The last four months of lockdown, phasing and unphasing have pressed bars to take on many different identities—takeout joints, RTD manufacturers, low-density al fresco oases and bottle shops, among other things. And the reasons we drinkers seek out bars today have shifted, pivoting 180 degrees from gathering together or passing by for a chance encounter with literally anyone but ourselves. Now, we briskly hit our locals for their nascent slushy programs, flights of rare spirits, at-home cocktail kits and to-go Negronis, often purveyed from a makeshift window along thresholds now closed to the public.
In three very different cities with very different sets of state mandates, bar owners Eric Alperin (The Varnish, The Slipper Clutch, Bar Clacson, The Streamliner and Penny Pound Ice in Los Angeles), Anu Apte-Elford (Rob Roy, Navy Strength, No Anchor and Vinnie's Wine Spot in Seattle) and Toby Cecchini (The Long Island Bar and Rockwell Place in Brooklyn) are attempting to navigate the constantly shifting goal posts of owning and operating their establishments.
In a new series of conversations that we’re publishing on PUNCH, we’re asking leading voices in drinks to have a discussion about the topics that are most important to them. Here, Alperin, Apte-Elford and Cecchini talk about the ways that bars continue to physically shape-shift alongside their meanings as gathering spaces, purveyors of drink, employers and sanctuaries from reality.
Toby Cecchini: I am at my bar at a rather strange and momentous moment. I just took possession of a 500-pound, $9,000 slushy machine, which you can actually see my staff trying to wrestle down into the basement. Anu, how many bars do you have at this point?
Anu Apte-Elford: We have four. The one that’s going through the biggest transition is a wine bar attached to Navy Strength. We’re transitioning into more of a bottle and vinyl and book shop, with some food to-go. I had a little bar tool shop in the Pike Place Market that I closed in September, and was about to sign a new lease for a retail shop right before all this happened. And I’m really glad I didn’t.
TC: I’d like to unsign some leases right now, myself. We all know we can make a general assessment of what bars historically have been to our customers. But what are bars going to be as of now and in the foreseeable future?
Eric Alperin: We’ve been talking about it here in L.A. and you go, “Well, what are bars? What are they going to become?” People are going to need community. They’re gonna need their locals. But I don’t know exactly what it looks like. It feels so doom and gloom, and I’m a pretty positive person. We reopened a couple of weeks ago and then we got smacked out and closed again. And to be perfectly honest, I’m fucking bombed and drained. It’s been really a difficult week. I don’t think we are going to reopen our bars until maybe later in the year, even maybe the new year. The bars that I own are part of a management company—we’re like a tanker. You can’t just start and stop a tanker like that. I really still hope we need community, and I hope it can happen in a public place with other people.
TC: So what are we actually open for? Like the thought of putting tables out in the street? The idea of having seats outdoors brings up a kind of an interesting question. What are our bars like now? When you talk about Rob Roy or The Varnish—does that extend to some rickety tables thrown into a parking lot or some tables put down in your sidewalk?
EA: I’m in Downtown L.A. where we have a small, teeny little patio area where people usually go and have a quick cigarette before they get harassed by some of the homeless. It’s not the most attractive option. Why are we doing that? Are we doing that because we need to stay afloat? This is not about profit. This is just about being able to keep our heads above water. We just decided to close because the start and the stop, and the way that our brands are not really being represented the way we want them to, it’s tough to continue to pivot. My partner has a brewery and they have a large outside area, so that makes a lot of sense because they can still do so much patio business.
TC: If you consider bars primordially as sanctuaries for people—a sanctuary where you’re getting away from the people on the street who are going to hassle you, the people at home who are driving you crazy, it’s a sanctuary from everything that is put upon you in modern society. So now [that] you’ve taken away the sanctuary, what do you have left? It could be that the thing that we purvey doesn’t have a future for a while.
