A Time for Grieving
Supernova Ballroom opened in September of last year, in the central financial district of Toronto, which by all of our research seemed like an excellent high-density, high income area - we were excited to get it open and get started, as most other operators are.
However, we were immediately faced with a large dose of reality, a demographic that was probably a little too set in their ways, preferring a glass of cabernet the size of their heads to our bubbly spritzes and disco, before catching a train home, far outside of the central city district.
In short, we had mis-judged our ability to bring life into the area. This, paired with an ongoing fight with our landlords to put out any kind of street signage, made developing our now wonderful, loyal base of disco-clad bubble-enthusiasts take a good amount of time. In January and February, when the hospitality industry in Canada takes a nose-dive with the frigid temperatures outside, our sales actually started to climb and we were on track to actually start turning a profit. People caught on, loved our vibe and the party started to really pop. We hired a new chef, re-launched both our cocktail and food menus both in the first week of March, we had reinvested everything we had to get on track to crush the shit outta 2020.
Then the epidemic struck, on March 16th we were forced to close our doors, which for the safety of our staff and guests, we would have closed anyway. Being in the tight financial position we were in, we needed to act and act fucking fast. We were forced to lay off all of our staff immediately, call every supplier and cancel any incoming orders, return everything we could and wait and see what was to unfold in the coming weeks. For the first time in my 15+ years in hospitality, I felt like a sitting goddamn duck.
As a sole investor and operator with Iain, I was absolutely devastated. My staff, who during the first three months were taking home about ½ to ⅓ of the tips they would have if they had jumped ship and headed somewhere else for more money, stuck by me and tried their damn hardest to help us stay afloat during those first few months. To now just be starting to see business pick up to regular levels, to start making the money they deserved, then see it all crumble in a single 24 hour period, leaving me with absolutely no way of supporting them as they had done for me for the last 6 months. To see my life's work, and life savings, like so many other bar owners, clear itself right down the drain over the course of a week, knocked me clean on my ass.
On just Day 1, I was already seeing to-do lists and 'how to make it through a shut-down' articles pop-up everywhere, Diffords being one of the first to respond. I read through them and they all simply felt insurmountable, at this stage it was all I could do to drag myself out of bed let alone have the energy to clean out fridges and argue with landlords. I headed to the bar to get tips done for the staff, get them all laid off so they could claim EI (government assistance for Canada), and make a list of fixed costs that I could possibly get deferred or relief from. All the other shit could wait.
Waking up the next day I was angry, it seemed like everyone was posting coping lists and how-tos in the form of another massive fucking to-do list that seemed insurmountable to get done alone, at this stage I couldn't afford to have anyone in to help me. I was pissed at our government for forcing shut-downs on small business without support or a backup plan. I was even pissed that other business owners weren't pissed (they were, but everyone was still scrambling at this stage). Don't get me wrong, the lists are helpful when you're completely at a loss, but I wish someone was there to tell me that we don't have to do all of it, that many of these things, while helpful, certainly don't apply to every situation and, depending on your country, your business and the financing you have available, you will not be able to tick all the boxes!
I did the shit I needed to, I got the UberEats account underway, figured out how to mobilise a cocktail delivery service and went home to wait for it all to start happening. I was pissed that it seemed like there was governmental lobbying happening everywhere but here, but I didn't know where to start, who to be pissed at other than myself for not doing more for our industry. The guilt set in hard and there was nowhere to go but home to fucking face it head on. No drinks out with friends to talk about our issues together, no reach outs, just a deafening silence as everyone I knew in our industry scrambled to do the best they could do for their staff and keep their business alive.
So, I'm not going to write this to give you all advice on how to keep your business afloat during this time. I believe that each case is different, we're all in different countries with governments acting at very different speeds and with different aid and funding available. What might apply south of the border certainly doesn't apply to us up here in the North. I'm writing this to serve as big fat 'art of surrender' from someone that has been used to driving so hard to keep my various businesses alive for the past few years and is now forced into complete stillness. As I write this, I've just found out that two bartenders in America, that we know of, have taken their lives as a direct result of this happening. We are being forced into confinement, many of us alone, some with housemates we don't like, some forced into family situations from losing their homes, and some into abusive relationships. This is taking a massive toll on our industry and it's going to take a lot more than mobilising at-home cocktail programs or UberEats to fucking save us.
