With a possible June 1 reopening around the corner, Atlanta’s bar owners are reexamining their businesses, and an entire industry predicated on intimacy. How does hospitality work in a contact-free world where people have to social distance? Most bars across the city are just trying to make it to reopening day — whenever that is — while struggling under the financial strain caused by the two-month shutdown.
Just as the fate of Atlanta’s restaurants remains unknown, bars are also suffering in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The city’s vibrant and diverse drinks scene suddenly went dark in March as bars and nightclubs were forced to shutter — first by the city, then by state mandate. Bars must remain closed through May 31.
“It’s a super absurd situation to be in, which is why many folks have already gone out of business,” says Alphonzo Cross, owner of Castleberry Hill cocktail den Parlor. “Restaurants can do takeout, but people don’t exactly drink by way of takeout. They don’t experience a cocktail by takeout.”
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms just extended a temporary order allowing restaurants to offer beer and wine to-go for off-premises consumption through June 30. The order does not include liquor, putting bars — even those that serve food — at a huge disadvantage in terms of takeout.
Cross built Parlor around the experience of people gathering for drinks and intimate conversation — something difficult to replicate at a distance.
Grant Henry says his Edgewood Avenue bar, Sister Louisa’s Church of the Living Room & Ping Pong Emporium (known as “Church”,) went from having sufficient revenue before the pandemic to zero income overnight two months ago. Now Henry says the bar runs on “pure faith” that it will reopen again in the Old Fourth Ward.
Some Atlanta bars are relying on their loyal customer base for survival, built and nurtured over the years by that aforementioned hospitality.
“We’ve sold some gift certificates since we closed March 14, but it’s about 1/30th of what we would have sold in that time,” says Bill Overall, co-owner of East Atlanta Village nightlife institution Mary’s.
Adorned with posters advertising past and future events, like Queer Bait, Heat Stroke, Halloweenie, and its glittery bar, Mary’s serves as an inclusive gathering spot for dancing, drag and cabaret performances, and karaoke. Since the shutdown, the bar has taken to hosting DJ nights on video live streaming service Twitch to engage its regulars, and continues to sell gift cards and Mary’s merchandise online.
“We’ve been blown away by the support and generosity our community has demonstrated through various fundraising initiatives,” Ticonderoga Club partner Bart Sasso says of the Krog Street Market tavern. “From donations spurred by the reward of an exclusive pen, to incredible amounts of online merchandise orders, we’ve been able to keep our staff and the Club afloat while we figure out the next steps.”
Sasso, Henry, Overall, and Cross all agree that reopening will need to look very different than in the past, but none seem to have a clear picture of how that should look once bars are allowed reopen in Atlanta.
Ticonderoga Club serves food, in addition to its critically acclaimed cocktails, and is playing with the idea of offering takeout starting in June. But Sasso says it’s not as easy as simply packaging up the bar’s menu in to-go containers. “We have to rethink the entire experience to ensure it’s something that delivers what people love so much about Ticonderoga Club,” says Sasso. “We might even explore bringing back a long lost sandwich.”
Sasso could be referring to the bar’s line-inducing spiedie sandwich, which became an instant lunchtime hit at the bar when it opened five years ago inside the Inman Park food hall.
Cross says he plans to open Parlor on June 11 with a limited number of guests, but acknowledges the reopening situation is ever-changing. “We have to serve cocktails and almost be health professionals,” says Cross. “I’ve got to act like I know what I’m talking about with regards to medical conversations. It is challenging, to say the least.”
He admits the bar industry has been forced by the pandemic to reevaluate how it engages with people, both at the bar and beyond the onsite experience.
“I think it’s an illusion that there is one bar in the Atlanta area that will be able to make ends meet on the limited, yet necessary, measures that need to be taken to keep everyone safe,” Henry says.
When Church finally reopens, Henry plans to provide his staff with masks, make hand sanitizer readily available, install social distancing signs throughout the bar, and double the patio space. He’s also considering upgrading the ventilation system. Henry purchased Edgewood Corner Tavern next door from owners Mike and Melanie Rabb last month. Once open, Church will feature a full-service restaurant, giving the decade-old bar an additional revenue stream.
However, some Atlanta bars like longtime Blues dive Northside Tavern on Howell Mill Road and Mary’s aren’t planning to open anytime soon. “Neither our customers or our staff will be ready to go back by June 1,” says Overall.
A future night at Mary’s could include making a reservation beforehand and allowing no more than 25 people inside the bar at a time. Overall is currently working out how to keep people safe, including his bartenders, to make Mary’s as touchless as possible.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the game for the bar industry, and Overall says owners need to find some mechanism of reopening under this new normal. Overall has one word of warning for his regulars when Mary’s does reopen. “I’m kind of renowned for hating people touching me, but when we can, I’m hugging and kissing every person that walks through that door.”
Stay home if sick. Check the Georgia Department of Public Health website for guidance and updates on the latest number of reported COVID-19 cases. Numbers are now updated three times a day.