There's Music At The End Of The Tunnel For New Orleans Bars Limping To The End Of The Pandemic
In the six years before the pandemic that Bailey Smith and his partners owned Bud Rips in the Bywater, the bar’s annual revenue had more than tripled. In other words, it was a busy bar.
“You couldn’t even interview me in here before the pandemic,” Smith said, laughing and looking around the empty bar room. “It would be too loud. Even on a slow afternoon.”
Now the loudest sound that can be heard comes from a large walk-in refrigerator that keeps the glycol system, used to pour draft beers, cold. In humid Louisiana, turning that equipment off risks mold and other problems, so Smith and his partners pay Entergy every month to keep it on.
Many of New Orleans’ neighborhood bars have been shuttered for the past year, as COVID-19 restrictions have allowed for little to no indoor service. Despite the lack of revenue, owners must still cover expenses like rent, mortgage payments, license renewals and bills for services that can’t be turned off. Those costs have taken their toll.
“It is shocking to have had the things that I do for a living, and that so many other people do, just taken away, and [to] have looked at financial ruin in the face,” said Bailey Smith, general manager and co-owner of Bud Rips in the Bywater and the R Bar & Royal Street Inn in the Marigny.
Smith and his partners closed their businesses on March 14, the day before Mayor LaToya Cantrell ordered all bars closed as the virus began spreading through New Orleans. Neither bar offers outdoor seating and even during the spurts of time when the city approved indoor bar service, the group decided not to open out of safety concerns.
But Smith didn’t think Bud Rips and R Bar would be closed for a full calendar year.
“Even when you’ve accepted the punches, you never imagined it’s going to go for that many rounds for that long,” Smith said.
Like many bar owners in New Orleans, whose businesses have either opened sporadically according to shifting indoor capacity guidelines or remained closed for more than a year, Smith has resigned himself to a sobering calculation.
“You just need to look at those things which are finite, which is cash on hand, recurring expenses, when is the bank account empty? How far do you get?” Smith said.
Roughly 2 miles from Bud Rips in the 7th Ward, Cecile Dalton, owner of Seal’s Class Act, faced a similar math problem.
“I’m used to making money every day,” Dalton said. “I had a nice savings, I don’t have it anymore because I had nothing coming in.”
Before March 2020, Dalton said Seal’s, which was open seven days a week, was packed on the weekends with a mostly Black 30-something-and-older crowd that gravitated to the bar for the live bands it featured.
As the pandemic lingered, attempts from the city government to safely reopen businesses allowed for bars to serve indoors at just 25 percent capacity. Financially, it didn’t make sense for Seal’s to reopen.
“It’s no reason for me to open because I can't even pay my electric bill,” Dalton said.
Up until February, Dalton estimated that Seal’s had opened for a total of 20 days.
There’s Hope In “Tiny Pieces Of Magic”
Seal’s Class Act is special to Devin De Wulf, leader of the Krewe of Red Beans. On Mondays he and krewe members would huddle over small bistro tables, gluing dried beans onto costumes for their annual Dead Beans Parade on Lundi Gras.
“We’re diverse to a point, but we're largely a white group who makes these bean suits. And we were basically welcomed into the bar,” DeWulf said. “And it's become sort of our home.”
When he hatched a plan to raise money for New Orleans’ bars, he called Dalton.
“He said, ‘Miss Seal, I want to help you, because I appreciate how you helped us,’ Dalton said.
That help came in the form of Bean Coin, a local pseudo-currency that essentially works like a pre-paid bar tab. By paying into Bean Coin, bar lovers are investing in a good time at their favorite haunts in the future.
For every $10 spent, people who give to the program will receive a red kidney bean-shaped nugget of blown glass, from Lower 9th Ward-based glass recycling initiative Glass Half Full, complete with the legume’s signature white belly button.
“They’re really gonna be tiny little works of glass art, essentially, like a little tiny piece of New Orleans magic,” DeWulf said.
New Orleans’ bar lovers donate to local bars at NOLABeanCoin.com. Launched on Feb. 10, the program raised $45,000 in its first two days. The program has raised more than $110 thousand from more than 1,500 people.
Bar owners submit their outstanding expenses to the Krewe of Red Beans to decipher what DeWulf calls a ‘survival price point.’
“We survey the neighborhood bars and say, ‘How much do you need to survive?’” DeWulf explained.
Then funds are quickly allocated so that businesses can stay afloat. By March 5, the krewe had given more than $56,000 to eight local bars, including Seal’s Class Act.
For the first time in 24 years, Dalton struggled to pay the bar’s taxes and unpaid utility bills piled up. The amount Seal’s received has covered a large portion of what was owed. She called it a “huge relief.”
Smith and his partners have received enough to cover one month of the Bud Rips’ current expenses, which are paired down since the bar is not operating.
“It buys us a whole month,” Smith said. “That kind of takes some of the momentum out of what I was calling, ‘slow motion bankruptcy.’ Even personally, it felt like that.”
Some of Smith’s neighbors, including 60-year-old live music venue Saturn Bar, which closed in November, have already succumbed to that fate.
DeWulf said when bars are sold to new investors it becomes, “a loss for our culture, because part of the charm of these places is the patina on the walls.”
Those “tiny pieces of magic” will be distributed beginning January 2022, and they’ll be good for purchases at bars that have benefitted from the initiative. The coins will be good for use until Oct. 31, 2022.
There’s Light And Music At The End Of The Tunnel
In late February, once the city allowed bars to serve at 25 percent indoor capacity, after an all-bar shut down in the five days leading up to and including Mardi Gras, Dalton decided to reopen.
“If I make a dollar, it’s a dollar more than I had,” she said.
As the number of active COVID-19 cases has plummeted in recent months, Mayor LaToya Cantrell extended New Orleans’ bars’ capacity limit to 50 percent as of March 12.
On March 13, bands that once played inside Seal’s Class Act organized a fundraiser for the bar. Pods of mostly masked people set up outside on foldable chairs to enjoy the sounds of DJ Captain Charles and a roster that included Lisa Amos, Rick and Channing, Big Frank and Lil Frank, and more.
Sitting on a patch of the neutral ground on Aubry Street, Dalton, in a yellow crocheted dress and matching yellow mask, greeted patrons who donated to the “Seal’s Love Box.” As the bands played, they told her how much they missed live music.
The statement relayed by many was, “We needed this.”
For Bud Rips and R Bar, “a rush to open and burn capitol doesn’t make sense. I still have the issue of operating well below our sales,” Smith said.
Plus, he pointed out, 50 percent capacity is different during a pandemic.
“It’s 50 percent with whatever restrictions are added to it versus other contingencies [like] distance between patrons, seating arrangements and how much staff would have to be on hand.”
Of the life Bud Rips once held — the clinking of glassware, the chaca-chaca-chaca of a cocktail being shaken, the general din of barroom chatter — Smith mostly misses the staff.
“They're part of the fabric and it hurts to not have them around to see them all the time,” Smith said, tearing up. “And for this not to be a place where people can come see them all the time too. And that is part of the business as well. It's human interaction.”
But he indicated that it might not be long before Bud Rips’ large wooden doors and window shutters swing open, once again welcoming that.
“I don’t have a date yet, but I feel like it’s closer than ever,” Smith said.