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Global Bar Check-In: How three bars across the world responded to and survived the COVID-19 pandemic

This article appeared in the Mar/April issue of MENU Magazine was written in March 2021, therefore, the current status and operations of those featured may currently differ.

It is not very often that one single event can achieve a massive global reach and world-wide effect, where one shared experience can bring millions of people together. COVID-19 continues to have tremendous impacts on the global bar community and while the recovery in Canada is slow, what about the rest of the world?

Although bar owners and staff have felt the negative effects of lockdown, there are learnings that can be taken from how bar industry leaders in other countries have handled the similar ups-and-downs of the ultimate “make lemonade from lemons” situation.

Martin Hudak is the co-founder and owner, of Maybe Sammy, located in The Rocks, Sydney, Australia.  Winner of numerous bar industry accolades including the Michter’s Art of Hospitality Award as part of The World’s 50 Best Bars 2020, the bar experienced a three-month shutdown from March to June 2020. 

Martin Hudak, co-founder and owner of Maybe Sammy

Lockdown measures in Australia were regionalized with some areas seeing draconian and immediate restrictions including roadblocks and nightly curfews.  During the lockdown in Australia, the government provided substantial financial relief to employees and many establishments did not have to pay rent. 

Hudak and his team focused on staying in touch with existing guests and building connections to new guests so that when they did reopen, they were able to get the business going right away even with initial capacity limits.  The government stepped up even further by financing the build of a new outdoor terrace that provided 40 extra seats but that came with its own set of challenges.  

“We had to figure out how to bring the indoor experience outside. A lot of training and effort went to the floor staff to ensure that they were equally as entertaining and as knowledgeable as a bartender to deliver something that you would see behind the bar in an outdoor environment.” 

Currently they are operating with no capacity restrictions or PPE requirements and recently customers have even been allowed to stand at the bar and dance.

Maybe Sammy interior

Staying in touch with customers and focusing on training was something Bannie Kang, co-owner of Mu Taipei, concentrated on during the shutdown in Taiwan.  She had quite a different experience, opening Mu Taipei in an alley of the Da’an District of Taipei in March 2020, just days before the pandemic hit the rest of the world.

However, early on, while much of the world waited for more information, Taiwan activated its Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC), which coordinates different ministries in an emergency, and the military was brought in to boost mask and PPE production with the country adopting mask-wearing almost immediately. Taiwan introduced tight restrictions on who could fly into the country, banning all foreign nations from entering the island, apart from diplomats, those with resident visas with special entry visas.

Bannie Kang, co-owner of Mu Taipei

Winner of the 2019 Diageo World Class cocktail competition and DRiNK Awards Bartender of the Year (Asia) 2020, Kang worked with her team to develop specialized communications and reached out to customers with customized care packages to keep them engaged. 

“We also took the opportunity to educate our bar team, practicing how we serve. In Taiwan, we were not allowed to deliver drinks so we focused on the opportunity to improve how we worked together as a team.” Taiwan’s early response means everyday life on the island is now very different from a lot of places worldwide where leaders weren’t quick to act. Currently, the bar is operating with no capacity limits or PPE requirements and Taiwan has become one of the world’s biggest COVID success stories.

Sly Augustin, owner of Trailer Happiness

Sly Augustin, owner of Trailer Happiness, an award-winning cocktail bar with a Tiki twist in Nottinghill, London, UK, is currently in a third lockdown with the UK having one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the world, due to the slow reaction from the government to implement and enforce strict lockdown measures in a timely manner. Each lockdown period has resulted in his bar being completely shut down.  

“During the first lockdown we all rallied and the community and government really stepped up and supported our industry and even though it was kind of scary it was a very positive time for the industry because we were determined to push through it.”  

He opened in between lockdowns with restrictions such as two-meter distancing, mandatory masks, and reduced capacity from 110 to 30 people during the first reopening.  After the second lockdown he was able to reopen with a 10 p.m. curfew and only being allowed to sell drinks with a “substantial meal”. The third lockdown has proven to be a bit more challenging with a total closure once again “It’s the roughest – right now we’re prepared to be open but at the same time we know that nothing is certain,” he says. 

Trailer Happiness exterior

Not knowing what the future holds has resulted in the bar industry pivoting both its operations and interaction with customers, forcing bar owners to become creative about how they curate different programs to ensure their businesses survive.

