The beverage world is changing, for better or worse. This is clear from the swift introduction of legislation permitting the delivery and takeaway of cocktails from bars in D.C., Maryland and Virginia with the sale of food items. Wineries, craft breweries and cideries in the DMV can now ship their alcohol across state lines. Businesses have been pushing for such changes for years, but the introduction is bittersweet. Lawmakers are hoping that implementing looser restrictions on the sale of alcohol will soften the economic blow small businesses are facing, but not every business has the bandwidth to take advantage of this opportunity. Locals in the drink industry spoke with District Fray about how their businesses have been impacted by Covid-19, and how these game-changing laws have shaken up the trade.
Eaton Hotel’s acclaimed cocktail bar has completely shut down operations until June at the earliest. Because the downtown hotel closed its doors, Allegory did not have the ability to stay open for delivery or pickup. Head bartender Paul Gonzalez is keeping his chin up despite the setback. Focusing on silver linings, Gonzalez is excited that the Allegory team has time to go over a new menu release with a fine-tooth comb. He hopes that by the end of quarantine, he will have a fun and approachable menu to present to customers.
“It’s definitely going to be different, but different doesn’t necessarily mean bad,” he says. “[It’s] not going to be a full bar, but that just means you should be taking the extra time to really cultivate and craft an experience for your guest.”
Gonzalez has also been staying busy and getting creative by drawing and painting, working on the Allegory brand, hosting virtual cocktail classes, and reaching out to regulars. He knows that Allegory may not be able to see another packed bar for a long time, and is trying to get used to that new future.
“Being physically together is something we took for granted for so long and now…” Gonzalez’s words hang in the air.
He looks forward to greeting his customers and the challenges of the post-Covid world when all of this is said and done.
THE PEOPLE’S DRUG
Those who can deliver their cocktails to customers know that it’s a whole new ball game.
“How do you package a cocktail that still looks and feels the same?” asks Jon Schott, general manager of The People’s Drug in Old Town Alexandria. “They’re not in the glassware and don’t get the garnishes,” he says of the cocktails. “And you don’t get the service. You don’t get to see them made. It loses a lot of its appeal.”
In Virginia, every two cocktails ordered to-go or for delivery must be accompanied by a food order, and each order can have a maximum of four cocktails. Schott and his team are happy to stay open, but must tackle challenges such as preparing drinks that stay fresh after 30 minutes of travel.
Thus far, The People’s Drug has crafted 11 cocktails for drinking at home and Schott is planning to sell cocktail kits with bar tools soon. With people unable to enjoy their drinks at the bar, Schott is finding himself competing with the corner liquor store. He’s trying to make drinks that people might not make at home for lack of ingredients or bartending skills, and deliver the satisfaction of sipping a cocktail at the bar.
“A lot of us had to get really creative and innovate new ways for our restaurants to thrive, and out of that came new ways for us to grow for the consumer.”
One direction Schott is looking to grow in is with offering more non-alcoholic cocktails. As someone who is four years sober, he knows how difficult it can be to abstain from drinking if you’re alone.
“This is a really tricky time for people because you’re supposed to be at home alone. But when in recovery, you’re supposed to be with people so that you don’t do anything. I think having something on the menu that’s fun and interesting is helpful for anyone in that situation.”
Before the legislation passed to allow the delivery of alcohol, Schott reached out to a local CBD store in Alexandria in the hopes of collaborating on a spirit-free CBD drink. Schott wants people to be able to enjoy a mocktail that isn’t just a sugary, citrusy last resort. Cocktails are supposed to be elegant, dynamic and relaxing. By incorporating CBD into his offerings, Schott hopes those at home can join their friends’ Zoom happy hours without the pressure to make a “real” cocktail. When The People’s Drug is able to welcome guests again, he intends to keep these new zero-proof cocktails on his menu.
The name “Daru” may not ring any bells, as this D.C. bar near H Street hasn’t actually opened yet. The team originally planned on opening the Indian craft cocktail bar in May before the coronavirus ravaged those plans.
Pre-pandemic, bartender Holly Lowe was able to drum up interest in Daru by hosting pop-ups throughout the city, but that is clearly no longer an option. Without any regulars to rely on when everything reopens, the Daru team is utilizing social media to stay connected. No one knows what the landscape will look like after this, and everyone is just adjusting as they go. When Daru does open, they may be limited to welcoming only 10 customers at a time.
