Loycent Gordon remembers when the worst foe he could face as a small business owner was a greedy landlord. It feels like a lifetime ago that he saved his bar, Neir’s Tavern, from closing due to an exorbitant rent hike.
But it’s been just under three months since Gordon celebrated a new, more favorable lease with a jubilant gathering where Mayor de Blasio poured beer on tap, surrounded by community members who had rallied alongside the historic bar and other elected officials who had helped broker the deal. That hard-won lease would allow Neir’s to reach its 200th birthday and keep its title as the oldest continuously operating bar in New York City.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic swept New York.
Opened in 1829 when this stretch of Woodhaven, Queens was mostly farmland and swamp, Neir’s is now surrounded by modest attached houses. The iconic watering hole has other claims to fame besides its 190 years: it was the setting for scenes from the films Goodfellas and Tower Heist, the subject of an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s television show “Parts Unknown,” possibly the site of Mae West’s first performance... and a hangout of Donald Trump’s father, Fred.
Back in 2009, Gordon was just an occasional visitor to Neir’s when he heard it was going out of business. “I thought, someone’s gotta do something,” Gordon recalls. Inspired to become a firefighter after 9/11, he worked full-time, so he waited for someone else to swoop in and save the tavern.
Then he heard that a prospective buyer would turn it into a convenience store. The 19th century mahogany bar, the tin ceilings, the original “Neir’s Hall” sign – all would disappear.
“I kept thinking ‘they’ will save it. But then I realized ‘they’ are ‘we,’” says Gordon. “I realized we have to do something, I can do something.”
He grew up in a small fishing community in Jamaica, West Indies, and rarely attended school until he moved to Jamaica, Queens, at 10. He credits Queens with giving him an education and his first job; it's also where he met his wife.
“As an immigrant, I saw Neir’s could be a vehicle for me to contribute to Queens, the place that gave me everything.” He bought the tavern with three friends that year.
Within six months, they learned the bar wasn’t profitable. His friends jumped ship, leaving Gordon alone at the helm. He wasn’t a businessman and had no strategic plan. “My passion made up for my incompetence,” Gordon laughs. And his leadership and dedication to the community ushered in a resurgence.
“Woodhaven is very good to him, because he’s good to Woodhaven,” says Michelle Lopez, a regular customer. “It’s in his blood to help the community.”
Still, Gordon’s efforts and connection to the community were nearly rendered meaningless in December 2018 when a new owner, Henry Shi, bought the building for $1.3 million, and raised the rent of the bar by around $3,000 (a temporary agreement that raised the rent $1100 was made at the time). After operating in the red for eight months, Gordon announced that Sunday, January 12th would be Neir’s Tavern’s final day. “I’m sorry I let you down," he told the community.
Then the city stepped in, and Small Business Services committed to a $90,000 small business grant for upgrades. With a handshake, Shi and Gordon agreed on a five-year lease that would keep the rent at $3,100/month for this year, increasing 3% each year thereafter, with an option to renew for another five years. In 36 hours, Gordon had gone from planning Neir’s wake to looking forward to its 200th birthday in 2029.
A month after that celebration party, in February, an excited undercurrent still thrummed at Neir’s. Couples sipped drinks beneath framed memorabilia and a book club discussed “The Night Circus” over beers and burgers while staff members hung a sign proclaiming, “Harry’s 30th SURPRISE Birthday Celebration!”
Then on March 12th, as the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 grew in New York City, de Blasio declared a state of emergency. Restaurants were mandated to reduce capacity by 50 percent.
Neir’s staff removed half the dining tables and bar stools. “It reduced our revenue, but we were able to push forward,” Gordon says. “We were rolling with it.”
Even as information about the spreading pandemic came in dribs and drabs, karaoke night still saw people “out in droves,” says Gordon. “There wasn’t a clear message from our leaders about the gravity of the situation. So people just kept going.”
Later in March, restaurants and bars were limited to takeout and delivery. 90 percent of Neir’s business was onsite, and Gordon and his team had only 48 hours to transition. They managed to link online ordering from their website to a tablet inside the restaurant.
Meanwhile, suppliers couldn’t keep up with restaurateur’s frantic orders of takeout containers and plastic utensils. “Takeout containers were our toilet paper,” says Gordon.
When the takeout-only mandate went into effect on St Patrick’s Day, they were ready with a corned beef and cabbage takeout special, and half price Guinness. Gordon bought 64 ounce growlers for draft beer to go. The growlers sold out within hours.
Gordon marketed aggressively on Instagram and Facebook, encouraging people to keep Neir’s going by buying food and drinks. The night before the shutdown, an Instagram post with a photo of a gloved hand holding two Jell-O shots suggested getting “a dozen to share with family and friends when you get home.”
Ed Wendell, president of Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society, stopped by for a drink and three-way fries covered with cheddar, American and Swiss cheese and bacon, his favorite menu item. “A lot of us not only love the place, but we love the people who run it,” Wendell explained.
Although sales dropped below 50 percent, Gordon was heartened by a flood of texts from customers telling him they bought a shirt online or were picking up lunch. One patron tagged him in a photo of an entire dinner table filled with Neir’s to go containers. The same people who had drummed up support when the bar almost closed were still helping Neir’s thrive.
But as news reports of the deadly virus poured in, Gordon’s discomfort mounted. “It’s an extended family, and I feel responsible for people,” he says. “I didn’t feel like I could keep them safe. It would be irresponsible to encourage them to come out.”
To protect staff and guests from undue risk, Gordon decided to close for April. “We can always make money, but we can’t recover a lost life.”
“They say the peak of the virus is coming up in the next few weeks, and we have to keep people safe,” says Neir’s Manager Yvette Ramos. “We don’t want out workers and customers coming in and God forbid something happens.”
March 31st marked the last day of regular takeout and delivery service. On April 1st and 2nd, the Neir’s team used its remaining inventory to put together free meals of burgers, wings and quesadillas for frontline workers and locals in need of a hot meal.
Rent was due April 1st, but Gordon was busy applying for relief assistance, including the federal Paycheck Protection Plan and Economic Injury Disaster Loan. He plans to ask Shi for two months’ rent forgiveness.
If Shi doesn’t agree, “he’s probably gonna have to wait till that money comes in,” says Gordon. “My priority now is to keep money in the pockets of the staff who've been with me so long, and pay the landlord after.”
Though three months have passed since the handshake deal, lease negotiations continue. Gordon, Shi and their attorneys continued meeting at the Queens Chamber of Commerce office with Grech and others. They’d come close to signing when coronavirus escalated, putting the lease on the backburner.
While not having a lease is unnerving, everything has shifted in light of the pandemic.
“It’s not the rent anymore,” says Gordon.