Bars With Food Are Open for 'Curbside Cocktails' — But Many Neighborhood Dives Are Hurting

3 min
Christos Louvis had to close Dive Bar in San Jose on St. Patrick's Day and hasn't opened the doors since. He's not sure when, or if, the bar will be able to open again. (Courtesy Christos Louvis)

Many restaurant bars in California – and bars that collaborate with restaurants – have found a way to stay open during the COVID-19 pandemic: selling "curbside" cocktails along with takeout food. It's a combination required by law for to-go alcohol sales.

So what do you do when you run a straight-ahead bar that typically just sells alcohol? For some bar owners, it's turning out to be a recipe for disaster.

Consider the story of Christos Louvis, who's been running downtown San Jose's Dive Bar with his parents since 2012.

"We always joke in the bar business that it's recession proof," Louvis said. "If anything, people drink more because they have more problems. They're trying to just get out and enjoy themselves."

Dive Bar prides itself on being a neighborhood joint: sports on the televisions, pool tables in the back and drink specials for the students a few blocks away at San Jose State University.

The bar has a Type 48 liquor license, which allows it to sell alcohol without food. Because of that, the bar can't remain open under Santa Clara County's shelter-in-place restrictions.

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Louvis feels like he's up against a wall.

"Allow us to [sell] a closed beer or a to-go cup of a drink," he said. "Allow us to fight!"

Louvis did apply for a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan through Wells Fargo, but his application was denied. He applied again for the second round of funding, but he's now worried that if the loan does come through, his laid-off employees will refuse the money, because, with unemployment benefits, they can make roughly $2,400 a month – significantly more than he can afford to pay them.

"Our employees are like family. We've been with each other for so long," Louvis said. "I don't blame them, but I honestly don't think they'd come back."

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Teague Kernan can sympathize. He runs two bars in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood, Tupelo, which offers Southern soul food and creative cocktails, and Belle Cora, a bistro and bar for new American fare. Even though he's allowed to sell to-go alcohol thanks to the food, Kernan said they're still struggling hard and that stand-alone bars are in even bigger trouble.

"Bars will probably be closed longer than any other establishment or business," Kernan said. "Owners are all looking at this like, if we can break even and not make any money in the next year, that would be a win."

Kernan's bars thrive when there are live concerts and sports seasons for people to watch together.

"We're going to have to pretty much completely reconfigure our business model to try to adapt," Kernan said.

After restrictions lift, Louvis isn't sure he'll even have customers left. His landlords have deferred rent for the next few months, but at some point, that rent will come due. In August, he's also expecting a rent hike.

To save money, Louvis has moved out of his San Jose apartment and in with his parents. They're also taking money out of their retirement savings to keep the lights on at Dive Bar for as long as they can.

"God forbid we lose the business without being able to sell it down the line," Louvis said. "If they just take it from us, that's it. That's all we have."