Pandemic-Era Holiday Bars Serve Much-Needed Seasonal Cheer | Wine Enthusiast
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Pandemic-Era Holiday Bars Serve Much-Needed Seasonal Cheer

“We need a little Christmas. Right this very minute,” hits differently this year.

In the hospitality industry, bar and restaurant workers are worried about the economic viability of the all-important holiday season as the weather gets colder and indoor seating capacities remain limited, if permitted at all. Without corporate party bookings, or packed rooms full of holiday revelers, bars must shift strategies.

Many are creating innovative winter wonderlands in a bid to boost sales—and perhaps spirits—in a particularly challenging year.

Holiday bars
Before the area launched stay-at-home orders, San Francisco’s Elixir painted its sidewalk extensions and festooned them with garlands. Photo by Marc Forito

Holiday-themed bars aren’t new, of course, but the pandemic has brought some key changes. Some are kicking off the festive season earlier than usual, and started stringing up the lights the first week of November.

In Washington, D.C., the team at Tiki TNT, which includes a rum distillery as well as a tiki bar, switched on its two snow machines on November 21. “Usually, I’d wait for a week after Thanksgiving,” says TNT proprietor Todd Thrasher.

He added a second snow machine and decorations from his personal stash this year to help make the bar extra festive. As in previous years, Tiki TNT will also have holiday lights projected onto each wall and an oversized Christmas tree hung upside down and adorned with tiki ornaments, to entice shoppers to buy tropical cocktails and Thrasher’s Rum bottles.

“It’s a little bigger, a little over-the-top,” he says. “I’m just trying to make it fun and crazy for people.”

Some counter social-distancing restrictions with outdoor structures intended to shelter small squads, such as the igloo lounges at Chicago’s LondonHouse hotel and Geraldine’s at Kimpton’s Hotel Van Zandt in Austin. There are also new, ski-inspired cabins at The Greens at NYC’s Pier 17.

Chalet at Rosie Cannonball
In Houston, The Chalet at Rosie Cannonball has fire pits and an Irish Coffee menu / Photo by Julie Soefer

Houston’s Goodnight Charlie’s channels a ski chalet vibe. While the venue has been closed since March, in early November, it transformed the outdoor patio at sister restaurant, Rosie Cannonball, into The Chalet, complete with fire pits and an Irish Coffee menu designed by Bar Managers Alex Negranza and Sarah Crowl. There are Sunday industry nights, with flaming drinks around the fire.

The concept is “a form of escapism and comfort,” explains co-owner June Rodil, MS. “You feel like you’re in a setting where you’re traveling in a season filled with merriment.”

That said, escapism doesn’t come cheap.

“The hardest part of the holiday set-up is committing to the investment to create the Chalet,” says Rodil. Furniture was repurposed as much as possible to reduce costs, such as painting dining tables and chairs peppermint-stick white and red. Rodil’s husband, furniture designer Aaron Rodil, custom designed benches and fire pits.

“We’re forced to spend to function within the pandemic space, but there is always a fear of a shutdown which would drive further pandemic losses,” she says.

While bar owners are doing their best to create fun, welcoming spaces, many are weary after such a challenging year.

“We’re all going to make a stab at being jolly and cheery,” says H. Joseph Ehrmann, proprietor of San Francisco’s Elixir. “But if Congress goes on vacation until the new year with no relief package, they will return to a much more dire situation. That is the biggest difficulty of them all.”

Elixir’s winter theme featured sidewalk extensions, called parklets, painted holiday colors and festooned with garlands. It wired its six booths with speakers that pipe in holiday tunes, and guests there could sip hot buttered rum or housemade egg nog. This month, the Bay Area introduced a stay-at-home order that means that Elixir, like other drinking and dining venues, is temporarily unable to use these facilities.

The interior of Elixir is already pretty cozy, warmed up year-round with antique wood, Victorian lighting and the ceiling painted scarlet. This year, the bar put extra emphasis on trimming the exterior of the bar, including large window displays, with a Christmas tree scene in one and a framed TV screen in the other showing either sporting events or a Yule log. Stockings for the staffers were hung outdoors this year instead of along the back bar. The idea was to entice people to enter and build business, Ehrmann says.

Tiki TNT
In Washington, D.C., Tiki TNT’s Todd Thrasher added a second snow machine and decorations from his personal stash to help make the bar extra festive / Photo courtesy Tiki TNT

Ehrmann underscores an important point: Most years, holiday-themed bars are all about drawing in crowds and boosting year-end sales. This year, the decorations are part survival, part sunk cost to build goodwill and keep guests coming back after the novel coronavirus pandemic ends.

“I’m investing for the future,” Thrasher explains. “I’m taking a long-term view. This year is a bust. It’s done. None of us are going to get rich this year.”

But that doesn’t mean that he’s completely cynical.

“This year, I don’t know how it will translate into cash,” he continues. “If it can make people happy, make them forget what’s going on for an hour or two, I’m successful.”

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