New York is known as the city that never sleeps, meaning its residents are always out.
"Especially when people move to New York, they have one idea of what the lifestyle is going to be like," said Finnerty's bar owner Dieter Seelig. "Then, they're confronted with a 250-square foot apartment. Even if they have some disposable income, they're probably more apt to spend it with other people in a bar, in a restaurant, or at a show."
However, the coronavirus has threatened the hospitality industry across the country, especially with rules against large gatherings, earlier curfews, and other restrictions. More than 110,000 establishments closed across the U.S. last year, according to the National Restaurant
Association. Seelig's establishment in Manhattan's East Village, which drew fans of Northern California sports, was a casualty of the pandemic. High rents and a lack of business forced it to close its doors permanently in December after being in operation for over a decade.
"It's hard to see people that you were sort of in the battle with every weekend and the past year. Not being able to do that with them has been awful," Seelig said. "And I think they know that they were part of something special, and it was really hard to have to let them know that we weren't coming back."
On top of financial worries, restaurant and bar workers worry about contracting the coronavirus. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo expanded eligibility for COVID-19 vaccines on Tuesday to allow localities to include restaurant workers, but though the allotment has increased, appointments remain scarce.
New York's bars, which rely on late-night crowds looking for a drink after dinner or to catch up with friends after work, are especially struggling. Though indoor dining is expected to return to New York on February 14, many establishments feel the 25 percent capacity may not be enough for their businesses to survive, especially with the 10 p.m. curfew and people's wariness about the coronavirus. Add to that the increased cost of updated filtration systems, PPE, and other protective measures, and the costs are often insurmountable.
"It's the death rattle of this industry in New York City, which is so tragic," said Shannon Tebay, head bartender at cocktail bar Death & Co.
Weathering the Pandemic
While relaxed rules in New York allowed bars to deliver alcohol, as long as they can provide a meal with the order, and create outdoor spaces on public streets, the constantly changing rules have proven difficult to keep up with.
"Since the onset of COVID, we've had to continue to pivot at every juncture, just like every other hospitality business in New York and the country," Tebay said.
For 14 years, the world-renowned Death & Co has been a neighborhood and tourist mainstay in the East Village. The bar has been credited as part of the craft cocktail resurgence in America, eventually expanding to two other locations in Denver and Los Angeles and producing two best-selling books.
"Especially on a weekend we would most often have a line already queued up out the door, ready to come in upon opening," Tebay recalled.
Since the pandemic began, the original New York establishment hasn't served anyone directly at its bar counter, only opting for outdoor seating and socially-distanced tables when indoor dining returned for a brief period last fall. Since the second shutdown of indoor dining, which came in the middle of the holiday season, Death and Co employees voted to not allow in-person service. Currently, it is only open for delivery and to-go orders, cutting its staff from up to 25 people to just three. It doesn't have street-facing windows, which makes it hard to serve one-off drinks, so most of its orders are larger format.
"Any amount of revenue coming in if businesses are electing to stay open is essentially going back into the operational costs of being open in the first place," Tebay said.
Wine bar Niche Niche, which is part of the You Can Do It Restaurant Group, is attempting outdoor dining. Accepting that New York's temperatures drop below freezing during the winter months, it built an après ski-themed, three-sided structure. Guests are treated to set menus created by chefs from local high-end establishments like Eleven Madison Park and The Modern, themed to different mountain ranges around the world. First up was the Alps.
"How do we make guests forget that they are outside in the cold, dining and drinking wine with, like, puffer jackets on?" asked You Can Do It beverage director Kenneth Crum. "And our solution to that was, embrace it. Embrace the cold."
It has come with its set of challenges. In the beginning, there were no rules, so many bars built whatever they could come up with. Then regulations came down. There isn't a lot of outdoor space in Manhattan, so everything is very custom and expensive, Crum explained. The city repeatedly changed its mind about tables and propane tanks. Different regulatory bodies, like the transportation department and the fire department, don't always line up on rules. But it's something establishments have to deal with if they want to make it through the pandemic, he added.
"We can't spend an entire year closed and expect to have a viable business when we come out of it," Crum said.
Though seats are usually full at Niche Niche, and its sister restaurant Tokyo Record Bar was able to also build an outdoor setup thanks to a sponsorship with Perrier, two of the other restaurants in its group were unable to open. The company is trying other ventures, like to-go wines and caviar to keep everyone afloat.
"Obviously we've reduced staff, we've reduced the amount of wine we're buying," Crum said. "But there are other things that we're doing to try and make up for that other 50 percent."
There are aid packages available, but many like the PPP are payroll-based and require 60 percent of the forgivable loan to be paid out to staff. It doesn't work out for bars in cities with high rents, where 40 to 50 percent of revenue can go, Finnerty's Seelig pointed out.
"When you have stimulus packages like PPP that are payroll-based they really don't match the reality," he said.
For now, bars are trying to help each other when they can. GoFundMe pages are common, and takeout and tipping is encouraged. Like many restaurants, Death & Co has created a playbook with best practices and shares its knowledge with others in the industry for free.
"It's essentially an A to Z on our methodology on reopening and trying to operate during this phase that we're all in right now and our general best practices in order to keep our staff safe, our guests safe, and how to more or less do our best to keep the business afloat," Tebay explained.
As the pandemic subsides and New York returns to its glory, Seelig hopes that people remember the importance of the bar scene that also influences the city's culture.
"I met my fiancé in a bar," he said. "We met countless couples that just meet at a random night at one of our bars. They come and have celebrations back for an anniversary. It's a little refuge from New York City and how fast-paced things can be."