By the time Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney ordered the closure of nonessential businesses on March 16, many offices, schools and public gathering places had already shut down. Some bars and restaurants quickly leaned into pickup and delivery orders, but a larger percentage of the industry packed up altogether, laying off thousands of workers indefinitely. In a cosmically cruel bit of timing, the following day—St. Patrick’s Day—Gov. Tom Wolf shut down all of Pennsylvania’s 598 government-run wine and spirits shops, with no return date set as of early April. It was as if, in an instant, the COVID-19 pandemic hit pause on Philadelphia’s drinking scene.
Online liquor sales are live, but servers are overwhelmed with demand. And although some grocery stores, restaurants, shops and distributors are licensed to retail beer and wine, independent distilleries are the most viable option for Pennsylvanians on the hunt for hard liquor, though many have shifted their focus to producing hand sanitizer. Strict alcohol laws, meanwhile, limit access on the wine-and-spirits side—no take-home cocktails here.
Inconvenience is one thing; uncertainty is another. But Pennsylvanians are people who can take a punch. On top of staff-organized fundraisers and statewide resources, initiatives like SavePhillyEats are raising real-time capital in exchange for future experiences, and chefs are giving away meals to folks in need. Social media is alight with efforts both creative and charitable, so while Philadelphia’s bars are darkened, the moxie and camaraderie that underpin this community are illuminating a way forward.
Shaka Moody | Bartender, American Sardine Bar and Franky Bradley's
Originally from Virginia, Moody has been serving drinks to Philadelphia since 2007. Pre-shutdown, he split his time between the craft beer–centric American Sardine Bar in Point Breeze and Franky Bradley’s, a storied restaurant and performance venue in Center City. While ASB has organized a few takeout-only pop-ups, Franky’s suspended operations outright on March 16. Both bars have launched fundraisers to benefit employees. [American Sardine Bar] [Franky Bradley’s]
On the Friday night a week before the decision to close up shop citywide, I had a feeling. It wasn’t a particularly bad feeling, but something was off. The usual crowd at Franky Bradley’s hadn’t really shown up, and when they did, they were few in number and they were cautious. Fear had set in.
That night, a friend from another bar, fresh off a hard shift, extended his hand across the bar. I replied with, “Are we even supposed to be doing that anymore?” as our hands met somewhere between the taps and the straw caddy. After a lengthy wash, rinse and moisturizing, I couldn’t help but smile at how insane this whole thing was making everyone—unaware of how serious it was going to become.
At some point during these last two weeks I catalogued every hand that I shook across that bar and American Sardine’s, and I regretted each one. Knowing at the time that even with safe practices in place and sanitizer at the ready, I shouldn’t have. Beyond that, my deepest regret came from knowing that as a barman, a hand extended to me can never go unshaken. It’s a connection I cannot disavow. It’s those connections, with guests and coworkers, that I miss the most.
Jennifer Sabatino | Philadelphia operations manager, Manatawny Still Works
A veteran beverage director, Sabatino oversees the Philadelphia holdings of the Pottstown-based Manatawny, which include three Center City bottle shops as well as a tasting room and cocktail bar on East Passyunk Avenue. Though Pennsylvania’s state-owned liquor stores remain closed, the 7-year-old distillery is permitted to sell to customers directly via e-commerce. Production in Pottstown, meanwhile, has shifted from spirits to sanitizer; the first batch will go to hospitals and first responders in-state.
I had the job of laying off my whole staff. One amazing thing about Manatawny was that instead of just saying “good luck,” everyone got paid for another two weeks. They had time to apply for unemployment, and once this is all over, everybody has a job again. It’s not the end for us.
When they called for the shutdown, I looked through everything and confirmed we could still distribute alcohol. We first started operating by letting people in one at a time. That only lasted a week before they stopped all walk-in orders and everything had to be pre-paid through e-commerce. We’ll continue to do that with three pickup days a week. No one’s actually coming into the space, we’re just passing orders through the front window wearing gloves, with plenty of sanitizing wipes. That window has been very key. I’m feeling very, very fortunate that we’re still able to sell bottles.
