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‘They are our family’: Neighborhood bars struggle to survive during pandemic

Longtime customer Cindy Wallick eats and has a drink while playing Keno at  Pratty’s C.A.V. in Gloucester.
Longtime customer Cindy Wallick eats and has a drink while playing Keno at Pratty’s C.A.V. in Gloucester.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Pratty’s C.A.V. in Gloucester has been a family business since Jimmy Pratt bought the place in 1986. He’d been working there since he got back from Vietnam, when it was still called Earl’s Cape Ann Vets.

After this no-frills corner bar locked its doors during the pandemic last summer, some of the locals wondered if the place might be gone for good.

But on a chilly Monday in December, a cluster of regulars huddled in the doorway, gazing out at Gloucester Harbor. They’d slipped out to grab a smoke, just as they’d surely done dozens of times before.

Pratty’s is open again, with Plexiglass shields in place and a requirement to order a stuffed clam or a PB&J — $2 apiece — before you can get a beer. On a recent late afternoon, a couple dozen socially distanced patrons greeted each other from across their respective tables.

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Owner Nick Pratt stands by the bar of Pratty's C.A.V. sports bar in Gloucester.
Owner Nick Pratt stands by the bar of Pratty's C.A.V. sports bar in Gloucester.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“It’s so good to see you!” a woman said to Paul Cohan, a fisherman and songwriter known to his neighbors as “Sasquatch.” She walked over and hugged him from behind, keeping her mask on.

“It’s good to be seen,” Cohan replied, closing his eyes. “But it’s better to be held.”

The pandemic has wreaked havoc on small businesses of all sorts, but perhaps none more than the typical neighborhood watering hole. Gathering spots without a full menu have had to find a way to provide food, per the governor’s orders. Currently, service must end by 9:30 p.m., cutting off the prime hours of operation for many bars.

But perhaps most distressing of all, the pandemic has severely limited the kind of social interaction that human beings crave. A pub is a “public house,” as Cohan pointed out — a welcoming home-away-from-home, a place we go to experience a sense of community.

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“Who are we here for if not each other?” he said.

A taped reminder is on the floor to wear a mask at Pratty's C.A.V. sports bar in Gloucester.
A taped reminder is on the floor to wear a mask at Pratty's C.A.V. sports bar in Gloucester. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

There is no kitchen at Paddy Barry’s in Quincy. For the past two decades, the bartenders at the cozy neighborhood pub have done brisk business slinging pints, with the locals often standing shoulder to shoulder.

These days, of course, they’re not standing shoulder to shoulder at Paddy Barry’s. They had to close temporarily in March, and again briefly in August. Over the summer, they tried outdoor dining. Visitors must be seated at tables; the bar is off-limits. There’s no live music.

“It’s been difficult, really difficult,” said owner Gerry Hanley. “Nobody is going out at 8:30 to go home at 9:30. It eliminates a huge part of your business.”

To stay compliant, they have had to find a way to serve food, and not just peanuts and pretzels. Hanley made an arrangement with his next-door neighbors, Napoli Pizzeria, to install a hatch between the two businesses.

The early closing time instituted in November has cut off the prime spigot for many of these bars’ existence — those late-night hours when the drinkers are the only ones still out and about. For years, the Gaff in Waltham has been a popular gathering spot for the city’s restaurant industry; when the cooks and servers finish their evening shifts, they hit the bar. Forced to stop serving at 9:30, owners Michael Coen and Stephen Murphy concluded that it made more sense to go into “hibernation” for the winter than remain open.

“We make most of our money between 8 p.m. and 1 a.m.,” Coen said. The choice was obvious: He could close for the time being and cut his losses, or stay open and lose thousands more each month on his fixed costs. Most indoor bars in the state, he said, are lucky if they’re doing 25 percent of their pre-Covid sales.

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Coen and Murphy, who also own the Indo in Beverly, opened the Gaff in 2009. The site dates back to the end of Prohibition. There was no kitchen in the place when they took it over; they put one in shortly after opening, offering a limited menu of “pub grub” — burgers and appetizers.

Russell Sundberg and Matthew Willis are owners of the Lucky Dog in Beverly.
Russell Sundberg and Matthew Willis are owners of the Lucky Dog in Beverly.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Waltham, Coen said, was one of the first cities in Massachusetts to permit expanded outdoor dining last summer. He served as one of the city’s liaisons for the program. He had a few tables shipped over from Germany and created a beer garden on the sidewalk outside the Gaff on Moody Street.

“It was pretty good,” he said. “We were able to break even.”

But while some bars began offering food (and cocktails) for delivery per the state’s emergency allowance, “we never shifted into the takeout game,” Coen said. “That was not a viable thing for us.”

The financial downturn brought about by the pandemic has put some neighborhood bars out of business for good. In August, for example, Squires in Hanover held its “Last Waltz,” as the sign out front read, after four decades serving its local clientele.

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Dan Donato, who co-owns the Fortune Bar in Amesbury, noted the importance of so-called “third places” — the bars, cafes, libraries, parks, and other gathering spots that give people a third place for social interaction beyond the home and workplace.

Donato and his partner, Zac Antczak, bought the former Carriage Wheel Pub a few years ago and reopened as the Fortune Bar. It’s tiny. Capacity under normal circumstances is 49, and the guidelines as of late December lowered the head count to 12..

“We’re built for volume,” Donato said. “We don’t charge a lot of money. We need a lot of people to come through and buy drinks and pierogies. And that’s exactly the thing we can’t do right now.”

Both owners have day jobs. Donato runs a boutique marketing firm in Salem; Antczak is the brand manager at Notch Brewing.

“When we opened, we were roughly just breaking even, and that was fine with us,” Donato said. This year, he estimated business at the bar is down 60 percent.

The Fortune Bar is “not going anywhere,” he said, but it’s been a struggle: “We just want to survive, and then hopefully build it back up.”

The Lucky Dog in Beverly has expanded its menu during the pandemic.
The Lucky Dog in Beverly has expanded its menu during the pandemic. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

At the Lucky Dog in Beverly, which calls itself the “5-Star Dive Bar,” co-owner Russell Sundberg said his gross revenue for 2020 would be less than half of what it was in 2019. It’s “crippling,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Having added menu items to the bar’s usual fare (hot dogs), he’s been frustrated by the state’s guidelines, including the curfew.

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“To be penalized because our liquor outsells food is ridiculous,” he wrote. “We already pay enough out in insurance because of that fact.”

But he’s grateful for his regular customers, who have continued to support the bar, in part by starting a fund-raising campaign.

“They are our family,” Sundberg said. “A neighborhood bar isn’t something that can be put into words.”

Ultimately, that’s the real loss the pandemic has brought to these businesses — not the financial hardship, as significant as it has been, but the loss of community.

“We depend on ‘face to face,’” said Hanley of Paddy Barry’s. “People go to their local bar to meet people.”

When Michael Coen bought his first bar, his grandfather was delighted. Their cousin, Angelo Cammarata, was once recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s longest-serving bartender. Cammarata often told Coen’s grandfather that bars were good business — they were recession-proof.

“The bars might be recession-proof,” said Coen, “but they certainly are not pandemic-proof.”

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.

At the Lucky Dog in Beverly, which calls itself the “5-Star Dive Bar,” co-owner Russell Sundberg said his gross revenue for 2020 would be less than half of what it was in 2019.
At the Lucky Dog in Beverly, which calls itself the “5-Star Dive Bar,” co-owner Russell Sundberg said his gross revenue for 2020 would be less than half of what it was in 2019.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff