Who doesn’t need a drink right now? Times are scary, we’re aching to see our friends and loved ones. Everyone wants to blow off a little steam. Sure, we are hosting virtual happy hours on overrun internet connections and trying to put on a happy face, but who out there thinks it’s any substitute for the real thing?
Depending on where you are in the country, bars are either completely closed or perhaps offering some sort of “To Go” option if local laws allow. At my bar Leyenda in Brooklyn, thanks to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, we are able to serve pre-ordered drinks for our loyal local customers to pick up, contact free. It’s comforting to make drinks again, but it completely takes away what I love so much about bartending: the human connection. And, the reality is this is only a bandaid, a trickle coming in while the bills and the rent and yes, some payroll, keep depleting it.
The fact is, America’s bars are being cut off before we’ve ever even been given anything to drink. We, once the servers serving the served, are begging Congress to serve us, just this once, just a little. We are begging to be kept alive because right now, at this point, it is not looking good for any of us.
That the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) has failed so many in this country is no secret, but perhaps none are as completely left out to dry like our nation’s great watering holes. With the current structure our government laid out, it’s not a matter of “if” independent bars and restaurants will close, it is a matter of “when.”
Every day all of us who own and operate our establishments are deathly worried, not simply about our own livelihoods and those of our families, but of everyone who works for us. And, we’re concerned about our communities. There is nothing hard about making a drink—anyone can pick up a book and make a cocktail if you have the ingredients. But we go to bars to see our favorite bartender or server, see friends or simply be alone in the company of others. We are our neighborhoods. We are places where people come to celebrate, where first dates are held and weddings take place. We are also where our communities come to mourn: the death of a loved one, a job you didn’t get or a crush who didn’t crush you back. We are ears to listen and your shoulders to cry on, all while having the comfort of something cool to sip and warm to eat.
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The PPP was theoretically created to get the millions of Americans off unemployment who work at businesses with fewer than 500 employees; read that as just about any small and independent, mom and pop bar or restaurant out there. But instead what happened was more than 25 percent of the $349 billion went to fewer than 2 percent of the folks that applied and only 8.9 percent has gone to food services of which no one seems to know how many are bars. These 2 percent-ers include the likes of Marriott (the massive hotel conglomerate got $20 million) and other publicly traded companies with many hundreds of millions of dollars in sales each year.
To put it in perspective, at Leyenda for example, I have about 24 employees and I can assure you that my annual sales are well, well below that—like less than .001 percent of Marriott’s—and I am certainly not the only one: Leyenda is the majority and the PPP doesn’t work for us. That Danny Meyer gave back Shake Shack’s $10 million is admirable, but also, hey, they do more in a day than I do in a month. They have money to ride out the storm.
Luckily, there have been numerous articles about restaurants, thanks in part to the returned $10 million but also in no small part to the work of the Independent Restaurant Coalition of which I am a member. However I feel my responsibility as a bar owner is to speak about the unique plight of bars themselves, so I will lay out some facts for you.
In the United States, nearly 590,000 people work as bartenders and we are expected to reach 696,000 strong by 2026. This number of course is just bartenders; include barbacks, cocktail servers or kitchen staff and the total number is much higher.
Confusingly though, most bartenders (57.6 percent) are employed and seen by our government as working in Restaurants & Food Services, whereas less than half of that (23.2 percent) are labeled as working in Drinking Places or what you would probably consider to be a “Bar.”
According to the National Restaurant Association, in 2017 (the last available year of statistics, also an indicator of the problem, don’t you think?) sales from bars in the US were $24.1 billion and employed 345 thousand people in 2017. Of course, this can seem like small potatoes in comparison to the restaurant industry, for which sales were $783 billion and employed 10 million.
The important thing is that Congress recognizes us little guys slinging drinks as just as important to the cultural mesh of our society as restaurants; we’re thirsty for funds and need them fast. And honestly, where does one draw the line between what is a bar and what is a restaurant? I always joke that when I opened Leyenda I accidentally opened a restaurant: we serve food, we have a dinner rush. The lines are becoming more and more blurred of what establishments are. If you serve good food, you’d better have good drinks and vice versa. So, I believe, bars and restaurants are one and the same and should be lumped together legally as we are conceptually.
As an example, just nine days before her father won the election, Ivanka Trump came with Jared and a pile of secret service to eat—yes EAT—at Leyenda. I remember the day vividly not only because I own a Latin bar and her father isn’t exactly a fan of the cultures we celebrate, but also because it was Ivanka’s birthday, which happens to be mine as well. They drank expensive margaritas but mostly ate our entire menu. Now we at the IRC are trying our damndest to get Ivanka to help us get a bail out, because we are currently staring down the barrel of a gun of becoming an endangered species.
I personally never thought the PPP would help save restaurants let alone bars and at Leyenda we didn’t even apply for fear of the debt we could endure. The idea that any bar will be able to be even 30 percent operational by mid-May seems like a long shot. Perhaps I am a pessimist, but I don’t believe we will be fully operational until there is a vaccine, whenever that will be. No, we cannot hire back 100 percent of our employees because no, we won’t have the people for them to serve. We would be hemorrhaging money in an industry that already has razor thin margins. Thus, PPP is a no go. What we need is a Restaurant Stabilization Fund that includes bars. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get that word to the higher up as there is not a single bar owner (let alone small independent restaurant owner) on Trump’s (no shock here) old, white and exclusively male dominated Food and Beverage Economic Revival Industry Group.
Bars and restaurants need our patrons to call Congress and demand to know why special grant programs have been made to help the airline industry keep their 750,000 employees working while restaurants, who employ 15 times that remain closed and have laid off nearly all of our workers. We need you to call Congress and ask for a Restaurant Stabilization Fund. We need you to go to saverestaurants.com and join our fight. Because we may never see (nor serve) you again if we don’t have your help.
Since this has all started my whole life has gone upside down. My bar is closed and I don’t get to see my regulars on a daily basis, or make new ones for that matter; my other business, global non-profit Speed Rack, that takes me across the country doing all female bartending competitions for crowds upwards of 500 people has stopped; and in May the book I wrote (Spirits of Latin America) that speaks about the glories of Latin American cocktails, culture and travel will have limited online presence with independent retailers. And I am one of the lucky ones to even have these opportunities. Think of your local dive bar . Not many of those folks have these opportunities but we’re all in the same spot. We’re all wondering: when will this slow death come to an actual end?
I will never forget what Leyenda became for our neighborhood on the day after the 2016 election; it was solemn, but there was an energy and thankfulness to just be with others. We were there, stronger as a group. But now we cannot be together to lift one another up and cheers to brighter days ahead. We must be closed… for now. But I can tell you this with absolute certainty: without money from the government the barstools across the country will be forever empty and that, friends, is so sad that I think I’m going to have to go have a drink.
Ivy Mix is the owner of Leyenda and author of Spirits of Latin America.
Source : Esquire