Chicago Beer Bars Struggle, Adapt to COVID
On the day that Chicago’s Beermiscuous found out it was approved for a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, the owners had a huge sigh of relief. The city had changed the rules again to not allow taverns and bars that don’t serve food to have indoor dining, and the craft beer bar was nervous for its survival. And, even with the PPP loan, they aren’t out of the woods.
“We’re suffering whiplash right now because of how the city is jerking everything around,” Beermiscuous co-owner Virginia Thomas said. “We’ve been boxed in for a long time as a tavern but you put up with it. With the pandemic, we’ve been used as a scapegoat. The city says that taverns are a transmission vector.”
Thomas and other bar owners just want the playing field to be the same across all businesses. They argue that just because an establishment serves food, doesn’t make it any safer than a place that doesn’t.
Bars and taverns were able to have indoor seating at 25% for a while, but with COVID cases increasing, the city tightened restrictions and stopped indoor seating for establishments that don’t serve food. The change forced bars to consider setting up an outdoor space that requires an additional license and materials. This made the owners weigh the cost-benefit of these added expenses.
“They are making us spend money on something that isn’t for sure,” Thomas continued, “…to spend money on supplies and a license and hopefully we can have outdoor seating into October. While the permit is year-round, that doesn’t help in Chicago.”
Just down the street, Bitter Pops is in a unique situation because it is getting ready to move to a new space. The restrictions made it so the current taproom will most likely not reopen resulting in an unceremonious closure of the space.
“In our taproom employees can get tips and they simply can’t get that additional income right now,” Bitter Pops co-founder and director of marketing Nick Gil said. “We’ve been lucky that we haven’t had to furlough anyone.”
Like Beermiscuous, Bitter Pops doesn’t serve food nor does it currently have outdoor space. When everyone was staying at home both places saw their to-go businesses increase. However, when places reopened, both indoor and outdoor, they saw that business drop.
“Once people have a place to go out and can go out, they aren’t getting to-go as much,” Thomas said. “Earlier in the pandemic we saw higher than average traffic and even as late there’s been a little bump but we have to do three times our normal volume to be even. We’re grateful for our customers and have been able to keep the lights on because of them.”
While struggling, bars and taverns have also taken the pandemic as an opportunity to adapt to the current state of the industry and find new ways to bring in income.
Beermiscuous set up a full online store so customers could easily craft their own six-packs online and do curbside pickup. They also did delivery early on but have since stopped to focus on the curbside business. They’re still considering how they want to use the small outdoor space outside the shop.
One of the oldest craft beer bars and shops in the city, The Beer Temple, has also been busy adapting to the changing times to keep business going.
“It’s been chaotic as it has for most people I’m sure,” The Beer Temple owner Chris Quinn said. “We were really relying on our bottle shop sales and still are. We have an online component going that’s a lot more robust now and doing daily local deliveries.”
The Beer Temple has a food license so they can have indoor seating right now, but are not even operating at the allowed 25% capacity. They have a bigger space than most people realize and have four separate rooms to can utilize. Right now they’re only using two of those spaces and are also developing an indoor/outdoor space that few people probably even realized they had.
But Quinn knew he had to think of other ways to generate income during the pandemic because even though he can have people in the bar, he understands that people might not be comfortable drinking inside right now.
“My building is not being fully taken advantage of,” Quinn said. “I’m paying for more than what I need. Having the taproom not open or open in a very limited capacity and society not feeling comfortable, which I don’t blame them for, in the long run is not going to be sustainable for us.”
To help increase business, Quinn has started facilitating corporate beer tastings by providing the beer and setting up private Zoom meetings to walk through the beers.
They’ve been doing two to four tastings a week for anywhere from 20-50 people at a time. It’s changed the way the store orders beer as they need to make sure they have enough of each beer to set up the packages. They’ll provide not only the beer, but tasting glasses and bottle openers as well.
“Everybody is trying to figure out what to do,” Quinn said. “We’re just trying to provide good, safe service no matter what. Finding ways we didn’t even realize we could exercise those muscles and provide good service and give people an educational experience about craft beer.”
The Beer Temple also brought their Pilsner Challenge to the public and had them be part of the judging. What started with a long list of Pilsners, a panel of people in the beer industry narrowed the list down to eight finalists. Anyone could then be part of the final judging and pickup the eight beers and rank them to have their results be apart of the final totals. Trumer Pils won by the way.
Bitter Pops has also been adapting to keep business going. They’ve used the closed down taproom to host small pop-ups with vendors to help drive sales for as many small businesses as they can. They began doing take-home cocktails in 375ml packaging out of the taproom as well as filling growlers.
Bar owners have had to figure out how to keep going in the short-term but also look at the long-term situation.
While Quinn has adapted, for now, he’s still thinking about the future.
“My concerns are all long term,” he said. “My hope is that we’re going to come out of this as a stronger business from operations and being able to serve our customer base better. That I have very little doubt. We’ll be a better company for having gone through this. The weight of debt and loans, we’ll have to see. I planned on this thing being 12-14 month time to tread water.”
Quinn has also been thinking about the other bars and taverns in the city and what this pandemic will do to them and Chicago’s iconic drinking scene.
“My concern is the cultural landscape of the country, and my city, in the wake of COVID. When Guthrie’s closes, another Guthrie’s isn’t going to take its location,” Quinn said. “That’s my concern. That does come close to keeping me up at night thinking about these places. I check in with the owner of Delilah’s a couple of times — making sure they’re OK.”
Thomas said that Beermiscuous is focused through the end of the year but after that they don’t know what will happen. With the rules and regulations changing all the time, it’s hard to predict what decisions they’ll have to make in the future. If they aren’t able to have indoor seating, in the middle of the Chicago winter, they’ll have to rely on only to-go sales.
As for Bitter Pops, they hope to open their new space in late-October to mid-November. Their new taproom won’t open when they open, but the to-go space will be operating.