkling they'd have to close when they made their last order.
They topped it off with a sanitizer station, and parked everything on the street outside the bar. "We've probably sold about 350 drinks today," he said. "The goal is to generate some extra cash to make sure everybody's payroll is covered and to generate some tips to put into a fund for the staff so they get a little extra. It's not gonna be much, but it's something."
Bell felt his presence had become a comfort for the neighborhood: "In a time of crisis, people need some kind of normalcy, and to know a neighborhood institution is out there doing something for them, that's why I'm out here," he said. "And the neighborhood loves it. Seeing people's faces go from gloomy to smiling when they see us out here, that's worth it, that's what it's all about."
Irish Haven in Sunset Park took a different approach to the new rules: co-owner Matt Hogan spent much of the day doing deliveries himself, slinging six packs for cheaper than a bodega. "I’ve been driving around making deliveries to people and pressing the flesh until I’m tired of it," he said. "But I’m pressing the flesh in a figurative sense—I’ve thrown some high elbows at people, haven’t done any of the foot taps. But mostly just telling people ‘Happy St. Patrick’s Day,’ setting down a case of beer at their feet, and making my way out of there. I’m not shaking hands."
The big problem for him was that they had "more than tripled" their normal inventory holdings in preparation for St. Patrick’s Day. It was supposed to be their busiest day of the year—now, he's faced with a situation where he could be sitting on bottles that expire before the quarantine is over.
"Our biggest liability is draft beer, which I can’t deliver—I’m not delivering a pitcher of beer to someone," he explained. "But we have 12 draft lines of tapped kegs, so if the city shuts us down stretching from weeks to months, we’ll be nearing the expiration date on some of that stuff. We’ll have to take a loss on inventory, unfortunately."
Hogan is hoping he can move as much as he has on hand soon: "And I’m not guaranteed that there’s gonna be a St. Patrick’s Day-magnitude event as a make-good, either, from the city or from people’s interest level. So if things are back to normal in May, I'm not guaranteed to see these sales come through. So I’m just trying to strike while the iron is hot, and looking to make the best of a bad situation."
The general feeling among his fellow bar owners and around the industry is grim right now: "What I’m hearing from people is basically a general sense of dread, people realizing that this isn’t gonna be a two-week thing," he said. "They haven’t forecasted how long things are gonna be closed, but given what they’re speculating about the incubation period of this virus, we’re anticipating that we’re gonna be closed for possibly months."
Every aspect of the business has been radically debilitated as a result: "Our staff is affected by that. We have live music every Sunday, that’s affected by that. We have community groups that use the back room to host rock-painting for kids, and all-ages events, and baby showers and graduations and retirements, and that’s all full-stop, you know? It’s a massive drain for the community, because people are losing the resource of our room."
His insurance, liquor license and rent are all coming up as well. It's a perfect storm of bad timing, and he feels that without help from the federal government, he doesn't know what will happen to them.
PDT's Bell feels similarly, but hopes landlords and local politicians can enact change closer to home: "People are gonna have to give each other a break," he said. "I'm selling drinks at 40% less than what we normally sell for. Everyone's gonna have to help each other out. These landowners in NYC, they make a ton of money, they need to figure out how they're gonna take care of the people who give rent to them. Everyone needs to look after one another, because our government is a disaster right now."