Every unemployment filing, furlough, and closed business reflects a personal experience. As the statistics pile up, we’re committed to sharing stories of how COVID-19 continues to shape people’s lives and livelihoods—how they’ve coped, what they’ve learned during the crisis, and how they’re moving forward.
Among the industries hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic has been hospitality and service—particularly in New York City, where hundreds of restaurateurs and bar owners have either been forced to permanently close their establishments or reopen with strict guidelines. Among those in the latter group are Julie Reiner, a 49-year-old craft mixology pioneer and co-owner of Brooklyn cocktail bars, Clover Club and Leyenda. After shutting down operations for months, Reiner and her partners reopened their doors and had to not only address stringent NYC guidelines to set up shop again, but had to wear multiple hats just to stay in business. Speaking to The Balance in July, Reiner shared her experience, from closing and staffing issues, to reopening and discovering new creative outlets during the pandemic. This interview has been edited for length.
Did you have any idea or warning signs that shutting down might happen?
It was crazy how quickly things ramped up. The week before closing, we had a meeting to talk about how we were going to sanitize things for safety. A couple of days later, it escalated to closing. Honestly, not in a million years did I ever see this coming. Thankfully, one of my business partners, Christine Williams, is a worst-case-scenario type of person. She’s always thinking, what’s the worst thing that could happen to our business? We had more money in the bank than most bars or restaurants generally keep, so she built more of a cushion for us.
How did you deal with staff when things started shutting down?
Because we didn’t know what’s going to happen, our suggestion was to get on unemployment ASAP. We knew that the unemployment system was probably going to crash, but we really did push everybody to do that. A lot of restaurant staff can be very transient, but we have a lot of people that have been with us for six or seven years, and we were very communicative with them on what we knew and what we suggested that they do.
Our kitchen guys had a bit of a different situation. We kept them afloat through this entire thing and kept paying them because a lot of them don’t have the option of applying for unemployment. I quickly started a GoFundMe page and I’m really glad I did because so much of that money went to the kitchen.
So, what happened after initially closing?
We were totally closed for a while. Then, we started doing to-go cocktails just for pickup, where people would pre-order them and pick up twice a week. Because it was still very dangerous in New York, it was pretty much the owner show. [Clover Club partner] Tom [Macy] would go in on a Thursday and he would batch everything and bottle it. Then, I would go in on a Friday and I would print out all the orders, bag everything up and stand in the front of the space and wait for people to walk up. From six feet back, I would say, “What’s your name?” and get their bag, set it on the table, then I’d back up and they would take the bag. It wasn’t that much money; We were doing everything out of Clover because we only had so much manpower and we were trying to avoid having all these people being there at the same time.
We did that for a few weeks, and then when we were able to open up for to-go service, and we did that with a table at the front door. Leyenda has these windows where it’s almost like a natural food truck. They were able to just open up the windows on both sides, have people walk up and place their orders and take it with them. We were doing that for a while, then they allowed us to do the street seating, which was great and also really frustrating.
The city put out its rules and regulations, saying it has to be this size, this height, and this width, and we jumped on it immediately because restaurants are dying. We’d been closed for two months, and we were doing almost nothing in sales with to-go service. We had a contractor we work with build out both Clover and Leyenda. On Smith Street in Brooklyn, our block looks great, and everything is very uniform. Then, the city again changed the rules within days. It said that if you’re on a two-way street, you have to have an 18-inch-wide barrier. But if it’s a one-way street, which Smith Street is, it just had to be this height, etc. now that you’re six-feet distancing all your tables. We ended up basically having to build the outdoors twice, so the contractor had to come back in to change it and it cost us money to rebuild. What’s crazy about it is the [NYC DOT] came in and gave us a summons, saying, fix it in 24 hours. So we fixed that, and now we have seating outside.
How have you adjusted internally since reopening?
Staffing has definitely been hard. A lot of our people including bussers, runners, and cocktail servers have left the city. So, with the reopening and with unemployment, we have very few people we were able to bring back for front-of-the-house. So, I’m like the head waitress now. My partner Christine, Tom, and I, it’s like the owner show, but how sustainable is it? I’m waiting tables for seven hours and I’m the owner of the business. I’m not supposed to wait tables for a full shift. I don’t mind doing it, I started out as a cocktail waitress, but I’m now 49. I don’t necessarily want a full-on, four-days-a-week, cocktail waiting job because it’s exhausting.
What about safety concerns, especially in terms of crowd issues?
I am more thankful than ever to live in the Brooklyn bubble. In our neighborhood, everybody is wearing a mask. Everyone who comes to our establishment only comes inside to go to the bathroom, if they have to, in which case they wear a mask. A lot of people, when we approach the table, they’ll put their mask up. People have been very well-behaved and are thankful that they’re able to go out to eat. They want to keep it safe and keep the freedom that we currently have. Just being able to sit outside and eat dinner is a luxury compared to where we were all at in April.
What have you learned from this whole experience?
I’ve spent my entire life building a career based on people gathering together to celebrate things, or just talk, or just have a day-to-day existence. It’s a scary thought that we can’t do that. I don’t know how long this is going to last and I hate the term the “new normal.” I’ve definitely done some rethinking about my career, and how I can pivot into doing things that I am able to do.
My sister-in-law works in sales at Pandora. She normally takes clients to concerts and restaurants, but she couldn’t do that anymore. So I was like what if we did a virtual cocktail class with me. I would put together a box [of ingredients] that I’d send her clients, and we would do a Zoom cocktail class. I’ve now been doing about two cocktail classes a week with her clients and it’s been super fun. So, I’m branching out and creating new business that I can do out of my house.
At least you’re finding new avenues in a field you’re experienced with.
It’s all I know how to do. I also have a book geared towards making drinks at home. It’s called The Craft Cocktail Party: Delicious Drinks for Every Occasion and it’s all about home entertaining. So it really fits into this time [of staying home], and I’m reaching people without actually having to be within breathing distance of them.
Looking ahead, what do you hope for?
With the bars, we’re just trying to ride it out. Thankfully, our landlord gave us a rent decrease for the year, which is amazing. But it’s been really stressful. There was one day in particular when I woke up and was just crying in bed, thinking I don’t even want to get out of bed today. Everything you worked for for 20 years is potentially over. What do we do? So, there have been some of those days.
I’ve been in this industry for over 20 years. I love being able to facilitate a good time for people, giving them a cool place to come, meet their friends, and get away from all the stresses of life. I hope we can safely get there again.
Want to share your Small Business Perspective? Tell us your story by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.