Battered but not down, an industry in transition looks ahead
More than 19 months after the COVID-19 pandemic began, drinkers surveying the Boston cocktail scene may see a coupe glass half-empty. The crisis triggered the closure of beloved indie cocktail bars like the Automatic and Deep Ellum, and bonafide institutions including Eastern Standard and The Hawthorne. Others, such as Sound Advice, Wink & Nod, and Better Sorts Social Club, have gone dark without any publicly announced plans to resume service.
Meanwhile, Drink—the only Boston venue ever to appear on the World’s Best 50 Bars List—has been closed “until further notice” since July, just five months after its post-hibernation reopening. Asked to comment on its future plans, a spokesperson for the Barbara Lynch Collective told DigBoston, “Drink closed for renovations which we have now finished. We are currently looking for staff at all levels to begin our reopening plans.”
But amid the pandemic doldrums, there has been good news. The team behind Baldwin Bar and Blossom Bar opened their fourth concept, Ivory Pearl Bar, in Brookline last August; Downtown favorite JM Curley has been revitalized by its former bar manager Kevin Mabry, who rejoined the bar as a managing partner in April; and the COJE Management Group, responsible for glitzy party hangs Yvonne’s and Mariel, opened Coquette last month in the Seaport with a focus on French spirits.
However, one of the brighter drinking developments amid the pandemic—the opening of 20-seat cocktail bar Offsuit in November 2020—was itself shrouded in darkness when allegations of sexual misconduct were brought against former manager Matt Marini in August. The bar, which temporarily closed its doors after firing Marini, re-opened in September.
“After a month of reflection, reorganization, and retraining, Offsuit has opened again with a talented new staff,” Bar Manager Ryan Polhemus said in a statement. “In the aftermath of what happened we considered simply closing for good, but ultimately decided that having a light shined on some of the darker aspects of the bar industry was long overdue. We’re excited to be a part of creating positive change moving forward, both in our space and the industry as a whole.”
For an honest accounting of how the Boston bar scene stands in 2021—and what its future might hold—we spoke with longtime local bartender Jackson Cannon, who formerly served as the bar director for Eastern Standard and The Hawthorne, and now works as a bar and beverage program consultant across the state.
“The damage is real,” Cannon said. “The needs of our industry were very poorly met through large government programs designed to address the pandemic. It’s left us, as we build back out of this thing, in an industry that already had a lot of strategic, architectural problems with profit margin and the difficulty of labor models that had a lot of disparities built into them.”
In Cannon’s view, that combination of pre-existing problems and new, pandemic-induced ones has made the hospitality industry a less attractive vocation.
“All of that stuff is only worse, and what it’s done is robbed us of an optimism necessary for young people to dedicate themselves to the part of the work that’s bigger than getting paid for a job,” he said. “When you start talking about a niche like cocktails or fine wine or heightened hospitality, that is a big currency—the belief that you can make the world a better place through hard work and have a career while doing it. That’s not been true for a year and a half.”
No magic bullet exists to solve the many problems facing the hospitality industry on a local and national basis, but Cannon sees potential solutions in ideas like new profit-sharing models. “There’s a really interesting place where people are trying to figure out, ‘Are we addressing the back of the house with a three-percent kitchen fee culture, or are we just going to do 20% shared across all platforms, with cash gratuities above that being shared at the front of the house? Can we live up to that if we do that?”
Cannon predicts that operators may also address labor costs and shortages by relying more on pre-batched cocktails, particularly now that bars have had the experience of batching drinks for cocktails to-go. “I think you’re going to see a lot more elegantly constructed [cocktails] on draft,” he said.
Cannon also believes that a continuation of takeout cocktails, which sunset on May 1, and extended outdoor dining, which concludes on April 1, is sorely needed. “We’re going to be in need of additional streams of revenue for years to get the industry back on its feet,” he says.
To help achieve that first aim, local advocacy group Cocktails for Commonwealth is holding a “Small Business Day of Action” via a series of virtual and in-person events on October 25, during which it will also advocate for an extension on third-party delivery fee caps and increased grants to small businesses.
Another Beacon Hill development that could have wide-ranging effects on the industry is a potential return of happy hour, which has been banned in the state since 1984. State Rep. Mike Connolly has introduced Bill H.4135, which would establish a special commission to “review and evaluate happy hours.” In addition, a 2022 ballot measure that would allow for discounted drinks is currently in the signature-gathering phrase.
Cannon says the local industry is divided on repealing the ban, as some higher-end venues feel ambivalent about discounting drinks. But in his view, liberalizing liquor laws would be an industry net positive. “It’s more revenue in the hands of insightful operators,” he said.
While new operating models and supportive legislation are key to fostering the Boston cocktail scene’s post-pandemic future, there’s no way to replace the community that makes it tick. Ultimately, it’s that last aspect that makes Cannon feel the most optimistic.
“It’s still there,” he said. “It’s had its face wrapped, but bartenders who care about creating great experiences with people have worked through this entire experience. I’m looking at a lot of the people who got through this, and that’s our next generation of leaders … They care about their teams, they care about their guests, they’ve been through hell, and they just want to keep making good times for people.
“That is just awesome DNA.”