In the current COVID-19 reality, everyone is feeling the strain. For owners of dive bars, the problem might be even more acute than those faced by other industries: Though bars and restaurants that allow sit-down dining are slowly re-opening to customers across California, spots that don’t serve meals must remain shuttered.
That means that many locally beloved watering holes will remain dark, as other than a dusty pack of chips, there’s little solid food for sale. Besides, without the ability to congregate — for many, a local dive bar is a second living room, where strangers gather like family to enjoy cheap drinks, dim lighting, and good conversation — reopening makes little sense.
It’s been over two months since the Bay Area’s bars have been open for normal operation, so we checked in with the region’s best known dives to see how they’re weathering the economic rollercoaster of the pandemic. Many failed to respond at all, which is perhaps grounds for concern. Those that did expressed mingled resignation, hope, and anxiety about an uncertain future: Dive bar owners, they’re just like us.
Thee Parkside (Potrero Hill)
Malia Spanyol is feeling hit doubly hard by pandemic-induced shutdown — not only does she own Potrero Hill live music venue Thee Parkside, she owns Woodenman Muay Thai in SoMa. “It’s rough,” Spanyol said. “I have no income coming in. My landlord at the bar has been incredibly generous, and she’s gone above and beyond to give us a good deal, but I still have to pay a lot of rent.”
Like thousands of other businesses across the country, Spanyol has applied for numerous loans and grants (in her case, about 10) but has yet to receive a viable lifeline. The local grants she applied for, she says, simply ran out of money. “I haven’t seen anything from the government at all,” she said. “It’s a bit frustrating.”
Thee Parkside has managed to raise nearly $5,600 on Fundly, while Spanyol received a $2,500 gift from another local business and “a large donation” from one of the bar’s regulars. That’s helped out her 20 or so employees, all of whom applied for unemployment and are doing “alright,” she said.
Thee Parkside is also a restaurant, but Spanyol chose not to keep the kitchen open. “I don’t think the amount of business that we could do is worth the amount of risk it would put our staff in,” she said. “We don’t have enough foot traffic, and there’s not enough going on in the neighborhood to warrant five staff members interacting with people. It’s not worth the money.”
Spanyol is pragmatic about the future. She says she wouldn’t be surprised if concerts, events, and performances — an integral part of Thee Parkside’s identity — will be canceled until 2021. She’s equally dubious of how mandates regarding sanitation and social distancing will play out in dive bars.
“Newsom is talking about having places put in HVAC systems and screen people at the door and have everything super clean,” she said, “but what’s the cost and the staffing of that? I can’t even find disinfectant wipes. I just bought a $50 gallon bottle of hand sanitizer that smells like rubbing alcohol. It’s ridiculous. They talk about limiting customers and keeping social distance, but it makes a lot of our businesses not viable. We’re not gonna make enough money to survive.”
When asked what she thought about the Golden Gate Restaurant Association’s request to temporarily permit San Francisco restaurants to utilize surrounding open spaces, including parking spaces, alleyways, and streets, to expand their business footprints, Spanyol says it would be a no-go solution for Thee Parkside.
“It would piss off my neighbors,” she said. “Parking is a valuable resource. One parking space could account for maybe three people if you social distance. So, if I took up five parking spaces, neighbors would be mad.”
However, it’s some of those same neighbors, as well as a slew of employees, nearby businesses, and regulars, that are keeping Spanyol motivated.
“There’s a core group of us that are keeping in touch and keeping things alive,” she said. “That feels good: to know that I have to get this business back up and running because there are so many people counting on it.”
Glen Park Station (Glen Park)
“We are so, so lucky,” said Rene Lacore, who has owned Glen Park Station for nearly 30 years. As the neighborhood’s only bar, it has benefited as the surrounding area has grown in affluence and expendable incomes ballooned. “The last few years have been really, really busy,” she said. “I was able to sock quite a bit of money away, enough that I was able to pay my employees until the end of May, even though we closed on March 15.”
Still, when Lacore talks about luck, she’s mostly referring to the fact that she owns the building. “I’m the landlord,” she said. “That’s why I can stretch this money out further. I’ve been able to cut my payments way down, and I suspended our TV and internet provider so we can save as much money as possible.”
When Lacore realized that the shelter-in-place was going to extend beyond April, she applied for a PPP loan. It didn’t come through. She’s now considering her — and her employees’ — long-term options. She doubts that reducing the number of customers in bars will bring in enough money for her to pay employees, and she’s nervous that patrons won’t maintain six feet of separation or wear face shields, despite mandates.
She has reason to be nervous: On May 9, Glen Park Station briefly opened as a bottle shop to sell discounted six-packs of beer, wine, and liquor to regulars via WhatsApp. It was a success, but “there were a number of people who weren’t socially distancing and who didn’t have masks,” Lacore said. “We thought we were doing everything right: we used Venmo and we even put down ‘X’ marks on the spots for people to stand in line.”
Glen Park Station will had another go at selling booze on Saturday, May 16, but given what she saw the first time, Lacore says that if people aren’t going to participate in “the right way,” then the bar is going to stop selling. “I want to set the tone now,” she said.
Lacore said that she’s gleaning hope from the leadership of both Mayor London Breed and Governor Gavin Newsom; however, she also said that Glen Park Station will likely not reopen when it’s allowed to.
“We’ll open when I think we’re ready to open,” she said. “I don’t want my people getting sick, and I won’t be party to people getting ill.”
