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GLOBE MAGAZINE

How can Boston’s bar scene possibly recover from the COVID-19 shutdown?

I helped build Eastern Standard and more of the city's most popular spots for cocktails and celebration. Now, I'm struggling to envision the road ahead.

Before COVID-19, the bar at Eastern Standard was crowded most nights, like this one (in 2008) when Cannon was mixing cocktails.
Before COVID-19, the bar at Eastern Standard was crowded most nights, like this one (in 2008) when Cannon was mixing cocktails.Wiqan Ang/For the Boston Globe/File

On March 15, when the shutdown orders for businesses, bars, and restaurants and shelter-in-place recommendations were being discussed nationwide because of a new deadly coronavirus, I was supposed to be in California judging the final round of the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Instead, I’d left the event a day early and was on a return flight home. As my plane circled Logan, all of “my” bars had already begun to close. I had no way of knowing that well into summer, once-coveted seats at these bars would still be vacant, that the people they employed would still be furloughed, and that the prospect of ever reopening would seem a long shot.

In 2019 I was either employed by or consulted with Eastern Standard, The Hawthorne, Island Creek Oyster Bar, Row 34, Shy Bird, Banners Kitchen & Tap, and Hotel Commonwealth. They all shuttered with Governor Charlie Baker’s order effective March 17, save Shy Bird, which started a heroic job of delivery service and takeout.

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As the opening bar manager at Eastern Standard in Boston’s Kenmore Square 15 years ago, I was among a small vanguard who thought we could take handcrafted cocktails with deep historical underpinnings and produce them in high-volume contexts, turning evermore guests on to this type of drinking we loved, with the outsized goal of ushering in a new era of the American Bar. No joke — along with many independent men and women around the globe, we form an informal network. Our manifesto: changing the way people drink while making money and good times for all.

Eastern Standard became an institution, the kind of restaurant bar that’s a chameleon — a place for great drinks before a game or after work, a good place to talk business over lunch or breakfast, a place for a fancier dinner than a young person could usually afford, while being reasonable enough for their parents to treat when in from out of town, the perfect last stop for late-night food and fun. From the early days, I have fond memories of getting our butts kicked in services busier than we’d ever hoped. At some point, I’d lean in near a young bartender to whisper our mantra, “We got this!”

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Now, suddenly, the most any of us can do is attend a small variety of Zoom chats and Microsoft Teams meetings to talk, demonstrate, brainstorm, and socialize. Some of us are better at the virtual aspects of performative hospitality, readily TikTok dancing our way through a classic recipe for a liquor sponsor or holding forth in a chat room on the merits of our preferred method for swirling an Old Fashioned. But not all of our gifts for gab translate into the visual language of a professional social media influencer, nor is the demand in this space enough for all the out-of-work bartenders.

We are all suffering the absence of the real thing — meeting new guests, spinning a day-changing drink for a regular, going through all the ups and downs of the shift with our team. Some are making a go of what to-go business there is to be had, but, inexplicably, Massachusetts remains an outlier; as I write this, three months into this crisis, we’re banned from doing liquor-to-go in any form, so all we can do is send you home with the mixers and a note on how to add your own booze. For those of us in the bar trade, the COVID-19 quarantine led to a kind of mass clinical depression.

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The Hawthorne, the craft cocktail bar in which I hold the highest stake and deepest affection, is also shuttered. The night before the official shutdown, my associate Jared Sadoian and I were able to pull off a short, slightly reckless last service with all gratuities going to the staff. I had personally laid off all 15 of them that day. Regular guests took the opportunity to tip many hundreds of dollars each above the normal gratuity. Their generosity was doubled and tripled by representatives of liquor brands calling in. One in particular, Maison Ferrand, doubled the entire take for the staff. The generosity of that last night made the final checks they received look normal, as the two weeks prior had been the slowest we’d ever had. It was a moving, but in no way happy, feeling. It was the kind of sadness that comes from powerlessness and shame. I knew this wasn’t my fault, but wished I had better answers for what lay ahead.

IN THE WEEKS SINCE THE SHUTDOWN, I’ve kept in contact with members of my team as best I can, offered to help them file for unemployment, and steered them toward the few opportunities for them that I’ve seen. No metaphor suffices to describe this — punched in the gut or kicked in the groin don’t come close. And as this pandemic wears on, that lack of daily social contact only digs the hole deeper for those of us who took our craving for social interaction and made it a career. I’m angry at whoever coined the invidious term “new normal.” We aren’t anywhere near that yet, but I know I hate it: plastic dividers, single-use menus, policing guests’ mask habits, socially distant tables, and the reality of how little standing and sitting at the bar will be possible for the foreseeable future.

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Like a lot of folks, when the quarantine first started, I canceled any travel I had booked and asked for a refund, checked to see if there were any outstanding monies I could call in, and filed with the Department of Unemployment Assistance. Every Sunday, I follow up. I consolidate grocery shopping into a well-planned trip once every two weeks. My kids are 10 and 12, and their mom (also in the hospitality business) and I count ourselves lucky they are those ages. Not so young as to require constant monitoring, but not yet to the age where spending time with their parents is a total drag. At this point in their education, there’s good reason to sincerely hope that this won’t be a major disruption in their development.

Over the past 10 years in the service sector, rents, taxes, supplies, and labor costs have risen more than our ability to pass those costs onto our customers. It’s a thin-margin business and its design makes it very hard to have deep-rooted restaurants endure for more than one cycle of the typical 15-year lease. The long recovery from 2009 on was partly helped along by new restaurateurs going into spaces that had been crushed by the 2008 financial crisis. The new businesses borrowed money, hired designers, builders, staff, and public relations operations, and then made a go of it.

