Run Rabbit Run in Poblacion during pre-lockdown days. Photo by Jar Concengco
Food & Drink Recommended Bars

Can bars survive the lockdown? The metro’s top bar owners aren’t giving up just yet

These bar owners are raring to open their bars once it’s safe again, but in the meantime, they’re delivering their drinks for us to enjoy at home. By CYRENE DE LA ROSA
ANCX | May 19 2020

When Metro Manila first entered into emergency community quarantine or ECQ in mid-March, restaurants were only allowed to operate on a takeout and delivery basis. But where did that leave the bars? Their business is based on customers enjoying their drinks on site, on cocktails being mixed on the spot, and on people mingling with each other. Deemed a non-essential business, bars had no choice but to close down unless they could pivot to a mainly food takeout/delivery operation. And with liquor bans instituted in many of Metro Manila’s cities and municipalities, drinks delivery proved very limited as well.

As Metro Manila has recently moved to a modified ECQ, with the possible further easing of restrictions in the next few weeks and months, ANCX checked in with the owners of some of the top bars in the metropolis to find out how they have been coping, and how they see the future for the country’s bar scene post-lockdown.

 

A dire situation

Erwan Heussaff of Yes Please and The Palace sums up the situation succinctly, “Just like a lot of other businesses, we went from some to zero revenue overnight, with no foresight as to when things will pick back up.”

Erwan Heussaff of Yes Please and The Palace.

Establishments are closed, and many bartenders have been furloughed, with no sources of income coming in. Ken Bandivas of Kampai and The Spirits Library agrees, “A lot of people are now jobless and even business owners are struggling to keep their place operational.”

Ken Bandivas also works as on-trade manager for premium spirits distributor William Grant & Sons Philippines.

What makes it particularly difficult for bars? It all boils down to the experience, says Jericson Co of The Curator. “You experience a bar rather than you buy a bar’s products. Some restaurants can survive on selling products, so deliveries can be a viable option for them. Experiences are another animal.” Kalel Demetrio of Agimat agrees, “In a normal world, you design a bar program that will attract a lot of foot traffic to your bars to reach your sales targets, something that you cannot do during a pandemic.”

Kalel Demetrio of Agimat Foraging Bar & Kitchen.

Jericson Co can’t help but be pessimistic as he predicts, “I’ll bet that at least half will close. No one will want to go out and even if they do go out, the smart thing to do will be to have some form of social distancing in the bar. That means that a business that was designed to maximize revenue with density will now be unable to.”

Jericson Co of The Curator, which has consistently listed among Asia’s 50 Best Bars for the past 5 years.

 

Survival mode

With bars shuttered for the foreseeable future, what are bar owners doing to survive? For Marco Viray, it helps that he doesn’t have to rely on just one type of establishment. While he runs Kampai, Joe’s Brew, Zicatela Siargao, and The Spirits Library, it is his restaurant NoKal that is the only one currently open for food delivery and takeout.

Bar owner Marco Viray is currently focusing on takeout and delivery at his restaurant NoKal.

Thankfully some liquor brands like Diageo, Pernod Ricard, William Grant and Moet Hennessy have shown their support of the bars. Jericson Co shares, “It’s really solid of them.” Howard Co of LIT Japanese Whisky Bar, Brick & Mortar, and Craft Rock & Grill also acknowledges that support, “Some of the major brands have started their own online sales platform and are conducting online lessons for bartenders to maintain their skills as well as home consumers wanting  to make drinks at home.”

Howard Co with U2’s Bono at Craft Rock & Grill.

While waiting for bars to eventually open up, bar owners have been busy figuring out how to keep their customers and staff safe. “People will prioritize their health and safety over other things, and therefore people will continue to stay home. But bars will surely implement new measures to ensure the safety of their customers,” recognizes Rian Asiddao of The Spirits Library.

The Spirits Library’s Rian Asiddao also serves as Diageo Brand Ambassador.

Indy Villalon of The Belle & Dragon, Mandalay, and Cicchetti is starting to do just that. He shares, “Bar layouts and work flows will have to change to ensure the safety of our customers and our staff. For example, our prime seats at Mandalay are the bar stools that wrap around the bar which was designed to highlight the craftsmanship of our bartenders. But with new health protocols, we may need to place a protective acrylic barrier between the customers and the bar back to protect the raw ingredients and the sanitation of the bar back. Again, these are all up in the air as issues with the virus are always changing.”

Indy Villalon of The Belle & Dragon, Mandalay, and restaurant Cicchetti.

Villalon does foresee reduced operations, “with less staff to achieve a lower operating cost as well as to ensure that there are less hands touching our products.” Jericson Co concurs as he sees seats cut by at least 50%. But with reduced shifts, he still hopes to be able to help his staff. He says, “The ones who can’t come in, we’ll see if we can afford to pay them some form of basic income.” And to reduce costs, he’s hoping to work out a rent relief or profit sharing agreement with his landlord as well.

 

Alternative offerings

How then can bars survive in the meantime? David Ong of OTO and The Curator shares, “Most bars and spirits brands will go digital heavy. It is one way that we can stay in touch with our customers, while we wait for the time that we can reopen.”  

Jericson Co and David Ong’s The Curator listed No. 42 in the just announced Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2020.

Jericson Co, Ong’s co-founder/owner at The Curator, reveals, “We’ll do our media stuff like our YouTube channel and maybe write the Curator Coffee and Cocktails book. It’s a project we’ve discussed way back when and it seems that now’s a solid time to do it.”   

For his own bars, Howard Co volunteers, “We have pivoted to online sales for some of our bottles. We are considering selling gift certificates. We are also planning to sell food that are perfectly paired to our liquor sales.” Other plans include auctions and basic cocktail kits and mixes for customers who want to make their own cocktails at home. “Our primary goal right now is to buy time and to be able to provide enough to cover our basic costs like employee salaries and rent.” 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Starting May 13th, Wednesday, 𝐋𝐈𝐓 will once again partially reopen, with a renewed focus and revised activities.⁣ ⁣ Although we are not yet allowed to invite customers in for a dram or three, we will be offering a bevy of Japanese whiskies, world whiskies, other spirits, Japanese beer, mixers, dehydrated fruits and snifter glasses for online purchase through https://litmanila.company.site/ and delivery to all areas of the Metro with no liquor ban.⁣ ⁣ Along with these products, we’d like to encourage you to purchase a LIT Gift Card, carrying a minimum balance of PHP1000, for future consumption when we resume full operations. Purchasing a GC will also provide you with a 20 percent discount off of menu prices upon redemption, plus a complimentary highball to celebrate our eventual reunion!⁣ ⁣ Please also stay posted for exciting future LIT online activities (via Zoom), including auctions, quiz nights and Salon de Whisky tastings with Francis Hasegawa.⁣ ⁣ We look forward to being able to serve you again with our unique spirits and omotenashi-driven service.⁣ ⁣ Kampai!

A post shared by LIT (@litmanila) on

So far, other bars like Run Rabbit Run, The Belle & Dragon, and Backroom are already selling cocktail mixes and kits for delivery and takeout. As Run Rabbit Run’s Micheal Hearns believes, “Crisis or not, there is no reason to lack creativity in the way you deliver your product or service.”

Michael Hearn of Run Rabbit Run.

Online events are another source of possible revenue, with Indy Villalon sharing, “Our staff hold regular bar classes on Zoom, and for The Belle & Dragon, we have started some of our events online. We recently did a quiz night via Zoom where our customers ordered their cocktails and food in advance and we delivered it to them before the online event.”

 

Support from customers

With the current scenario, it looks like our local bar industry is in for a long and tough fight to stay afloat. But despite this, most of the bar owners are not giving up that easily, despite the lack of government support.

According to Nokal’s Marco Viray, the continuing support of customers at this time is crucial. He asks the public to follow the social media accounts of their favorite bars for any new announcements to be rolled out, and to support those initiatives wholeheartedly. Viray adds, “Everything is up in the air at the moment, a lot of uncertainty. If they have any suggestions and recommendations, we’d be happy to hear them.”

As bar owners patiently wait for the time to come, Jericson Co ponders, “Sharing a drink with someone; being uninhibited in hugging; human contact; smiling at someone that’s not through a mask. I’ve been more aware that what makes us human is the joy of being able to share life with others. Bars are there to facilitate that, to be a place where joy can take place. I’m excited to open back up again without restrictions. Bars exist as a communal place to be with people and I won’t take the joy of having a place like that for granted anymore when that time comes. So find a cure. Don’t vote for jackasses. Stay home. Help those in need.” 

 

Visit the following Instagram accounts or websites for updates about bar openings and offerings:

IG @agimatbar

IG @backroomph

https://litmanila.company.site/ or IG @litmanila

IG @nokal.mnl

www.runrabbit.run or IG @runrabbitrun.ph 

IG @oto.ph

IG @thebelleanddragon

IG @thecurator_

IG @thespiritslibrary

IG @yespleaseph