Hudak was able to leverage a sister company, an Italian pizza bar called Maybe Frank and offer their takeout customers free cocktail samples from Maybe Sammy to entice them to take home Maybe Sammy bottled cocktails as a complement to their meal. Social media offered the strongest platform for him to stay connected with his guests.

“We always tried to announce next steps and be as clear as possible with the guests about hours of operations and capacity limits so that we didn’t create any confusion.” Kang also stayed connected to Mui Taipei’s customers via social media. “Whenever customers posted about our small gifts people would become interested in our bar so not only could I keep existing customers but also be recruiting new ones.”

While Trailer Happiness saw some measure of success in terms of cocktail delivery and bespoke brand collaborations during the first lockdown, recently Augustin has stepped back to focus on the environment and service. “I made the decision to focus on how we can improve service.  We still offer a few cool things to consumers and interact as much as possible but right now our focus is on improving our ability to serve the customers for when they return.”

In an ironic way, the pandemic’s forced shutdown provided the opportunity to focus on matters that might have been neglected in the past.  It may be a gloomy time to have the bars closed however this opportunity to continuously improve allows guest to experience something better every single time they return to the venue. Says Hudak: “When you’re closed you realize there are so many mistakes in the service and in the menu and you have this empty space so we took the opportunity to work with the team behind the scenes to make sure everything is spotless.”

Augustin spent countless hours grouting tile in Trailer Happiness: “I wanted to show my staff how much I passionately love the bar.   I personally did a lot of work on the space and when they came in they felt a sense of pride in the space because it had been neglected.  Every single thing you improve makes their job easier and they feel they are involved in the evolution of the bar.  Your staff will be more invested in the space when it reopens if they’re involved in the rebuilding process.” 

Kang agrees with this approach, helping her team to be more educated on hospitality and storytelling. “I asked them to think about how to create and describe new cocktails, giving them a bit more ownership,” she says.

Mu Taipei interior

During the periods of being open, all three owners saw a massive and encouraging shift in their interactions with customers. Augustin felt it created a much better atmosphere for both his customers and staff. “Since we are restricted in terms of how many people we can have in the bar, our floor and bar staff spend more time with each individual table. Previously Trailer Happiness was always packed and it was a lot of fun but I can see in my staff’s faces that it’s a much more enjoyable experience if they can actually take the time with the customer and enjoy the environment they’re in. I don’t think we would have taken this experiment to cut our capacity to see what happened so in that regard it’s actually been positive.”

Hudak echoes that sentiment: “It’s good that the bar is busy with the high volume but sometimes we lose that interaction with the customers. Now they understand that we’re here to take care of them.” There has also been a change in what types of drinks customers are ordering, so even though there are less customers, the split between spirit mixes and cocktails has shifted dramatically.

This swing to a proclivity for premium cocktails could also be attributed to a deeper appreciation from customers now that they realize the value in cocktail pricing.  It’s a great opportunity to educate customers on the experience a bar provides and why.  

Augustin agrees: “Consumers have been making their own drinks at home and I think they appreciate more than ever that it’s harder than you think to create delicious cocktails.”  While customers may be spending more, there are still less of them due to capacity restrictions, but this too has offered an unexpected opportunity for bar owners. “We need to be more focused in terms of what we want to offer because now we don’t have as much margin for error,” says Augustin. “Now everything that you do and offer has to be done in the best possible way because you can’t afford any weak spots.”

All three experiences can offer valuable lessons and insights that Canada can learn from as we prepare for our own reopening. Understanding that our customers may be looking for different levels of service when they return and training staff to understand the importance of spending more time with the guests and how to connect post-COVID. 

Ensuring the bar programming reflects the desires of the guests and their interest in a different offering and overall experience. Taking the time now to improve and focus on fixing all the gaps within the establishment that often went unnoticed due to other priorities. Leveraging social media platforms to keep an open and clear communication channel with your customers as reopening requirements pivot.

But, perhaps the most important learning of all is the necessity of local bar owners coming together in one collective voice and allowing for transparency within the business. Augustin noticed this change happening in his own local community in Nottinghill. “When it comes to the social side of things we have always been very connected but the difference has been in the business side of things. Now everyone is a bit more open about their business operations. I think having a shared voice is something that has to remain going forward. This pandemic has let us know that we are by ourselves together.”

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