Anyone that works in restaurants [knows] we don’t have down time—we work and work and work and work, and if there are extra shifts, we work them, too. When it’s time to go back, it’s going to be nuts. For now, I’m doing tons of research, I’m cooking more, and I’m trying to walk my dogs as much as possible. I tried painting with my chameleon, David Bowie, and he wants nothing to do with it. I tried to put the paintbrush in his little feet and he hissed at me and ran away.
J.B. Bernstein | Beverage manager, Vernick Food & Drink
Bernstein has overseen the bar program at Greg and Julie Vernick’s Vernick Food & Drink since 2013, and also selects all the beer, sherry and vermouth stocked at Vernick Wine, the bottle shop and event space connected to the Rittenhouse restaurant. They also operate two other concepts, located inside the Four Seasons Philadelphia, which remain closed.
It’s definitely been a crazy couple of weeks. I’m writing this after working on a tree stump in my backyard for the last four hours. I finally was able to rip it out of the ground with my bare hands and count it as one of my top five accomplishments of the past 10 years.
We stopped all [bar] operations on Thursday, March 19. At that point, we were selling to-go items from our kitchen and bottled wine through our wine shop. Greg, Julie and [GM] Ryan [Mulholland] made the decision that night to shut down for the safety of our employees. I do feel like we’re one of the few lucky restaurants that will be able to get right back up and running when this thing is over. I also count myself as one of the lucky ones because my wife still has her teaching income. I’ve had to apply for unemployment for the first time in my life and it’s surreal. I’ve been spending most of my time keeping our 5-year-old entertained and engaged. That has been challenging to say the least, but I’ve loved it. I finally have an abundance of quality time with the fam, something you’re always struggling to get in this industry.
I’ve always taken pride in the fact that our industry has been recession-proof. I’ve worked through post-9/11 and the financial crash of 2008 behind the bar. Of course, we saw some dip in business back then, but whether times are good or bad, folks always need a drink and a sympathetic ear. This pandemic has proven that we’re not invincible after all. It’s a tough road ahead, but if anyone can handle it, it’s our industry. It’s been amazing seeing everyone come together in support of each other.
Fergus "Fergie" Carey | Owner, Fergie's Pub
Many see native Dubliner Fergus “Fergie” Carey as the patriarch of Philadelphia’s bar scene—if you’ve had a pint in this town, you likely know who he is. He’s owned Fergie’s Pub since 1994 and has had stakes in a number of influential places, including Monk’s Café, which he opened and formerly co-owned. Carey introduced two new establishments, The Goat and The Fairview, shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the States. Business at all his bars is currently on hold; a fundraiser is set up for Fergie’s employees.
I woke up on Thursday the 12th of March knowing that shit was changing. I started talking to partners and managers about tightening our belts, but that was basically too late. I went to a gig at Union Transfer that night to see The Districts and Sixteen Jackies and the place was sold out. But it was also scary. I kept doubting my decision to be there. We left early. The Districts announced that it was their last gig of the tour.
For many of us that was the last gig. The next night at Fergie’s Pub, the two bands cancelled and business plummeted. Saturday the 14th should have been the busiest day of the year, but it was only half a normal Saturday. I would be sad when it was slow, and then worried if we were doing the right thing if it was busy. On Sunday, we decided to close all our places. Then Monday the 16th, the City of Philadelphia mandated the closure of unnecessary businesses. I think it should have happened earlier.
I love this city and I take part in it all the time, every fucking day. I go to theater, rock shows, bars, restaurants … or, sad to say, I did. I hope that we come out of this and the economy is OK. My fear was that the economy would tank and most of us wouldn’t survive in business. But that was last week’s fear—or was that yesterday’s?
We all have a different job at this moment in time: survival. I am not a grant writer, form filler or government website navigator by trade. I would much rather pour you a great beer in a cozy, inviting environment. Let’s get the help from our professionals—lawyers, accountants, savvy staff—and let’s all have a pint on the other side. Sláinte!