This is Eater Voices, where chefs, restaurateurs, writers, and industry insiders share their perspectives about the food world, tackling a range of topics through the lens of personal experience.
In March, the Rum Club, the cozy little cocktail bar where I work, closed its doors at the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic with no real timeline for reopening. It was a critically celebrated bar and an industry haunt, where countless bartenders and servers ended their nights after long shifts. When I think about my favorite times behind the bar, I remember looking around the room and recognizing every face, jumping between conversations as I mix drinks. We spend a lot of time focusing on the intricacies of the cocktails, making sure everything complements everything else, but we all know that it’s not really about the drink — it’s about the space, the community. No matter what you’re drinking, it’ll taste infinitely better if you’re in a good environment.
I’ve been a bartender for 10 years, in states across the country. From my first job, in Oklahoma, to my current spot behind the bar at Rum Club, I’ve fallen in love with bartending, nerding out over the history of craft cocktails, developing relationships with our regulars. Getting behind a bar, you make connections with people; you develop your bar family. You’re not really going to work — you’re going to an extension of your home.
I lost that home and that connection to my bar family in March. Like many of my regulars, I was unemployed for six months; it wasn’t until September that we even tried to open back up in a limited capacity. We planned to hold our grand reopening on September 9, but that day, wildfire smoke began to blow into Portland.
Over the past six months, Portland has seen many of the bars and restaurants that define its culture suffer due to the global coronavirus pandemic: We have seen Portland staples like Shift Drinks, Bistro Montage, and Aviary close permanently, while others, like legendary cocktail bar and restaurant Clyde Common, shrink in size just to stay afloat. Once the yearly Oregon rains begin and outdoor dining largely disappears, bars and restaurants will face new challenges in their efforts to survive. According to a recent Eater survey, 48 percent of Portlanders do not feel comfortable dining at a restaurant, indoors or outdoors. That leaves takeout and delivery, and with restaurant margins living in the 10 to 15 percent range, most of them will be in the red.
As it stands, Oregon bars and restaurants are not prepared to outlive the winter months with COVID-19 operating restrictions — limiting capacity and hours of operation — still in place. They exist for a reason and are worth the financial strain to keep workers in our industry healthy. But the state of Oregon makes things even more difficult by prohibiting bars and restaurants from selling cocktails or hard spirits for takeout. This restriction puts the state’s watering holes in a uniquely difficult position: Without the reputation or infrastructure for significant takeout food sales, bars have been forced to reopen or risk permanent closure. And even if bars reopen, the weeks ahead look uncertain.
In April, the National Restaurant Association conducted a survey of more than 6,500 restaurant operators nationwide. That survey found that the restaurant industry had lost approximately $80 billion in revenue through March and April, and 4 out of 10 restaurants have already closed permanently.
It’s now October, and my bar has had to spend some of its limited funds on a makeshift cover for our patio, an attempt to save a portion of our outdoor seating. Without those tables, we will not even be able to get to 25 percent capacity. While some bars and restaurants are trying to conduct service under the current restrictions, I can tell you first-hand that this is out of sheer necessity: Fixed costs such as rent, utilities, and appliance fees are forcing bars and restaurants like ours to conduct whatever business they can in order to foot the bill.
Still, that business is barely enough to keep us going into the next month. Let me put it into perspective: A typical bar with the capacity of Rum Club costs approximately $1,000 a day to operate. That includes rent, utilities, labor costs, and other expenses. We try to operate at a 25 percent cost-of-goods sold margin, which means we would need to average $1,300 in sales per day in order to break even. With limited outside seating, that would mean that approximately five tables would need to sell $270 per day. That’s almost 25 $11 drinks per table every day just to keep the lights on, rent paid, and employees working. Currently, we hover on that line, sales-wise, leaving no room for a bad day or, say, a natural disaster like a wildfire.
At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the state changed laws governing distilleries, allowing them to be able to sell cocktail kits along with bottles of their product. I saw this as positive forward movement — it helped our small distilleries here in Oregon. But because of the way our laws are written, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission can’t just legalize to-go cocktails sold at restaurants and bars; it needs to happen on the legislative level. Legislators like Southeast Portland Rep. Rob Nosse have written bills to help legalize to-go cocktail sales at bars and restaurants, but every time the state legislature has met for a special session, to-go cocktails have not made the agenda.
In the 33 other states that have legalized takeout drinks, the additional boost of to-go cocktail sales has kept many restaurants and bars afloat. In May, Washington legalized the sale of cocktails and spirits from its bars and restaurants. Soon afterward, the owners of No Anchor and Navy Strength in Seattle told me they were able to bring back three full-time employees and one part-time employee and recoup about 30 percent in sales — around $80,000.
But beyond the financial benefit, to-go cocktails could protect bar and restaurant workers as we head into another perilous period of the pandemic. We’re now in the midst of fall, and patio season is starting to die down. Beyond the financial strain of cold weather, the health concerns of the upcoming season have made working as a bartender more risky than it was just a few months ago. The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, has expressed concerns about dealing with COVID-19 and the flu at the same time once flu season begins. Factoring in the heightened risks of spread related to indoor ventilation systems and aerosolized droplets, we should be taking all of the precautions that we can.
Personally, as someone who works in a bar, I feel reasonably comfortable working under the state’s restrictions. But having an option that limits contact even more would make me feel more protected. As the state-mandated restrictions on bars and restaurants continue, I have no choice but to try and go back to work; my bills, just like my employer’s, are not going anywhere. But that means every day I work, I come into close proximity to new people. I have already seen at least two restaurants shut down and stop service because of a guest or employee testing positive for COVID-19. Adding a to-go cocktail program allows us to operate in a way that would greatly limit contact with patrons.
In September, I worked my first shift after six months outside of a bar, coming into contact with more people on my first day back than I have in the last six months. Choosing to reopen was a nerve-wracking but necessary decision for both myself and the place I’ve called my home-away-from-home. I came back for a reason: In the face of so many crises and so little support, showing up is the best gamble to stay open we’ve got.
Bars are gathering spaces fundamental to both our economy and our communities. They’re where people go to wind down, and in a period when life has felt so consistently stressful, the bar industry’s vitality is more important than ever. Without help, Portland will lose not only its bars, but its sense of community. For our bar family, that’s everything.
Micah Anderson is a bartender at Rum Club in Portland, Oregon.