“This has been the longest week of my life, and it’s only Tuesday,” said Linden Pride, the owner of Dante.
Pride had just returned from making a delivery to a customer in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, almost five miles away from Dante. The bar landed at the top of the World’s Best Bar list last year, but it was almost empty on this Tuesday evening: The COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed almost 8,000 people worldwide and spreads quickly enough to arrest even advanced hospital systems, had brought New York City to a near standstill.
One by one over the past week, the biggest players in hospitality temporarily shut down their New York City restaurants to slow the spread of COVID-19: Danny Meyer, David Chang, Jean-Georges Vongerichten. On Monday, the remaining restaurants, bars, and cafes were ordered to close starting at 8 p.m., except to takeout and delivery orders. But on Tuesday morning, a new ruling had come into effect: Restaurants and bars could sell alcoholic beverages for off-premise consumption.
“When the change in legislation came in from Governor Cuomo, everyone’s spirits picked up,” said Pride.
The new regulations came with plenty of red tape, like limits on what kind of vehicles can deliver the alcohol and requiring that booze is sold alongside food. But for the bars and restaurants that remain open, the addition of alcoholic beverage sales, often the highest-profit items on the menu, was a shot in the arm after a painful week, and the survivors quickly formulated plans to capitalize.
Tokyo Record Bar in Greenwich Village announced that it would sell $20 omakase bento boxes as a way to pair “wild card” bottles of sparkling wine and Champagne drawn from the extensive collection of the restaurant’s sister bar, Air’s Champagne Parlor. Over at Niche Niche, a daily rotating tasting menu experience for two can be had for $45, with a similar dealer’s choice wine pairing also available. The orders will be available for takeout at first, but the team is working on delivery.
“Like on what planet did NYC actually agree to let us sell wines like this?” said Ariel Arce, who owns Niche Niche, Tokyo Record Bar, and Air’s Champagne Parlor in Greenwich Village. “Let’s rock and roll.”
Not since the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 have the liquor laws changed so drastically.
At Patent Pending, a Flatiron coffee shop cum speakeasy, every cocktail order automatically comes with a bag of chips so as to not run afoul of the liquor delivery rules, and any order over $50 gets a free roll of toilet paper, one of the most popular items during this pandemic panic. But despite the quick response to sell delivery alcohol under the new rules, this will not save the bars and restaurants.
“We could survive a month and a half on delivery,” said Nicholas Ruiz, general manager at Patent Pending. “We’re just trying to be a little beam of light for some people.”
One of those people is Candace Chang, a sales director at a digital advertising firm. She called Patent Pending on Tuesday afternoon and ordered a chia bowl, coffee, broth, and Made From Memory cocktail, which consists of gin, Earl Grey tea, Grand Marnier, fig, and cold cream on top. “There might be a shutdown tomorrow, but I’m trying to support all of my favorite places,” said Chang.
To stay compliant with the new container laws, the bar transports the cocktails in Mason jars, which they buy in bulk for $1.20 a piece. Even so, the drink is profitable, but to preserve the integrity of the cold cream on top of the cocktail, Ruiz took a $8 cab to make the delivery from the Flatiron store around the corner to Chang’s Midtown apartment. Suddenly, the margins are a little tighter.
“It’ll take us a year or more to recuperate the losses from this,” said Dante’s Pride. “My business is not sustainable on [delivery], but for now we can pay health insurance and look after the core team.”
Unlike many restaurants that laid off their employees, Dante used a furlough method to continue paying for the 40-person team’s health insurance. Most of them will still be able to collect unemployment. The takeout business allows the restaurant to cover those costs.
“If we can do around $700 to $1,000 a day, we can keep the wheels on,” said Pride, who named an employee with an autistic son and a father of four among those who still have health insurance. “I have a fighting chance with takeout.”
Pride thinks the difficulty is changing people’s routines, which will take time. Instead of bars and restaurants being an extension of people’s tiny city living rooms as a place to unwind with drinks after work, now businesses have to convince consumers to bring the bar home.
But it looks like Dante and other takeout alcohol venues will have plenty of time to dial it in: Officials have increasingly been encouraging people to stay home. Even President Donald Trump went from telling people the virus was overblown to recommending that people avoid restaurants and bars this week. In New York City, the new normal for drinking in the age of COVID-19 will take place in pajamas.
“I don’t know what tomorrow brings, but for now we’re able to pay staff and feed people,” said Pride. “We’re all going to get through this.”