Wild Side West (Bernal Heights)
Even though Wild Side West has been shuttered since March 15, Billie Hayes, the bar’s owner, says she’ll be okay.
She owns the property, which has been home to WSW — one of SF’s last lesbian bars — since 1976. She says that she’s fortunate to still have her day job, which she’s able to do from her apartment above the bar. For a small business owner, specifically for one that owns a dive bar, Hayes seems to be financially stable. It’s her eight employees she’s worried about.
“Working online during the day keeps me busy, but bartenders don’t have another job,” Hayes said. “They’re doing okay and they’re getting unemployment, but they’re scraping by.”
Hayes says she texts her staff once a week to check on them, and a friend launched a GoFundMe campaign that’s raised more than $4,300 to support the bar’s staff. Hayes isn’t expecting to have payroll up and running anytime soon, either. Unlike bars that serve food or have pivoted to curbside bottle service, Hayes says Wild Side West will remain closed until it’s given the green light from the city to fully reopen because she doesn’t want to put her staff or others at risk. (Hayes, who will turn 64 this year, says she also wants to avoid being around people right now due to underlying medical concerns.)
Still, she’s thinking about what reopening Wild Side West will look like in a post-stay-at-home world. “We would have to put up barriers or shower curtains or plastic so that people could have their areas,” she said, “and I might put up something on the bar to protect the bartenders. The bar isn’t very big, so we have to figure out how to keep everybody safe. I’m just taking it one day at a time. We’ll see what happens.”
The Avenue (Oakland)
Curtis Howard is frustrated. The Avenue, the Halloween themed neighborhood melting pot which he co-owns with his wife, Tana, in Temescal, has been closed for two months. Not only has he been unable to land a loan, he can’t even find out whether he’s been denied. Howard applied for his first Small Business Administration (SBA) loan on March 18. Since then, he’s applied for more than 12 additional loans, including multiple Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans and an Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL). The only line of credit that he’s been approved for came with a 14 percent finance rate tacked onto it, which he refused, because he said it would be comparable to buying the bar all over again.
“I’d prefer a EIDL loan,” he said. “It’s a higher loan amount than a PPP loan, and it’s only 1 percent interest. With my payroll, I’d get $15,000 from PPP. That’s one-and-a-half months of rent. It barely covers anything in Temescal.”
Howard has since opened up the Avenue three days a week for curbside orders. The proceeds barely cover his utilities, by his estimates, so he and Tana are burning through their savings. But for Howard, reopening as a bottle shop is less about the money and more about the people. “People miss each other, so it’s nice to see everybody,” he said. “That’s what people like about these bottle shops: they come and pick up their stuff and hang around and talk to their friends they haven’t seen since March.”
Although Howard has plenty of frustrations, he’s quick to count his blessings. He and Tana were able to sell more than $3,000 worth of bar swag in March and donate the money to their employees, who are also raising money on GoFundMe. The Avenue’s landlord has also been willing to work with the Howards: They’ve agreed to a 50 percent rent reduction for the time being, and they’ll slowly add $100 to $200 each month as the bar reopens.
Still, Howard struggles under the weight of the uncertainties. “It’s hard to think about anything in the future when we don’t know what that will be,” he said. “Quarter capacity in Temescal, with my rent, just wouldn’t do it. We’re talking about a lot of money and no way of recouping it. There are all of these what-ifs, and right now, I’m hoping for these loans. That would give me more hope.”
The Riptide (Parkside)
Listening to Jean Fontana talk, you wouldn’t think that the world is in the midst of a global pandemic. The Riptide’s bar manager is chatty and surprisingly busy. It’s been more than 60 days since the beach-adjacent Outer Sunset bar closed regular operations, but the bar still lives: Weekly open mic nights are now held via Zoom, as are Friday happy hours and Saturday bingo. According to Fontana, she averages between 10 and 15 patrons on a given bingo night, with her biggest turnout numbering 40. That number includes regulars who, over the years, have left San Francisco for places like Arkansas, Texas, and Ireland and have seized on the Zoom gatherings to reconnect with the Riptide.
After eight weeks straight, Fontana admitted that she considered skipping hosting last week’s Zoom happy hour, but she changed her mind. “Someone said to me, ‘You can’t cancel it because I look forward to it all week,’” she said.
Those community-building efforts are great, but bars stay in business because they sell drinks, not because they host virtual events. That why just over three weeks ago, a skeleton crew of six, including Fontana, reopened The Riptide mid-April to begin fulfilling to-go orders. “We needed to pay our bills,” she said — as did the employees who returned to work.
Fontana said The Riptide’s to-go setup has been a positive experience for both the bar and the neighborhood, as well as a source of hope. She compared it to 2015, when a fire destroyed the bar. The blaze ravaged its 1940s-era building, but it also brought The Riptide’s patrons closer together.
“In 2015, people helped us by donating money,” she said, “but we’re in a different situation now, because everyone is in the same boat. How can you help? Just buy a six-pack of beer and come see your friends.”
The bar’s “Virtual Tip Jar” has been helpful, mainly because staff members can receive their donations directly without having to wait for an online campaign to end. Still, most of the Riptide’s employees have filed for unemployment, a process that they navigated together as a team.
It’s that same sense of teamwork that’s keeping the bar manager motivated.
“I’m grateful for our staff and our customers and everyone’s positive attitudes,” she said. “We’re in it together, and that’s what is keeping me going. Hopefully that will help with a positive opening when we finally can. We’re just trying to get on steady ground before we take our next step.”