1. Have a look through the lists and to-dos available online and write out what actually applies to you. If you don't do much food anyway, UberEats isn't going to step in and save the day now. In fact, a single chef wages plus the need for takeaway containers and careful stock management as we move through a kitchen being about ⅓ as busy (maybe less) as it was before as more people are cooking at home and steering away from UberEats anyway out of fear of contamination. I'm saying this as I pay my chef to train me on the food until it stabilizes to a point where I can bring them in on the regular. Don't drown yourself with shit to do, you're going to have weeks, maybe months to get this all done. Get the chef on their last day to make a massive freezable staff meal from anything perishable and give it away to your people. Give anything left to charity, they need it more than anyone right now anyway.
2. Get the bar into a good position so that you can step away for a good while, donate citrus/eggs or ferment it or take it home. Lock up your stock, get any cash the fuck up outta there, and get out personally. It's gonna be a hard enough couple weeks or months - you don't need some menial task that you should have done hanging over your head, or the worry of a break-in keeping you up at night. Lock Up and walk out knowing that your stock and venue are safe and you've done what you can.
This is the end of my to-do list, there is only so much you can do, and the next phase of what I went through, the sadness, anger, exhaustion are all perfectly normal. It's ok not to have the energy to put up a home bartending video or get all over instagram. In fact, instead of listing a series of my own how-to-deals which would essentially be a bunch of unsolicited advice, I reached out to an actual professional, Makenzie Chilton (@loveyourmondays on Insta), a business coach, therapist and one of the masterminds behind Mind The Bar (with co-founder Alex Black @blacktending) - a platform that aids service industry folk seeking access to therapy here in Canada, for her ideas on coping with this incredibly difficult time for our industry.
Makenzie was incredibly helpful, and dove right in on what we might be moving through emotionally during this time. She started by suggesting the need to set-up boundaries, which under normal circumstances would refer to how we allow others to treat us, but in this case, it's how much you allow talk about the Coronavirus to permeate into your daily life. Do you need to shut off the News, or only limit it to a few minutes a day? In your skype and zoom calls, to only 10 minutes of Corona-chat before moving on to another topic? Also, be aware of others' personal threshold for speaking about this stuff; when you're talking to other people and you want to start complaining or talking through anything COVID19-related, perhaps start by asking them if they have the capacity to deal with it as well.
Second, Makenzie showed me an excellent article from Harvard Business Review (which can be found here) that brought to light that what we are all collectively going through is a state of grief! This immediately explained the anger, frustration, my lack of energy and general sadness, I so wish someone had told me sooner!
We are losing our jobs, our livelihoods, our daily routines, our purpose in various forms. When we think about grief there's the five stages of - denial, anger, bargaining, sadness and finally, acceptance - which we will all be moving through at different rates. Makenzie stressed that the piece that's really important, of course, is acceptance, as then we can start to take our control back, for example, I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed. We can start this process by actually labelling what is happening - we are grieving!
Essentially your brain is trying to keep you safe, and without having a label it doesn't know what state of fight flight or freeze it should go into, and so by labelling it allows your brain to relax. For example, if you're feeling anxious you should actually say out loud "I'm feeling anxious" and it will lower that emotion. In anticipatory grief, we attach our emotions to anxious thoughts - what could possibly happen, or worst case scenarios. If we take a minute to stop and be present, taking a deep breath, realising we are safe, we have food, we are housed, this slows the anxiety.
Of course, these are just a few of the things we can do to help ourselves, this is certainly not a cure, but a process. I wish I'd had some of these insights when I was feeling angry, frustrated, anxious during the first week. It has certainly helped me now, and I hope that sharing this with you might help you move through this uncertain time for all of us.
If you are a bar owner and would like to contribute to Bar Entrepreneur Frontline please email me at Simon@DiffordsGuide.com. Thanks to support from Havana Club all published contributions will be paid for, with a matching amount donated to The Drinks Trust charity (formerly The Benevolent), or a local hospitality charity of your choice.