Places

Dispatches From Los Angeles

March 25, 2020

Story: Jamie Feldmar

Art: Nick Hensley

Places

Dispatches From Los Angeles

March 25, 2020

Story: Jamie Feldmar

Art: Nick Hensley

Testimonials from bartenders, owners and community organizers in the wake of COVID-19.

On the evening of Sunday, March 15, things in Los Angeles had begun to shutter in earnest when Mayor Eric Garcetti called for all bars to close and restaurants to pare back to takeout only. People rallied—bar owners pivoted to new models as quickly as possible, and many set up fundraisers for their staff, while regulars tried to show support—but the overall mood was (and remains) one of confusion. Selling booze to-go in California is a gray area, but things are changing quickly; even as I was editing these responses, the governor announced more restrictive “shelter at home” measures. Technically, carry-out from restaurants is still allowed (for now), and the state’s ABC is reportedly loosening measures on to-go alcohol sales.

Some bar owners, like Mike Capoferri of the nascent Thunderbolt, began to offer additional food options to out-of-work hospitality workers; while others, like Katie Kildow, were forced to lay off their staff and shutter immediately. Some, like Courtney Kaplan, who owns both a bar and restaurant, consolidated operations and are trying to offload as much inventory as possible, while staying on the right side of the law (though she questions who’s even paying attention to details like liquor licenses right now).

A sense of frustration is palpable, augmented by how few guidelines are in place. All the owners I spoke to expressed a desire for the hospitality industry to be considered eligible for government relief as soon as possible. Some local advocacy organizations are forming to this end, but in this particular moment, most owners are simply trying to stanch the bleeding. That said, there are some glimmers of optimism, as the bar community joins together and shares the burden. These are their stories, in their own words.

Courtney Kaplan | Co-owner, Ototo and Tsubaki

Sake whiz and sommelier Courtney Kaplan, along with her chef husband Charles Namba, own two side-by-side businesses in LAs Echo Park neighborhood: Tsubaki, a modern Japanese izakaya, and the newly opened Ototo, a sake bar with Japanese drinking snacks. They quickly consolidated operations and are trying to keep their doors open, for now.

We’ve been busy for takeout these last few nights, and everyone seems motivated to try to make the delivery thing work. We’re getting a lot of support from our regulars, who are ordering from us as a nice gesture, but we can only count on that for so long.

Selling booze is a gray area legally. In California, people can technically take home unfinished bottles. So according to the letter of the law, technically, if we open a bottle and reseal it, that’s okay. I have some friends who are just selling unopened bottles because they need the cash right now, and the assumption is that no one is really paying attention to liquor licenses right now. We’ve been sort of selling sake, at 40 percent off list price—it’s nowhere near our usual profit, but right now it’s about getting cash in hand. We have payroll coming up, and a lot of expenses—rent, and bills are coming from vendors soon.

I feel the worst for our staff; we want to employ as many people as we can. We furloughed all of our hourly workers last week, although we’re still paying their benefits, and we kept our managers on salary for now. Charles (my husband and business partner) and I are going to stop paying ourselves next week and go on unemployment, which frees up more cash to bring some of the hourly people back. This is one of the only times in our history that the fact that we’re so small has worked to our advantage—we don’t have a ton of overhead.

We ran some models and if sales stay where they are we can hopefully survive through the end of May. But I don’t know where we’ll be if this stretches on. It’s so hard to predict—we’re trying to control what we can, but in a week, we might not even be able to operate in this capacity. My biggest goal is to be as transparent as possible with our staff and let them know what’s going on with the numbers. We’re going to take it day by day, because that’s all we can do.

We’re just trying to stop the bleeding, but the honest truth is that we need a government bailout. We need relief. Otherwise, when the public health crisis ends, the bar and restaurant landscape will look very, very different in this country. There is no safety net here—a lot of people will close and not reopen. Everyone is paralyzed and terrified and so sad. There hasn’t been much guidance or leadership—we’re just hearing nothing; it’s very frustrating. There are some people here mobilizing, trying to push through relief packages, and it’s nice to see people advocating for their staff—the only silver lining right now is that I really feel the sense of community. We’re all looking out for each other, even though there’s not much anyone can do.

Mike Capoferri | Co-owner, Thunderbolt

Thunderbolt, a casual cocktail bar from industry vet Mike Capoferri, opened in Historic Filipinotown about six months ago, adjacent to longstanding Southern-Filipino BBQ favorite The Parks Finest. The bar has a small kitchen and a limited menu, but after the restrictions seriously hamstrung the bar business, Capoferri pivoted, turning Thunderbolt into a mini relief center, providing free meals to out-of-work restaurant workers.

We were doing normal business up until Sunday, when the moratorium came down from the mayor for to-go only. We have a big kitchen, but food was only making up maybe 20 percent of our business. We tried to shift things ASAP, but everyone is fighting for a piece of that delivery pie right now.

Beer and wine can be sold to-go, so that helped a little. But people just went out and spent $500 on groceries, so they’re not ordering takeout. Maybe once people settle into the shelter-at-home thing they will, but we’ve barely been getting any business.

The local brand ambassador for Rémy Cointreau reached out and offered to give us some funding to make affordable meals for hospitality workers. They were able to sponsor about 20 meals at first. We put it on social, for anyone in hospitality to come pick up a hot meal. Then an anonymous donor reached out to donate 10 more meals; pretty soon money started showing up in my Venmo, unprompted, from people wanting to sponsor meals. In the past 24 hours, five more brands have reached out, and that should get us through the next few days at least.

We’ve gone so lean—it’s basically me and one guy in the back. We’re obviously not making money, but it’s too early to tell how much we’re losing. It’s keeping our doors open, and keeping people fed. We just opened six months ago, and I’m not willing to walk away yet. We’re going to ride this wave of trying to feed the industry for as long as we can, even if it’s only for another few days.

Katie Kildow | Co-owner, The Mermaid

In 2018, Katie Kildow, along with Arelene Roldan, opened The Mermaid, a tropical-themed neighborhood bar in a strip mall in Little Tokyo. It has since developed a strong local following for its regular theme nights, including karaoke, trivia and Metal Mondays. As of publication, Kildow had been forced to shutter entirely, though the loosening of California state liquor-to-go regulations may allow the bar to re-open in a limited capacity later this week.

We had to lay off our entire staff, and since we didn’t really think it made sense to offer our limited food menu to go, we are currently entirely closed. Like many bars, we set up a GoFundMe page for our staff, and we’re trying to offer some lovely thank-you gifts in merch form for the people who donate.

I think our business will be OK, but since this will probably last for a long time, we have to get creative. A local brand rep started a virtual bar crawl on St. Paddy’s Day that we partook in, and that inspired us to set up a little virtual bar every night from 6 to 6:15 p.m. We’re trying to keep the content interesting—one night it was me making cocktails at home, another night it was one of our bartenders, who’s an MMA fighter, leading a mini workout. And we’re figuring out how to keep some of our regular programming, like Boozy Bingo, Metal Mondays and trivia night going from afar. Our team is really motivated to come up with great content so that our regulars, our family, can stay connected while we figure this out. The idea is to throw a virtual “tip” our way, to the GoFundMe page—even if it’s just a few bucks, nothing is too small.

What can we do? It was really a bummer laying everyone off, obviously, but we did it so they could collect unemployment quickly. We’ve reached out to our landlord but it’s unclear what steps they’ll take. It’s very day by day—as things change, I’m hoping some stimulus package will come through. It’s wild times.