AAE: Maybe. But at the same time, I feel like bars are being used as this meter for public health. People are like, “Bars are open now. Everything’s OK, let’s go back!”
EA: Great point, Anu. The first thing politicians will say is, “We closed down the nightclubs and concert venues and the bars where all the bad shit happens.” Nobody goes, “Hey, sanctuary, Hey, community, Hey, this is where locals, regulars, people that visit town go to get a feeling of what a city or neighborhood is like.” They just think we’re drinking, doing drugs and having sex.
TC: America was founded on very puritanical principles, and there is still a super strong kind of temperance movement that runs through the mentality of Americans. Alcohol is a drug and you’re effectively purveying drugs. People don’t think of it as a sanctuary. They don’t think of it as a place where people meet and talk and let down their load. They think of it as a place where people go to get loaded and pick up people to sleep with. But the sanctuary part is what I think the three of us have been into it for.
AAE: Maybe I’m being optimistic, but I think that people look to bars as their great, good third place; I don’t think that’ll ever go away. I’m a complete introvert, but I am really craving that third space right now, more so than ever. I think it’s just part of that little spark in everyone, that little piece of human nature that wants a place that is a good, safe place for people to go and gather in groups and talk. I think it’s going to be a while until we can get back to that place. But I think we’ll get there.
EA: I’m optimistic too. These places are very important. We all want to be seen and recognized, and that’s part of stepping up to the bar. It’s like that sanctuary of leaning up to the bar, that action, even if you’re having a day where you just want more quiet time, the bartender notices. Even behind the mask, you can offer people some comfort.
“I think that people look to bars as their great, good third place; I don’t think that’ll ever go away.”
TC: When 9/11 happened, I had my bar Passerby. Everything was shut down. There was no traffic, you weren’t allowed to drive. I didn’t know what to do with myself, but I had a shift that night, and I was like, what do I do? A bunch of people have just died, nobody knows what’s going on. But I didn’t know what else to do, so I thought, I’ll open for an hour and see what happens. And people just filed in and filed in and filed in. I didn’t play any music. I just lit candles, and people came. Lots of people were crying, and people just kind of slowly drank and started talking and the bar was filled.
EA: I worked at the Screening Room at Varick and Canal. It was the same thing. We opened our doors and people came in and it was super weird, but actually beautiful that we could be that third place.
AAE: For every celebratory occasion that people have at bars, there are these moments of grief and gathering and being around other people that are necessary. Bars have always been that place. I can’t even think of another type of location where the whole gamut of emotions can be expressed and felt.
TC: However, now we have to take sanctuary from actual people. So how does that play out? Anu, you’re selling out of your door. How is that going for you?
AAE: It’s going good. At Navy Strength, our cocktail kits are selling like crazy. It’s all pre-order online, so we know exactly how much so there’s no waste or little waste. At No Anchor, our beer bar, we chose not to have our draft lines open for safety reasons. We’re doing bottles and cans to-go. Our food there was very much tasting menu–driven and fancy chef food, which doesn’t translate well to to-go. So we’ve had to shift our food model completely. The cocktails there [have] always been bottled, so that was the easiest thing. The space that’s struggling the most is Rob Roy because people go there for the ambiance and for the hospitality and to have a cocktail made in front of them. Our kits there are doing OK, but it’s not sustainable if we have to pay rent.
TC: That brings up a pretty interesting point. Are different kinds of bars going to do better or worse? Like, will the Grill Room crumble, while dive bars are gonna do gangbusters or, as Eric says, beer gardens?
EA: I definitely don’t think that people want pretentious and fussy right now. I think space is going to be an important factor in the future. We went to QR codes. I never thought that I would put a fucking QR code on a menu. Then people go, “Oh, you’re being conscientious. I don’t have to touch the menu.” And I think that has a ripple effect in terms of how people perceive how we’re running the rest of the operation.
