How COVID-19 Continues to Affect the NYC Service Industry

It’s been almost ten weeks since bars and restaurants were first closed in New York City. Between battling the government for unemployment, missing my bar, making decisions about my living situation, and being uncertain about the future, it’s safe to say those ten weeks have been a rollercoaster. I had to leave the city, but have been watching my favorite bars attempt to-go service, start-up cocktail subscription services, open merch stores, and more to try and stay afloat. Outside of my perspective as a bartender, I was curious to find out how other jobs within the service industry have been coping. It seemed like some jobs were having more success than others during quarantine, and some have been struggling more than I could ever have imagined. 

One arm of the hospitality, food and beverage industry that seems to be keeping successful is liquor distributors. Lukas Milkowski is the northeast brand manager for Edgewater Spirits and has been able to make it work for the most part. Edgewater Spirits is the owner of Wodka Vodka and Harleston Green Scotch, and Milkowski is responsible for their accounts in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, D.C., Maryland, and Delaware. With bars now closed, the company itself has been staying afloat through sales on delivery services like Drizly and retailers across the country. The first week of quarantine, liquor sales rose 55% nationwide, so it seemed distributors didn’t have much to worry about. 

Quarantine, however, has made Milkowski’s job a bit more complicated. He’s used to traveling to the different states, keeping up with his accounts, visiting markets, seeing his industry family, working with distributors, and adding new business. Now, he has to try to make that work from home by calling and emailing his accounts to provide support. He says his biggest goal is “to take it day by day and see how we are going to be able to support our bars.” Since he oversees so many different states, he has to keep an eye on the various guidelines for reopening along the east coast and adjust accordingly. 

Milkowski and Edgewater Spirits are trying to support everyone more than ever, and are doing the best they can given the circumstances. Milkowski comes from a bar background, having tended bar for several years, so he is not only worried about his accounts, but also his friends. His take is that “the state doesn’t deem the bar industry as important to reopen as it should. It’s tough to say how it’s going to look moving forward, but we are going to learn how to be more humble and cautious.” Knowing how hard it can be, he’s tried his best to check in with friends from the industry. With this sentiment, I wanted to check in with a bartender friend to see how they’re coping. 

Kevin Bohl was a long time bartender at The Brooklyn Inn, one of Brooklyn’s oldest bars, before COVID-19. Once the bar closed, he lost his job and began fearing for his future. Like most New Yorkers, it took Kevin’s unemployment insurance over six weeks to finally kick in. Everything before then, from a GoFundMe campaign, help from family, and occasional virtual tips from regulars was “only a band-aid.” Kevin had been homeless in the past, forced to couch surf or stay with his parents, so the thought of possibly taking a step backward was terrifying. 

I think Bohl feels the way most bartenders do right now, which is “deeply grateful for all the help that [we’ve] received.” Bohl says that when a gift appears, he’ll invariably start sobbing because he’s in disbelief about whether he deserves this care. “I’m the one that’s supposed to be taking care of others, not the other way around,” he laments. Second to money, Bohl worried about what not having a job would do to him psychologically: “I need the stability for my sanity. In addition, my coworkers and regulars make up a large part of my community. Not having that contact and the isolation terrified me.” Bohl has managed to take part in a storytelling event and has begun work with a theatre company to find a way to stage a play in lockdown to stay sane. You can listen to his beautiful story, ‘Snowglobe’ on RISK! to get a taste of not only his storytelling, but The Brooklyn Inn as well. On looking forward, he says, “we all need to keep taking care of each other. It looks like we’ve got a ways to go.” That advice applies to both interpersonal and professional relationships, and lots of service industry members have listened. 

Remember Emilee Lord, who created the Dances and Drawings cocktail during the quarantine. I’ve been keeping up with her since the article, and have been amazed to see what she’s managed to do with her bar during the quarantine. Before quarantine, she was bartender and front of house manager at Halyards Bar in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Yes, she did lose her bartending job when this first started, but has since not only become part-owner of Halyards, but has created multiple avenues of revenue for the bar. Lord says she “spent the first month or so thinking I would have to completely change my life. Besides bartending, I am an artist and choreographer, so the giant slap in the face of nonessential was a lot to take in.” Bartending got Lord through college and grad school and helps her to pay the bills while she makes art, so owning a bar has always been on her bucket list. 

While she was working towards opening her bar, COVID-19 shut that dream down, until she realized she was able to invest in Halyards and become part owner and managing partner. She and co-owner Edward Colley “have taken time to create a plan to sustain us through reopening, and we got to put our creative energies to work making handcrafted merchandise for our online store.” Unsurprisingly to anyone who knows Emilee, she says the bar looks like a “mercantile and design shop” with the kitchen turned into a screenprinting studio. On top of their handcrafted merch, they’ve started a weekly cocktail subscription and have pop up hours for their take out window. 

Halyards Mercantile
Halyards Mercantile

During their pop up hours, Halyards is giving free pints of beer to first responders in the neighborhood. Lord says, “this is our way to say thank you, and it continues to be possible due to a number of donations from our regulars and guests.” On the Halyards online store, there is a Beer for Heroes purchase button, where all donations will go towards free beer for first responders. In a time of uncertainty, it’s incredible to see that bar owners are trying to stay above water, but continue to put their communities first.

While Lord found a way to take ownership of her space during quarantine, Diego Bermeo didn’t have such luck. Bermeo was in the middle of opening a Spanish/Latin Caribbean restaurant on the Upper Westside called Tasca. He was slated to be manager, mostly working in front of the house, but also working into the kitchen and back of the house with food menu planning, costs, and hiring. Unfortunately, Tasca never got the chance to open as they were “still waiting on a few permits from the city,” and once COVID-19 hit, it put a halt on the project. A couple of weeks after realizing his dream of Tasca was on hold, Bermeo contracted COVID-19. He was sick with the virus for 12-14 days and said it was terrible. Luckily he’s been symptom-free for four weeks now and hopes his restaurant will make the same recovery.

Reopening in New York City is a scary thing. Nobody wants to open too soon or before it’s safe. This week, Bermeo started thinking about the measures the industry is going to have to reopen. He says, “planning and not jumping the gun are key. The safety of myself and, most importantly, others is my main concern right now.” When thinking about the side effects of reopening, Bermeo fears that if we don’t do it right, we may have to quarantine again. Right now, he’s shooting for mid-July or August for reopening Tasca, but he has no way of knowing how realistic it is. He says, “everyone is hurting while not being employed, but slow and steady is the right way to reopen.” 

The reality for those of us with service industry jobs is still jarring, but we are staying hopeful. There are small things we can do to keep our industry intact, like buying our favorite liquor brands or shopping to-go windows and merch stores. Though it has been scary, it seems it has been a welcome break for most. Lord and Bohl have been able to work more on their art, Bermeo says he’s become worlds closer with his family during this time, and Milkowski has more time to stay in touch with old friends. We can all speculate about how the industry will look moving forward, but it’s clear that nobody knows. We’re going to reopen to a whole new normal, and the best thing we can do is take this time to prepare and get back in touch with ourselves. Sleep, eat well, indulge your passions, support your loved ones, stay safe, and think about life after this. What do you want it to look like, for both your job and yourself?

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