There’s always been something romantic about dark, woody, dimly lit pubs and bars, where people come together to drink, listen to music, and chat up strangers. But with COVID-19 safety and social distancing measures, either imposed by state or local governments or simply observed for the sake of public health, drinking dens are in for some radical changes. How long the changes last depends on the whims of the virus. How they’ll affect the customer experience is the question on every bar owner’s—and bar lover’s—mind.
In the UK and Ireland, all pubs and restaurants were ordered closed before the end of March. Meanwhile, in the US, some states never shut down their restaurants and bars, and others are just starting to reopen. Whether they’re awaiting government guidelines on reopening or adjusting policies to make customers feel safer and secure, across the industry, bar owners are being forced to reimagine just about everything we know and love about going to bars in the first place.
Socializing while social distancing
Next time you roll into your favorite taproom, bar or brewpub, you’re probably in for a new experience. In London, for example, there’ll be no more standing or sitting at the bar. Laura Ashton is co-owner of The Pineapple, Lady Hamilton, and Tapping the Admiral in London’s residential Kentish Town. As she awaits word on when they can reopen, she’s adjusting to the new reality.
“We’re playing around with furniture set-up, and we’ll be creating a one-way entry and exit system,” Ashton says. “People will have to book a table in advance, and there’ll be a time limit on how long they can stay. There will be no service at the bar, and we’ll no longer accept cash.” Food and drink orders can be placed from a customer’s cellphone. Quiz nights, Ashton says, always popular with regulars, will no longer be hours-long affairs, but rather short bursts of interaction. She and her staff have also been deep cleaning the bars. The goal is not to look stark and clinical, she says, but that “bars and pubs everywhere have a responsibility to up their game to make their venues safe and clean.”
Some bar owners are taking customers’ temperature when they arrive. At the Dunwoody Tavern in the Atlanta suburbs, as in the rest of Georgia, groups of up to 10 people can gather. When groups show up together, owner Huw Thomas, who owns seven other bars in the area, has staff check guests for fever, then gives those that “pass” a red dot to affix on their shoulder. They’re safe to gather at the bar and, according to Thomas, “It puts other guests at ease.”
In Leeds in England’s Yorkshire County, Verity Clarke and her husband Russ were set to open Amity Brew Co., their pub and onsite brewery in September of this year. Those plans were delayed when coronavirus hit, and they “threw the original plan out the window” and reconfigured it with social distancing measures in place. Gone are the long Bavarian-style tables and benches, barstools, and the stacks of board games. A one-way entry system and what Clarke imagines as “almost like a traffic light system for the bathroom” should help avoid bottlenecks. The Clarkes are also looking into pay-at-table technology that minimizes contact between patrons and waitstaff, as well as online substitutes for board games and quiz nights.
I think one of the biggest impacts social distancing will have on the brewery and taproom culture is the inability for people to socialize and meet new people.”
Beer garden boom
Pre-COVID, outdoor patios were often the “cheap seats” of a lively bar, the place you go to be away from the center of the action. This summer, they may be the most coveted seats in the house. Bars lucky enough to have outdoor spaces—and some that do not—are investing in them.
“Expect to see a lot of beer gardens popping up,” says Aften Lee, brand and retail director for Smog City Brewing Co. in Torrance, California. Lee says they’re enclosing part of the parking lot “to make a social distance beer garden.” The new space should add about 40 to 50 outdoor seats, which will make up for a lot of the forfeited indoor space.
7 Devils Brewing Company and Public House in Coos Bay, Oregon removed half of its tables per state orders, and the patio has been a boon when consumer confidence is down for inside seating. “I’m glad we have outdoor seating,” says Annie Pollard, who with her husband, Carmen Matthews, owns 7 Devils. Plus, she says, the outdoor area on pleasant evenings has been a treat for customers who’ve been cooped up since lockdown began. “They’re just happy to sit outside, have a beer and have someone else cook for them.”
More than a place to drink
“I think one of the biggest impacts social distancing will have on the brewery and taproom culture is the inability for people to socialize and meet new people,” Lee says. “People will not be able to come in, sit next to a stranger and become friends over a pint. Regulars won't have the chance to mingle with other regulars and catch up with our beertenders.”
It might take a while for patrons to accept the new rules of social distancing and not being able to claim their favorite barstool or hug their favorite server. Pollard says she and her staff have gotten a lot of pushback since their soft reopening in May. “Part of my job is to tell people what to do without them feeling chastised.” Regulars, she says, have been the hardest to reign in and reminding clients that the rules come from a higher authority has diffused some of the resentment. Even Pollard admits that the normally bustling social hub just doesn’t feel like a bar anymore.
Ashton also mourns the loss of intimacy and familiarity the pandemic has brought. “We’re used to running busy pubs, with everyone coming in, hugging, standing close to the bar for their pints and chit-chat,” she says. The challenge now for owners is how to preserve that sense of togetherness and the idea of the corner bar or brewpub as a welcoming community gathering spot—just as long as no one gathers too closely.