TC: I think so much of what we’re dealing with is actually perception rather than reality. You can take every step indoors, you can cross all the T’s and dot all the I’s. And yet someone who’s taking not even half the precaution that you are, has an outdoor backyard, and people just think, “Oh, it’s outdoors. It’s fine.” It’s perception that’s going to be so much more important in terms of success in running a bar in the future.
AAE: This morning I saw a photo of the interior of a bar that was opening up. It looks great. It looks sterile. They had plexiglass up. But then the line to get in was just a mob of people crushed against each other, down the block. So what is that doing? And that makes me think, what will bars be in the future for places that aren’t L.A. or New York? Are they only open in the summer? In Seattle, are we only open for the one month out of the year when it’s not raining?
TC: It’s fairly temperate in Seattle, right? They have outdoor cafés in Norway year-round. They have braziers and wool blankets. If you have some big awnings, say, you could maybe do it. Hygge, you know? Listen, I’m from Wisconsin. We will drink outside all year-round. But you’re right. Come November, we’re done here. And what happens then if there’s another shutdown?
EA: Let’s go back to the slushy machine. For me, I’m opening a bar in the desert [in Pioneertown]. We happened to put in two to-go windows, because we thought locals are going to come here and take something to-go. And now, because we’re not open yet, our entire service model is based on those two fucking windows, which is a blessing in disguise. My point is that, I think a lot of older models are going to suffer in terms of how they think about pivoting, and then newer models, places that aren’t open yet or with leases that are going to be signed, are going to consider that there’s always going to be the possibility of coronavirus. So my question is, why did you get a $9,000 slushy machine?
TC: I’ve actually wanted a slushy machine for a few years, but we didn’t have the proper place to put it. We can’t put it on the wait station because [Department of Health] won’t allow it. And finally, I’m just like, look, this is the time people want this. I have friends who have bespoke, beautiful restaurants and they have dumbed their menus down incredibly. They’re doing fish tacos and wings. Cause that’s what people want because it’s comfort food time. I thought it’d be cheeky for me to do a frozen Cosmopolitan and it would be easy. So yeah, it’s a pivot, but it’s also just acknowledging that people want things simpler now and possibly for the next year going forward.
AAE: When we started doing kits, we were doing little videos or instructions, so people could take it home, make it just like us. And then we shifted to just pre-batching, adding the dilution, all you have to do is pour it into a glass, make it super easy. Then I realized people still wanted the mixology. They still want every attention to detail. And a lot of people believe they can do it at home. Then they take it home, and they try it and they’re like, “What? This isn’t how it’s supposed to taste.” I think a lot of people realize there’s a reason why there are bartenders. And there’s a reason why they’re good at what they do. This is their craft.
EA: We didn’t do cocktails to-go out of the bars or kits, but I have [Penny Pound] that sells ice to the greater area. We started delivering ice to residential homes, and to some liquor stores, bottle shops. We created something called Penny Pouch. It’s all the dilution, the citrus, the modifier in a pouch and it’s frozen. All you have to do is add two ounces of your favorite booze. It was our thought about what people want. They still want the mixology. They still want that experience, but they don’t want to fuck it up.
AAE: And people still want what they can’t get at home. So the slushy machine, Toby, is genius because people can’t put a $9,000 slushy machine in their home. Well, some can, but most won’t. And so they’re going to come to you for a slushy Cosmo, which come on, I want one right now!
TC: They actually can put a slushy machine in their home; it’s called a blender. You simply put ice in it and turn it on. But people don’t come out to bars for just drinks. They come out to bars to be served and made to feel special. And that’s what bartenders do. Also, we’re up there on a kind of stage. We remember people’s names and people’s orders and we introduce people to other people. So how are people going to find that? You can, in fact, go online and figure out how to make a great Rob Roy at home, but is that the same as going someplace, getting a beautiful cocktail, striking up a conversation with somebody? What about the other side of what we do? What about all the theater? What about all the sort of caring for people?
