Behind Bars in the Big Easy

By Halle Rudolf

New Orleans is a city known for fun. A reputation for parties, entertainment, and loose morals has woven drinking into the fabric of its culture as a city. Visitors spent a total of more than $10 billion (yes—billion with a b) in New Orleans in 2019 searching for a good time out of town.[1] Just before the COVID-19 Pandemic hit, drinking establishments, bars, and all other “fun-houses” were prospering as more and more people traveled here in search of a good time. Unfortunately, like many other industries worldwide, bars in New Orleans took a big hit when quarantine began and tourism abruptly halted.

In true supply and demand fashion, the number of bars—and different types of bars at that—grew as more people wanted different drinking experiences in New Orleans. Because of this, all types of drinking establishments had to pivot and take another look at their business models when lockdown struck. As New Orleans mayor LaToya Cantrell published guidelines for restaurants and bars to comply with, each establishment had a unique set of standards based on what amenities they had. Though they each differed in this regard, specialty cocktail bars, neighborhood dives, as well as pubs and taverns alike all experienced  similar devastations in response.

The past nine months have been a whirlwind for the culinary and/or drinking industry. In March Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards closed all bars and restaurants in the state.[2] Emily, a bartender who has worked at Bruno’s Tavern in Uptown for two years, was laid off for three weeks. A coworker of hers who had worked there twice as long was laid off for two months. For Bruno’s, at this point in the pandemic, no business meant they had to get rid of long-standing employees.

A couple weeks later, bars were limited to only drive-thru and take-out orders. This presented a whole new set of issues, as very few people would opt to buy a 6-pack of beer at a bar when there’s likely a liquor store right around the corner from them. Emily said this was a particularly tough time for Bruno’s; “Most days it would just be me here with a manager, watching movies and doing yoga. A couple people would stop by to pick up to-go-orders, but not a lot.” In each order, Bruno’s included a beer koozi that said, “Thanks for supporting local businesses!” Because while this was certainly a blow to Bruno’s, they are lucky in that they are a neighborhood tavern with regular customers. When people didn’t want to cook dinner, they could walk down the street and get some wings from an old standby.

Cure, a cocktail lounge on Freret street, had a different experience. As a nicer bar, their service revolves not so much around a pitcher of beer and a football game, but more around crafted cocktails served to an afterwork crowd. This is certainly not the place that most people would stop by to grab a 6-pack, or even a burger-to-go. Samantha, the assistant director of operations on the Cure team said that this period of time offered them a new creative outlet, however. “Since our bartenders had more time on their hands, we got to play around with making different drinks. They would make frozen concoctions to sell as to-go drinks, since we couldn’t market our regular service the same way we had before the pandemic.”

There was still a lot up in the air though, for Cure. “There has been a lot of different phases of all this,” Samantha noted, “we’ve been doing our best to just comply with whatever comes next.” After a ‘to-go only’ month, Mayor Cantrell declared that only bars with kitchens could remain open at 25% capacity and could no longer offer any to-go beverages. While Cure and Bruno’s both had the fortune of full-service kitchens, other bars were not as lucky. Dozens of bars around the city are still boarded up and out of business. 

As of very recently, bars without a kitchen may open their spaces at 25% capacity.[3] This is after almost nine months of shutdown. To deal with this extended period of closure, these businesses have had to get creative in order to stay afloat. A bartender at a popular dive in New Orleans spoke to what their place of work had to do to get through the tough time;[4]  “We’re actually doing speakeasy. It’s pretty much just word of mouth to people our employees trust, and since the actual bar is boarded, you can’t even see that there are any people inside.” The bar asked for all attendees to pay in cash. “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to stay afloat, you know?”

While Bruno’s has a kitchen, they worked creatively to help keep a bar without a kitchen afloat as well. Catty-corner from Bruno’s spot on the corner of Maple and Hillary streets is Redd’s Uptilly Tavern. Since they don’t serve food, Redd’s has spent the past eight months boarded up with no patrons. Most of their business came from Tulane students before the pandemic, so with those kids gone there wasn’t much they could do. Emily spoke on the process of Bruno’s Tavern teaming up with their neighbor to help keep them open: crawfish boils. “This was before people were even wearing masks,” Emily said. “We would set up on our side patio and there would be people lined up around the block. It was great to work with Redd’s on this, because both of us were pretty short staffed at the time so it worked great on both ends.” As COVID cases rose, the crawfish boils stopped, but they were still a critical part of remaining open at the time. On Saturday November 13th Redd’s had their doors open to the outside world for the first time since March. Only a few people were allowed to go in at a time.

Now, as more bars continue to open up, the question of safety becomes much more prominent. For customers and employees alike, it is imperative that every bar makes sure they do their part to follow CDC guidelines and contain the spread of COVID-19.

“On our end, we have been trying to work in pods,” Samantha at Cure explained. “We make sure that the same few people work the same shifts all the time. So, if one person in a pod gets sick, it hopefully will be contained to those team members. This is something we decided to implement for the sake of the bar. It was a basic business model shift to make sure that we don’t have to completely shut down if anything happens.” Cure has also teamed up with a testing facility in Metairie to make sure that all of their employees are staying safe, as they don’t want to put their customers at risk either. “At the end of the day our bartenders and waiters are essentially putting their lives on the line. They go home to their loved ones at the end of the day, just like everyone else. We want to make sure they are safe.”

For many bars, the comfort of their employees has been a huge factor in the ability to reopen. If employees don’t feel safe coming into work, they won’t, which affects nearly all parties involved. “One of the downsides of doing speakeasy is that we can’t necessarily regulate in a way to comply with all of the CDC guidelines to make sure everyone stays safe and healthy,” the bartender at their underground post observed. “Since people have been using the closed bar space to kind of escape everything that’s been going on in the world, it definitely is not the safest environment to be in. It really just comes down to our livelihood though.” These bartenders have had to decide what the greater risk for them is at this point in both their careers, and the pandemic. 

It is not a risk that anyone should have to choose between. Not having a job but maintaining their health of themselves and their families versus risking their lives and their loved ones because they need to make sure they can stay afloat on a day-to-day basis. The people in this industry are not those making enough money to have an easy decision. As a result, lots of stress has been added to an ongoing anxiety provoking and stressful situation. “It really is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through,” the bartender said.

As restrictions and guidelines change and parts and pieces continue to shift throughout the world, the bar industry must be vigilant to keep up with these ever-changing standards. These small New Orleans businesses depend now more than ever on the people in their community, and the community in response must work vigilantly in order to support them.




[4] Because of the nature of what this person has to say, their name, as well as their place of employment will be left anonymous

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