With bars and clubs hanging on by their fingernails through the pandemic, uncertainty is the only sure thing.
By Julie Reiner as told to Vanita Salisbury
Following a path from her native Hawaii to San Francisco to Manhattan, in 2003 Julie Reiner opened the cocktail bar Flatiron Lounge, one of the first of its kind that brought craft cocktails to a large audience. She later expanded to Brooklyn with Clover Club and Leyenda. During the pandemic she co-launched a new canned cocktail line, Social Hour.
Prior to the pandemic, I’d say New York City nightlife was all guns a-blazin’. Things were on a positive upswing, and we were seeing increased revenue every year at both Clover Club and Leyenda. I certainly never saw this coming. We closed Flatiron Lounge at the beginning of last year, mainly because they wanted $35,000 a month in rent. But rent has always been an issue—especially with the closing of Pegu Club, another bar I was involved in, that actually shut down due to COVID.
Not being able to send off Pegu Club was painful. That bar was a huge part of the rebirth and growth of cocktail culture in America, so to have to shut it without a proper sendoff was really sad. Pegu was in a similar situation to where we were in Flatiron, where we had been open for 15 years. When we opened the place, the rent was a fraction of what it had grown to be. So pre-pandemic we were already considering our options. And then when the pandemic hit, we thought, there’s absolutely no way we’re going to be able to keep this place going. It was also a second-level space, in front of a bus stop. We wouldn’t have been able to do outdoor service, so it was just not a possibility.
I think Manhattan is hit pretty hard, especially neighborhoods that rely on people working there every day. Look at the Dead Rabbit for example, in Lower Manhattan. A huge portion of their clientele are people working in all of those buildings, who are no longer there right now. They haven’t even reopened, and there are a number of bars in the same situation.
Right when the shutdown happened, I spent a lot of time crying and standing in our empty bar at Clover Club, wondering what the future is going to hold. I spent my entire life building and opening bars with my partners, and we’ve poured our hearts and blood, sweat, and tears into those places—are our businesses just going to be done overnight? But thankfully I have a lot of very smart partners, and thankfully one of my partners, Christine Williams, is a worst-case scenario person. So she had more money in the bank than most bars keep. I didn’t even realize that, and it was like, “Oh thank god, we have more of a cushion than we thought.”
We started a GoFundMe for our staff immediately, because we knew we were going to need to technically fire everyone so they could collect unemployment. Quite a few of our staff moved home with their parents. Obviously it’s the restaurant business, with food runners and cocktail servers who are in their twenties. A lot of them moved to New York with aspirations to do a lot of different things. But many just picked up and moved home because they weren’t able to not have an income and pay rent in New York City. So we lost quite a few people to just fleeing the city.
As soon as we were allowed to do to-go, we set up the table at the front door. But it was the kind of thing where our process changed daily. When we opened, the cops came by and were like, “Our main concern is that we don’t want people congregating outside of the bars, so make sure they take their stuff and keep moving.” So we put a sign up on the outside that said “Walktails.”
We’re selling our canned Social Hour cocktails to-go as well. Tom Macy and I had been working on this for years, and we were supposed to launch it in April. We lost a lot of our funding because a lot of our investors were bar industry people, who then were like, “I don’t have this money to give you now.” So we had to re-work and get other investors, and eventually we were able to re-launch August 1st. Launching now is definitely more difficult than launching when you can just walk into a liquor store to sell. But now I’m really happy we started working on this when we did, instead of being like “Oh shit, what are we going to do,” and trying to create something out of necessity with the current situation.
When we could, we brought our kitchen staff in and started with food, just to-go. Obviously at Leyenda we have the tacos, which are easy to take with you and walk, and at Clover Club our chef Sam Sherman—who we hired two weeks before the shutdown—developed “handwiches” and things that were easy to eat while people stand outside. He’s been our secret weapon.
My day-to-day concerns now are just maintaining the bars. Personally I have all sorts of different side hustles, because the reality is that we as owners are not really going to be able to pay ourselves out of the bars for the year. So I’m doing Zoom cocktail classes to keep me afloat, and packaging them with my book, Craft Cocktail Party. I’m a brand ambassador for Copalli rum now. That was one of the last meetings I had before the shutdown. So I’m actually very busy because I’m doing all these other things to make money to support my family, and still working in the bars trying to make sure that everything is happening there, so we can make it to the other side of this.
In an ideal situation in the future, there will be some sort of vaccine, we will have new people in the White House, and the public will gain trust in going out and being together again. This is my blue sky. I’m optimistic that Social Hour will benefit from this and take off, and that is a very positive thing to be able to focus on right now. So we’re hoping to build that and take it all around the U.S. Right now it’s in New York and New Jersey.
As for nightlife in New York, I don’t think the damage is irreparable. I think we’re going to lose a lot of places. I think a lot more places are going to close, and the ones that do survive, once people are comfortable going out again, will thrive. And after a while, other people will come in and open other new places. That’s the nature of the business. People want to go out, people want to be with friends, they want to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries and everything else. It’s just a matter of the businesses that are currently open having enough revenue to be able to get to that point.
I have a friend who’s a doctor who I had dinner with yesterday outside at a restaurant, and she was saying to expect a spike here in New York come November. Because a lot of people left the city for the whole summer, and they went to places that are now spiking. And they’re all going to come home for the school year, and we’re going to see an upswing in New York. And then it’s gonna get cold outside, and at that point are we gonna be able to have people inside? Or are we going to have to close again for in-person dining and only be doing to-go when it gets cold out? Who knows?