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This cycle of rebirth rewards landlords and the state for the rising rents and property values these restaurants help create. It’s also a system that employs a lot of people and moves a lot of money around. But COVID-19′s attendant financial crises lays bare some of its limitations. Expect many iconic places near the end of their lease with landlords, who themselves are leveraged to banks, to disappear (many already have). The federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program funds might help some of them reopen, but it really kicks down the road the issues of rents and tax structures that in no way are sustainable. And the additional debt endangers the long-term business health of borrowers.

In the cases of Eastern Standard and The Hawthorne, but not unique by any stretch, we are near the end of an expensive lease. Garrett Harker, our proprietor, is negotiating in good faith with the landlord, but without a radical new approach to our rent structure that would include a substantial extension to our lease, we may not be equipped to overcome what the next 18 months have in store.

Like all other Massachusetts bars, 
The Hawthorne closed March 17. 
Three months later, co-owner 
Jackson Cannon  still isn’t sure 
when he’ll be able to reopen.
Like all other Massachusetts bars, The Hawthorne closed March 17. Three months later, co-owner Jackson Cannon still isn’t sure when he’ll be able to reopen.Webb Chappell/for The Boston Globe

Understandably, some landlords are slow to react to this new reality. If they give us the rent deal we need, they face the possibility of struggling with their loans. They will need to restructure with their lenders, which is no simple matter. In calendar year 2019, Eastern Standard and The Hawthorne grossed approximately $11 million combined. Expert forecasting suggests that we should budget less than $3 million in revenue for the period of July 2020 to July 2021. If there is a moment here in the midst of all this shared economic pain to work toward a solution, our landlords, like many others, are not taking it.

In the 2008 economic collapse, Eastern Standard was especially well positioned in our Kenmore Square neighborhood. Hospitals, colleges, and Fenway Park proved all but “recession-proof.” As people saved on fancier dinners, they spent on burgers and a second dry martini. Not so with this pandemic. The colleges are closed, Fenway is shuttered, and the hospitals have lost substantial revenue from the necessity of curtailing elective medical procedures.

No baseball, no graduations, no wedding parties, no concerts, no running of the Boston Marathon right past our front door. No city events of any kind. Adjacent to us, Hotel Commonwealth remains empty; tourism is minimal or nonexistent. None of the cultural markers and moments that tie us to our community have or can take place this year. These events made for our most cherished services over the years. They also bring us our record sales days that help pull us out of a yearly winter slumber in the first quarter, when we usually break even. There’s no way one injection of partially forgivable loans from the federal government is up to the task of getting us through to the other side this time.

If the future of bars and restaurants is going to resemble in any way the recently heralded platinum age of our industry, then some of the structural problems at its base will need to be addressed: new lease models, rent stability, and tax rates. Relaxed restrictions on liquor sales, allowing all license holders the right to sell for at-home consumption. Either abolishment of the tipping model or the freedom to distribute those tips to eliminate the wage disparity between back and front of house. Those seem like big ideas that would have been thought crazy months ago. So was the concept that all Americans have health care and that it not be tied to our employment. Doesn’t seem like such a wild idea today.

In the past, when complimented on my cocktail acumen, I often would quip that if cocktails went away tomorrow, I’d still be a bartender. That I was only into cocktails because they could turn an interested guest onto a new and invigorating experience. I would say, if it’s only shots and beers, my true discipline remains the same—attributing to the late and legendary booze writer Gary Regan, “A good bartender makes great drinks, a great bartender mixes the good people at the bar.” Until we can do that safely, in intimate terms with friends and strangers alike, I’m not sure how I’ll practice my trade.

We are still near the beginning of this public health crisis and financial disaster. Our immediate attention needs to be on what’s most important and how we can protect the most physically and economically vulnerable among us, but we must also be looking ahead and deciding what kind of culture we want our hospitality industry to reflect when we emerge. Our society is in a historic inflection point in which the causes of social justice, wage and wealth equality, and voting rights are moving full-throated into the mainstream of American discourse. Reforming the way the service sector is licensed, taxed, and leased should be part of solutions aimed at creating equitable opportunities for all.

As the Commonwealth engages its phased reopening, the path ahead is proving rocky. Just days before the health metrics warranted entering Phase 2, we in the industry learned along with everyone else that the first part of Phase 2 would allow only outdoor dining. As we entered the second part, which allows indoor dining, the rules for distancing patrons and limiting party size effectively reduced guest capacity for most establishments by 50 percent, as well as prohibited seating at bars. While I’m personally sidelined in partial reopening plans by landlord discussions, I’m keeping close contact with my peers who are starting to get safe systems in place to serve guests and begin the long climb out of this.

I’ve begun posting on Instagram and Facebook to lead a call-in campaign to the State House for #cocktailsforcommonwealth to get legislative approval for to-go liquor sales for restaurants, like what most other states have. The process is being dragged out in committee and artfully opposed by the package store industry’s strong lobby. Even if to-go liquor sales becomes law, it begs the question: Why has this simple thing that could have made such a difference for so many been such a struggle?

I had a shared dream of what I thought imbibing in our time could look like and of where Eastern Standard and The Hawthorne could take us. With a lot of help, we got there. It’s going to take some shared visions — and then some — to get our industry through this period of our history. My hope is good people from all walks of life can work together to lean in with the bartenders and say, “We got this.”

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Jackson Cannon, bar director for Eastern Standard and The Hawthorne, consults nationally on craft cocktails, fine spirits, and bartending. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.