Since my start as a waiter over 45 years ago at a tavern, I have seen many challenges to the tavern trade in general and my role in it specifically. I even saw my first bar in Michigan firebombed and shuttered by some disgruntled local ne’er-do-wells. Nothing in all those decades, not even the fire, prepared me for March 17. Who could have predicted that 2020 would turn out like this?
Before the pandemic, a stampede of new brewery taprooms, a collapse of neighborhood retail that swept the streets of foot traffic, and rising residential rents diverted consumer dollars from dining and drinking out. The lure of TV, computer, and smartphone screens didn’t help either.
Actually, January and February of this year were a ray of hope for us. That was a a change as the tavern trade — especially for a beer-focused venue like Hopleaf — has been difficult since our peak year of 2014.
Cafes and restaurants have also been struggling. Simultaneously, our costs have been rising despite a static and shrinking pool of customers, tempted by a flood of new options that compete for their food and drink spending. That said, January and February were two consecutive months when we rang more sales than the same months in 2019. I heard similar reports from some fellow publicans and was feeling optimistic about the coming spring and summer. We had a few really busy nights that harkened to our heyday. And then came COVID-19 and a mandated closure, and the door slammed shut on us.
We felt confident in late February, so we paid our property taxes early and had some overdue masonry and mill work done. We even scheduled a day of closure — something we never do — to refinish the dining room floor, install a new bar top, and pour a new non-slip floor in the kitchen. That day was supposed to be March 16. Although I quickly canceled a couple of the projects, I was still a bit cash poor going into the state’s mandated closure and was shocked at how fast our accounts dwindled to nothing. We gave away all of our perishables to staff, neighbors, and the Lakeview Pantry and closed. The bills for those foodstuffs came in a few days later along with plenty of others. A cash flow business with no cash flow starts to wither very rapidly. We laid off all 65 employees.
I will add that I am in a high-risk group. Due to an accident in 2013 where I severed my left phrenic nerve, my left lung doesn’t fully function. COVID-19 could be deadly for me. On Sunday, March 15, I learned one of our employees showed COVID-19 symptoms. He was tested the following day. But since the test was sent out of state to be processed, more than a week passed before we knew his diagnosis. He tested positive, and thankfully his symptoms passed quickly and he’s since fully recovered. Since I had interacted with him on his last work day, I was nervous. I was not able to be tested, but it seems that I did not pick it up. It seems that no one else did either. Since he was not showing any symptoms, such as coughing, and was bar backing, meaning his hands were in sanitizer all night, his job duties may have saved us from contamination.
I never really contemplated food delivery or curbside. We had no history of it. Our profits were always centered on beer sales. Our food was labor intensive and our signature menu item, mussels, fare poorly in a box. In fact, Hopleaf was always experiential and more about conviviality, ambience, comfort, and service in combination with exceptional food and beverage options. In short, it is hard to put Hopleaf in a box. I also felt that it was unlikely to be profitable, and with our financial condition critical, we could not risk losses. Beyond that, how could our kitchen, a narrow galley space, ever be safe for staff? So, after emptying the perishable foods, we turned the coolers off, shut the gas off, and mothballed the kitchen.
To bring in some revenue, we sold off our bottled beers in a preordered, prepaid, and prepacked system that was accomplished safely. We sold off kegs to customers with kegerators and growlers poured from our draft faucets. These were all things we were able to do mostly ourselves with some volunteer help. It accounted for less than 4 percent of our normal sales and even less in profits. It helped us stay in touch with customers, move some time-sensitive beverages along, and pay a few bills. Customers were generous with tips to split among our laid-off staff. Selling off so much of our inventory means that that reopening will be akin to opening a new tavern. We will need to buy a lot of products.
With at least a month left to go, a faltering government response, confusing relief options, and uncertainty about what restrictions we might be under when the mandated closures end, it is hard to say what the future is for Hopleaf and thousands of other independent drinking and eating establishments. Can we succeed with 50 percent capacity limits? I am not sure that the experience of widely spread-out table seating, masked servers, or sitting at barstools that are six feet apart will entice people craving normality, especially when their wallets are a bit thin. If we have to take on new debt to reopen and then find that our business is a fraction of what it was in the past, that debt may well sink many of us. The Payroll Protection Plan (PPP) relief program is particularly baffling for businesses like ours. Who thinks they’ll be able to retain or rehire all of their staff when the volume of future business is such an unknown? I alternate between confidence and despair when I think about our business’s future. Somehow, confidence wins out most of the time.
I do have concerns about the post-pandemic era. Will people feel safe and comfortable in crowded dining and bar rooms? Will they go to live music venues, theaters, and street festivals? Will all the infrastructure we’ve set up to make it even more convenient to stay home to eat, drink, and be entertained backfire on us when this ends? Are the habits of our regulars permanently changed? Will the time-honored place of the corner pub, the coffee shop, the diner, or the favorite restaurant in our social lives and routines remain intact? I wonder about young people who are just creating the habits that often last a lifetime. Will this pandemic divert them toward a life that does not include going out often for food, drink, entertainment, and social connections? I also fear that most of the places that do survive into 2021 and beyond will be owned by investment groups, absentee owners, corporate chains, and others with little connection to their neighbors and communities. We must find a way to save as many independent eating and drinking businesses as we can.
Our cities, our neighborhoods, and our lives are enriched by these special small businesses that are often owned by and employ our neighbors. Some of these places are so much a part of the everyday framework of our communities that we may take them for granted or overlook their importance. When the mandated closures end and we are free to go out again, I hope that people will make a point to support independent businesses like ours. The experience may be a bit less than we’d like to be offering for a while, but know that as restrictions fade, we will be more motivated than ever to please. A requirement to be an entrepreneur is optimism, and even in these times, the worst of times for many of us in the food and beverage trade, I feel that many will find a way to survive and even gain from the experience. I hope to be one of them, and when I am in my quiet, empty bar room these days and nights, I can’t stop myself from thinking about little things I want to do to make coming in more special. I know that is true for many of my fellow publicans and restaurateurs.
Michael Roper has been the owner of Hopleaf Bar, an essential Chicago pub, since 1992 in Andersonville.