“People don’t come out to bars for just drinks. They come out to bars to be served and made to feel special. And that’s what bartenders do. ”
EA: I’ve always said, cocktails are already good. It’s everything else that’s great. The theater, the conversation, the attention to details, the bartender knowing if you want to engage in conversation, if you want to meet the person next to you, or if you want to be left alone. You can’t get that at home.
TC: You go to a bar to soak in the theater of it. That’s gone for the foreseeable future. So people have started learning to actually cook at home. And in the same way, people realize that they have to learn to drink at home. I mean, here’s the open secret: We don’t want people to know how much cheaper it is to drink at home. We’re taking something and marking it up four times in order to pay our rent, to pay our staff, to pay our overhead. You can make it at home for a quarter of the cost, right? So what happens when people realize that it’s like, “I actually can make a pretty good cocktail?!”
EA: But I think people are missing that physical feedback loop with other people and their environments.
TC: So this brings us directly back around to what we can keep, and what we’re going to lose, and what we’re perhaps going to gain in the future in bars. People need that upfront interface with one another and that’s—it could be a long while before we have that.
EA: I was interviewed for LA Weekly about my book [Unvarnished: A Gimlet-Eyed Look at Life Behind the Bar, which came out recently]. And the first question was, “How do you feel about your book all of a sudden becoming about the golden age of bars?” I was like, “Wait, what?”
TC: So we’ve reversed things. The cocktail renaissance actually came before the Dark Ages, which are now starting. What is the actual timeline that you think you’re going to be making money, that people are going to be in bars?
AAE: Let’s end on a positive note. I’m going to say sometime late, next year, late. We’ll be in more normal of a space. What’s normal? That’s not the right word to use. We’ll be somewhere where people will feel a little more confident in going out and dining in bars and restaurants again. And maybe, sometime late next year, the majority of people will catch on to safe behavior.
TC: I think it’s going to be two years before things are normalized to some degree. And when I say normalized, I don’t think anything is going back to exactly the way it was—I think that the economic fallout could be a decade or more. Everything’s going to feel off-balance for a couple of years and you are not going to be looking for anything like profit. You might be looking, if you’re lucky, to break even. That’s my hope for two years: I’m just looking to pay the rent and pay my staff.
EA: I think it’s going be one of the hardest times in our industry. For those of us that stick with it, it’s going to separate the wheat from the chaff. You’re going to have people who are just starting up in this business, which—[it] actually has made me sad to see young people who were so gung ho and all of a sudden, like, “I got to find something else.” But I think those that stick with it, it has to be one of the more innovative times in terms of us trying things out and looking around and speaking to our peers. Hopefully, you can educate the herd. It’s not about if you’re sick or if you’re asymptomatic, it’s about other people. It’s about respecting your fellow person.
AAE: There are people turning 21 every day and they want to go to bars. So if the standard is set on how to act accordingly right now in bars, maybe those 21-year-olds are the ones that are going to pass the torch, because they want to go to bars. If they know you have to wear a mask, you have to do these things, stand six feet apart, maybe that’s one way to get to people. Let’s start talking to those 18-year-olds. Let’s start telling them how to behave in bars and what they’ll need to wear.
TC: There’s also an aspect of “too big to fail” in this industry. At this point, given that in the past 20, 30 years, America has lost basically all of its manufacturing capacity and the service sector has grown exponentially, to the point where it’s something like 30 million people. So something has to be done also on a national level and a political level to help those people. It’s going to be a harsh crawl for a bit. Is that positive? That’s not positive. We have to end on a positive note.
AAE: The positive thing is that there are enough bartenders and bar owners in our industry that won’t let us fail. We’re going to keep trying; we’re going to keep moving forward. We’re going to roll with the punches and there will be bars again. In what capacity? What do they look like? We don’t know. And that’s OK. That actually makes it more exciting, because we’ll find out when we get there.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.