The comforting ritual of gathering together for weeknight bar trivia — pouring into the same seats every week; ordering pounds of discounted food and beer while trivia hosts do their best to keep rowdy crowds entertained — was a dependable excursion for diners and restaurant owners alike before the pandemic.
Now, while the city’s bars and restaurants remain shut down for the foreseeable future, some customers and owners are still finding a way to come together for local bar trivia nights online — with a fundraising twist.
Longtime neighborhood bar owner Bill Reed sold his seven-year-old, laid-back Williamsburg spot Humboldt and Jackson to hip butchery the Meat Hook founders just one month before COVID-19 shut the city down. Reed and business partner Amanda Suarez were tossing around ideas for the next bar when the novel coronavirus crisis hit.
The favorable timing of the sale was a lucky break for Reed, he tells Eater, but he still felt an obligation to help restaurateurs near his old space who were struggling. So Reed and Suarez decided to keep the name for the new bar that they had been hoping to launch — A Bar Near Me — and reinvented the idea as an events company that has fundraised thousands of dollars for a couple of local establishments through a series of donation-based Zoom trivia nights.
Reed leaned on his past experience hosting dozens of neighborhood events at Humboldt and Jackson to get A Bar Near Me’s virtual trivia nights off the ground, all while stationed in Florida with his family during the pandemic.
Pomp and Circumstance, a Mediterranean restaurant that opened last summer, agreed to partner with the startup for the group’s first online trivia night. The rules were simple: Customers could donate any amount of money to the restaurant’s fundraiser in exchange for a Zoom link to participate in a ’90s-themed trivia night that Reed hosted in mid-April. Prizes in the form of gift cards to local businesses were awarded throughout the night, and for the event, trivia players within Pomp and Circumstance’s delivery zone could order food and drinks at a discount.
Pomp and Circumstance’s co-owner Melissa Morales says that the trivia night raised about $1,000 for the restaurant, providing a welcome financial boost to offset operating expenses while the business runs on takeout and delivery during the crisis. On Reed’s second virtual trivia night, Williamsburg bar called Silver Light Tavern got $3,500.
Reed and Suarez decided not to take a cut out of the donations to cover their own time for hosting the events aside from what it costs to purchase prizes for the trivia nights, he says.
The money raised from the events has been a substantial help, owners say, but the emotional support from familiar faces of customers is just as valuable. Silver Light Tavern owner Michael Krawiec was so thrilled to see people that he tried to Zoom chat a welcome greeting to every one of the roughly 120 people that participated in the bar’s virtual trivia night.
“I hadn’t seen anyone in almost two months as far as friends and regulars of the bar,” he says.
Afterwards, Krawiec used the funds from the event to kickstart Silver Light Tavern’s to-go cocktail program. “I don’t have partners, and the bar is only one year old,” Krawiec says. “It boosted me into this to-go business.”
Across the country, reopening regulations are proving to be stricter on bars than restaurants, with states often allowing restaurants to reopen at a reduced capacity while bars — less equipped to handle social distancing because people tend to be less stationary at drinking-only spots — are ordered to remain closed. The extended timeline for reopening can put bars at a greater risk of not being able to survive the COVID-19 shutdown.
Reed and Suarez will expand A Bar Near Me’s trivia nights as interest allows — with plans to partner with bars outside of Williamsburg, and out of the state, in the future. The next event on June 12 will benefit the 18th Ward Brewery in Brooklyn, with donations aimed at covering rent and costs for employees brewing the beer.
West Village bar Wilfie and Nell is also on deck, and the funds have been earmarked to help the bar remodel its physical space for socially distant dining in anticipation of the state’s restricted bar and restaurant reopening.
“That’s where we’re going next with this,” Reed says. “How do we help rebuild these places? How do you do that without the means and skills and the money? That’s our goal with the next few ones.”