Houston Bars Are Doing Their Best To Survive The Pandemic – But Not All Of Them Will

The statewide shutdown order for bars has endangered some longtime Houston watering holes.

By Florian Martin September 15, 2020 9:45 am, , , , ,

From Houston Public Media:

At West Alabama Ice House, owner Petros Markantonis was working to get his bar up and running again early Thursday afternoon, weeding grass and blowing out dust.

The sign outside the popular outdoor bar in Montrose has said “closed again” since late June when Gov. Greg Abbott shut down all bars in the state after a surge in coronavirus infections.

“On the Friday that Gov. Abbott closed us for the second time, we had opened up at 10 a.m. and that was about the time that the governor made the announcement,” Markantonis said. “And so we were one of the only bars open in town.”

Though for just two hours until the order went into effect.

Since then, the almost 100-year-old little building has sat empty.

“I’ve been trying to keep the mortgage payment paid and keep the utilities paid,” Markantonis said. “It’s been a struggle, I’m a little behind.”

Markantonis hopes to open back up this weekend, thanks to a loophole from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, which now allows bars to apply for a food and beverage certificate based on projected sales. As long as revenue from food exceeds 50%, they’re allowed to open.

That includes snacks and meals sold from a food truck.

“We’re projecting that the food truck will do 51% of our food sales,” Markantonis said. “And then our alcohol sales will be less than that.”

He is also hopeful that the governor will start reopening bars soon, regardless of food sales.

Downtown, at Market Square Park, Carolyn Wenglar has owned Warren’s Inn and La Carafe for the past 34 years, attracting regulars and tourists alike.

“We had people coming from other countries even,” she said. “And especially at the Carafe we had more people over there from other countries because they would hear about the Carafe.”

Wenglar’s bars have also been closed for most of the year, reopening only for about a month from May to June. She has relied on savings to get by.

“I’m OK and I can still survive for a little while longer before it gets to the point where it’ll be critical,” she said.

Wenglar, too, is banking on a food certificate, and she is working on beefing up her kitchen to get to 51% food sales. She said, currently, Warren’s only brings in about 5% from food.

“Over here I’ll have hot wings and I’ll have chicken tenders and onion rings, french fries, and I guess that’s about it,” she said.

On the other side of Market Square, at La Carafe, there will be a food truck. Wenglar said she just filed her application with the TABC and hopes to get the green light soon.

Around the corner on Main Street, Notsuoh is a dark, artsy bar and live music venue.

Owner Jim Pirtle said he shut down in March, even before any government mandate. And the bar stayed closed during the month-long reopening.

“We wanted to hold back and observe, and then also look at other bars of how they were doing it and (what) would be a safe way to open a bar,” Pirtle said. “And my conclusion is there is no safe way to open a bar.”

Other than having customers be outside, he said. That’s why he’s supporting a plan to shut down Main Street, so that downtown bars can extend their patios past the sidewalk, “as opposed to people going inside in the air conditioning, and if someone’s sick, throwing the virus up into the system and just recirculating it,” Pirtle said.

The Downtown District is working with the city and Houston Metro to temporarily close Main Street for bars and outdoor cafes starting this fall.

Other bars already have large outdoor areas.

Mariana Lemesoff has been the owner of AvantGarden in Montrose for the past 25 years. For the past 13, the majority of her venue’s income has come from weddings and caterings.

That’s also why she doesn’t fall into the bar category that would have forced AvantGarden to shut down. But Lemesoff closed the place voluntarily because she wasn’t sure if they would be able to ensure safety. She reopened last week, in part to support her staff and the musicians performing there.

“My staff, they have been with me for many years, most of them,” Lemesoff said. “There were a lot of musicians who really depended on the venue for their income.”

The indoor areas at AvantGarden will be closed, tables are several feet apart from each other and customers need to wear masks.

Owners like Lemesoff and Pirtle can get by financially because they own and have paid off their properties and only have to worry about taxes and utilities.

But others aren’t that lucky.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever come back,” said Tom McLendon, the longtime owner of The Big Easy, a popular blues bar on Kirby Drive.

Most music venues are threatened, he said. A June survey by the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs found 62% of live music venues in Austin said they would not survive past October.

McLendon said he has enough savings to pay the rent and utilities for one more month but he doesn’t want to take on a loan when he isn’t even sure if his bar has a future.

“The big venues will probably stay open. They have the backing. They will get the loans,” McLendon said. “But the small guys, we’re disposable.”

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