Lowe admits this time has been hard to navigate, but she and her team prioritize serving their community and neighbors safely. There has been discussion on using their space to help the H Street neighborhood by offering goods such as books, groceries and spices. At the end of the day, Lowe only wants to put a smile on people’s faces when they enter her bar.
“I really just look forward to making people’s day again,” says Lowe. “Being able to give that hospitality makes a special memory for someone.”
In the meantime, Lowe and her husband (Gonzalez of Allegory) are looking to assist those in the industry who cannot receive government help in this precarious time. The pair has been busy generating awareness about undocumented workers by sharing and supporting the work of local nonprofit Ayuda. As Lowe points out, many in the service industry are not lucky enough to get the same privileges as the rest of us, even with benefits they pay into.
“A lot of people our guests interact with and enjoy services from are out on a wire right now, so it’s important for us to remember those people and find ways to get them what they need and support them during this time,” she says.
THE VINEYARDS AT DODON
Maryland is a fairly strict state when it comes to the sale and consumption of alcohol, so the introduction of legislation allowing wineries and breweries to ship their product anywhere within the state came as a shock. Now consumers can have their favorite wine or beer sent directly to their doorstep without having to find a local purveyor to go through.
Davidsonville-based winery The Vineyards at Dodon has been able to supplement some of the revenue lost from vineyard tours and tastings by shipping wine to club members, thanks to Governor Hogan’s decision to relax restrictions. Though such a change has supported the business, owner and head winemaker Tom Croghan would like to see more substantive changes in the long-term. Croghan wants us to move on from the pandemic as a society that pays more attention to the growth and distribution of food.
“Wine, of course, is meant to be enjoyed with food,” he explains. “A more [evenly] distributed, local supply of food would solve many of these challenges, as well as help produce better, more nutritious food.”
Legislation allowing alcohol delivery has been crucial for Service Bar in Shaw, as 90 percent of the bar’s sales are alcoholic drinks, according to owner Chad Spangler. His team had to adjust the menu to make drinks that can easily be poured over ice and taste as good at home as they do at the bar. But ultimately, he’s just happy to keep their doors open.
“Before, 99 percent of our sales were on-site,” he says. “Shifting has been somewhat challenging, but we’re getting more and more used to it.”
Spangler tries not to look at the new measures Service Bar is taking as a bandage, but rather a new business model. He launched a YouTube channel to stay connected with guests, and is working more than ever before to ensure the delivery and to-go at Service Bar run smoothly.
While he’s not expecting to open his doors to customers anytime soon, he knows he will have to adjust how he serves patrons in the future. Service Bar is relatively small, without the room to space tables six feet apart. He hopes that lawmakers will uphold the new laws after businesses open again to ease the burden of such restrictions.
“We will have to try to figure out some sort of hybrid blend because we’re not going to be able to accomplish what we used to without standing room or seating at the bar, which is a huge part of our business.”
While the change in laws has been helpful, Spangler emphasizes they are not enough to keep Service Bar afloat as this continues into the long-term. The rollout of PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans was promising until it ran out of money, without granting any funding to him or other restaurateurs he has spoken to. What he believes would help Service Bar and others in the industry the most is a stronger, more unified government response.
“If [local] governments can come at this together and figure out a more responsible approach than what’s happening right now, and find a logical way to get things reopened and active again, it would instill confidence in the consumer. People would feel like it’s not so dangerous to go out and socialize again.”
LOST BOY CIDER
Alexandria’s Lost Boy Cider was the first cidery in Virginia to close its doors when the reality of the current state of affairs began to sink in. Going from a mainly onsite tasting sales model to canning all products for home consumption was tough, but founder Tristan Wright is thankful to continue his business in any capacity.
“At the end of the day, the health and safety of my employees and customers matters most,” Wright explains. “If that means we can’t have [on-site] tastings like we used to, then we will be prepared to continue getting customers our cider from afar.”
Lost Boy can now ship its beverages to 49 states and self-distributes within Virginia. Customers can still pick up cider to-go alongside nosh from local food trucks and restaurants that have partnered with Lost Boy during this time. Wright hopes these looser laws are here to stay after the virus is more contained, as he knows things may never truly go back to normal.
Allegory: www.allegory-dc.com // @allegory_dc
Ayuda: www.ayuda.com // @ayuda_dmv
Lost Boy Cider: www.lostboycider.com // @lostboycider
The People’s Drug: www.thepeoplesdrug.com // @thepeoplesdrug
Service Bar: www.servicebardc.com // @servicebardc
The Vineyards at Dodon: www.dodonvineyards.com // @dodonvineyards
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