“As soon as the shutdown happened and the SLA changed the liquor law allowing bars and restaurants to deliver booze, we’ve been delivering,” says Tom Roughton, the manager of the Brooklyn, New York bar Izzy Rose.
However, the North Carolina native isn’t simply hoping in his car. Roughton has earned a reputation as the Biking Bartender: delivering on-demand libations from door-to-door thanks to his trusty bicycle. “I already ride my bike every day anyway so this was a perfect adaptation.”
Roughton’s inventive idea is one of many in an industry that has been turned on its head, with personalities from bartenders to owners scrambling to preserve some sort of business in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Whether changing entire sales models or finding unique ways to maintain a semblance of an income, innovation has become a ubiquitous facet of the industry.
For Roughton, his new normal consists of arriving at his empty bar in the middle of the afternoon. After juicing and batching, he then waits by his phone for orders which are taken either via calls or direct messages through Instagram.
Aside from the actual libations, Roughton’s customers are in the mood for more than just drinks when he arrives. “People are so happy to have a little socialization and laughs,” he says, noting he’ll dart from neighborhood to neighborhood, at some points biking up to 30 miles per day. “My favorite days are when I get calls to Park Slope,” he says of the quaint Brooklyn neighborhood flanked by its eponymous park. “If I’m riding my tracklocross bike, I’ll go mash around on the dirt trails on my way to addresses.”
Some businesses have gone beyond their original mission statement. Across the river in Manhattan’s Lower East Side neighborhood, the bar Forgtmenot transformed from a typical watering hole to a grocery store within 24 hours, with owner Paul Sierros hawking cleaning supplies and fresh fruit alongside Bloody Marys and Margaritas. As a result of the sales, Sierros is not only keeping his business alive but he even has the funds to pay former employees who aren’t able to collect unemployment benefits.
Meanwhile about two and a half hours north of New York City in the upstate town of Coxsackie, Jarrett Lane, the owner of the bar and restaurant The Cask and Rasher, has begun selling packages of wholesale food in the form of what he dubbed “Apocalypse Packs” via curbside pickup.
“I came up with the idea when I noticed the supply lines at local stores were getting exhausted by people hoarding,” says Lane of the phenomena that occurred early in the pandemic. “I figured as long as my supply lines were open I could match or beat grocery store prices while simultaneously protecting people from going out in public (it could work).”
Posting deals on their Facebook (a recent pack consisted of over 55lbs of meat, including 10 lbs of Black Angus burgers and 10 of chicken breast), the initiative has spurred Lane to continue offering the bulk deals since New York State’s shutdown began in Mid-March.
But with the recent innovations, many in the industry know these sales are a temporary band-aid to a long term problem. “The bar and restaurant industry needs strong local support to survive,” says Lane. “Most run on razor thin margins and a couple weeks without cash flow hurts… If you are still standing after this shakes out, you’ve done something extraordinary.”
And despite enjoying his new biking bartending lifestyle, Roughton agrees. “While staffing is about as minimal as it can be, we’re still paying rent on a 1000 square foot space,” he explains. “As much as I love being on my bike more, I miss having a bar full of people on a Friday night, laughing, grooving to the music, and having fun.”