By Liza Weisstuch

A social species: bartenders' post-pandemic comeback

Owning a bar owns your life
Owning and running a bar or restaurant is one of those careers like acting or teaching: you do it because you need to, because the thought of committing your waking hours to anything else is simply incomprehensible. You do it because, even with the catalogue of aggravations it invites, you love it. It’s fulfilling to look around a bar or restaurant and see people reminisce and laugh and fall in love and broker deals and know that your soul is part of that moment.

Or so I’ve heard from the many restaurant- and bar-owning friends I’ve made during the past 15 years of writing about the industry. When you meet an owner of a favourite place – whether it’s a timeworn corner joint or a swish cocktail lounge – if they’re good at their job, their proverbial fingerprints are everywhere. This is their home.

If you’ve talked to two restaurant or bar owners in your life, you’ve heard at least two of them say that their job is hosting a party every night. There were no parties in the last 15 months. That’s been tough on owners – and bartenders, kitchen workers and waitstaff – financially. But when your identity hangs on your ability – rather, your instinct – to make people feel accepted and cared for, not having an outlet for that can leave people floundering emotionally, too. All the to-go orders in the world can’t replace face-to-face interactions between guests and extroverted bartenders.

Everyone’s got pandemic stories about friends or family members who switched careers – the concert clarinettist who took coding classes, the flight attendant who developed better edibles. Or so I’ve heard. The more bars and restaurants reopen, the more I want to hear the comeback story of each bartender, line cook, maître d’, manager and waiter.

But a comeback story might be equated to an international flight compared to the space launch that is the saga of building and even opening a new bar or restaurant while the virus put life on hold. Those are the tales of the truly committed.

This is the story of Rob Morton, who I met in 2010 when he opened Idle Hands, a plucky and absolutely excellent subterranean bar in Manhattan’s East Village. Rob and his business partner and friend, Marc Schapiro, were music industry ex-pats. It showed. The bar’s motto was: bourbon, beer, rock. They averaged 250 whiskies on the menu in a moment in time when whiskey bars were still a novelty. It closed after five years, but its legacy endures as a bourbon of the same name. Dave Schmier is among the many individuals that comprise the extensive network Rob built while running Idle Hands. Dave’s company, Proof and Wood, selects and blends barrels for – or sometimes with – clients. In Rob’s case, it’s the latter. For their first collaboration, they blended two barrels of 13-year-old bourbon. The latest is two small-batch blends.

In 2019, Rob moved to North Carolina and in February 2020 he started buildout on Paul’s of Oak Island, a come-one-come-all-style sports bar on the beach. The island has a population of about 8,000 that grows fourfold in the summer.

In mid-June, Paul’s was five weeks out from opening, which was about a year later than originally planned. A major investor pulled out in early March, just as the virus was about to land on American shores. Then Covid brought construction to a halt. Rob counts times that he almost handed over the keys. But he didn’t. He engaged in the Twister-like exercise of accommodating the pandemic’s ever-changing rules. But he always planned to open Paul’s as intended.

“While everyone was shuffling to modify who they were and what they did, we knew that the pandemic of 1918 taught us that it was going to end eventually and things will go back to normal. There’s no such thing as new normal,” he told me. “We’re not a forgetful species, we’re a social species. We want to hug and to talk to and be out in public with other people. It
was never an option to change what we do because the formula has been tried and true for millennia. We don’t need to change the fundamentals because fundamentals don’t need to be changed.”