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Tampa Bay’s bar industry is struggling, with no end in sight

Some local owners wonder why bars must remain closed when Florida has allowed other things to open.
Michael Brinkmann, 54, is a longtime bartender and manager at the Emerald Bar in St. Petersburg. Aside from reopening for a few weeks in June, the Emerald Bar has been closed since March 17.
Michael Brinkmann, 54, is a longtime bartender and manager at the Emerald Bar in St. Petersburg. Aside from reopening for a few weeks in June, the Emerald Bar has been closed since March 17. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Sep. 2, 2020
Updated Sep. 2, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Michael Brinkmann has been a bartender for 25 years. For half of those years, he has worked at the Emerald Bar in downtown St. Petersburg, one of the city’s oldest watering holes, a no-frills dive with a robust local following.

Brinkmann, 54, considers himself an industry lifer. He loves his job. But lately he’s been thinking it might be time to get out.

He’s been mostly out of work since March 17, the day Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered all bars to shut down, part of the state’s ongoing effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

A brief reprieve allowed bars to reopen for roughly three weeks, but Brinkmann was only able to work a few shifts before the bar was closed again.

“It’s getting to the devastation point,” he said.

Brinkmann has a small orchid operation on the side, which he runs out of his St. Petersburg home with his partner. It started as a hobby, but now the business is the only thing he has to pay the bills. He worries that at his age, it could be difficult to start a career in a different line of work.

He resorts to an orchid breeding metaphor when talking about his situation.

“You don’t want to just survive — you want to thrive.”

Brinkmann has been out of work for close to six months and says he is considering leaving the bar industry.
Brinkmann has been out of work for close to six months and says he is considering leaving the bar industry. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The coronavirus pandemic has been financially devastating for the hospitality industry, but bars have been hit particularly hard. While restaurants have been open at 50 percent capacity since May 4, bars reopened on June 5 but were told on June 26 they could no longer sell alcohol on premise — unless they were licensed to operate as a restaurant. Halsey Beshears, the secretary of the state’s Department of Business & Professional Regulation, said at the time that the restrictions on bars were in response to a rise in COVID-19 cases as well as non-compliance with preexisting orders from businesses that were violating the capacity limits and social distancing mandates.

Meanwhile, movie theaters, theme parks and schools in the state have reopened, leaving many in the bar industry wondering why they’ve been singled out.

“It’s very strange, because the world hasn’t stopped,” Brinkmann said. “People that are still working essential jobs, people that work in restaurant bars. It’s almost like the world is spinning around me and I’m just sitting here.”

For bar owners, the future looks grim. A lot depends on their relationship with landlords and property managers, and even for those who have received some kind of rent abatement or deferment, bills for utilities, insurance and permitting costs are still piling up.

“The bar industry and the bartender is in a cultural crisis shift,” said Brenda Terry, the president of the Tampa Bay chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild.

“No bar owner is typically rich enough to just have millions of dollars of discretionary income just sitting around,” Terry said. “Bars are businesses, too — they matter. But right now they feel like they don’t have a voice.”

For Peg Wesselink, who ran the popular St. Petersburg wine bar and cocktail lounge Room 901, the financial blowback caused by the shutdown has been insurmountable. She didn’t get any breaks from her landlord, and even though she still had six months left on her lease, in August she decided not to reopen.

“I’ve been open for 10 days in about five months,” Wesselink said. “Rent and utilities have remained constant, and (the bar) is my only stream of income. I’ve had reserves and I’ve applied for grants and tried to cobble things together, but that’s come to an end.”

Even if bars were allowed to open tomorrow, Wesselink said she wouldn’t have the money to do so. Opening a bar is expensive: In addition to the basic overhead there’s also rent for appliances like ice machines and dishwashers, the cost of stocking a full inventory and hiring staff.

“It’s a feeling of helplessness,” Wesselink said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do next.”

Room 901, a popular St. Petersburg wine bar and cocktail lounge, has permanently closed.
Room 901, a popular St. Petersburg wine bar and cocktail lounge, has permanently closed. [ (TIMES 2016) | Tampa Bay Times ]

A growing number of bars, breweries and nightclubs have reopened as restaurants. But it’s not something everyone is happy about, especially because of the often muddled messaging from state officials.

For one, getting a food license requires another set of bureaucratic hoops for businesses to jump through and, in some cases, significant additional financial investments, something not every bar owner can afford, said Kevin Lilly, who owns Rock Brothers Brewing, a bar, brewery, cocktail lounge and music venue in Ybor City.

Related: Bars and breweries are reopening. How? They're becoming restaurants.

“For businesses that rely on doing things right, we were given no guidance to make decisions,” said Lilly. “I would have gotten my food license back in April if DBPR would have just said that.”

Lilly’s business has taken a big hit the past six months. He said he’s lost close to a quarter of a million dollars since April from his cash reserves.

“I have been bled dry by the state of Florida,” Lilly said. “It feels unfair, watching my bank account drown.”

Lilly is also a part owner in Barterhouse, a trendy restaurant across the street. Because Barterhouse is a restaurant, it’s allowed to be open at 50 percent capacity.

No one is arguing against public health and safety, Lilly said. But he can’t understand why it’s acceptable for guests to hang out at his restaurant drinking cocktails into the wee hours, but not when they’re seated at tables across the street at his bar.

Bar and brewery owners across Florida have echoed similar complaints. In July, a group of downtown Orlando bar owners filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of the state’s current executive order, but a circuit judge later ruled against the bar owners and sided with DeSantis and the state.

Beshears has been spending the past few weeks meeting with bar and brewery owners across the state, where he has been encouraging the food permit loophole, urging owners to form partnerships with outside food businesses or open their own kitchens. Lilly, who attended one of the meetings, said Beshears told bar owners that his office would expedite the process and have their applications approved within a week.

Related: 'How are the bars still open?' State collects 171 complaints from Tampa Bay area

Karen Smith, the director of communications for DBPR, confirmed in an email that there is still no timeframe for when bars will be able to reopen.

“Secretary Beshears remains focused on setting a responsible path to a safe reopening as swiftly as possible,” Smith said. “Following the recent meetings with representatives of bars and breweries across the state, Secretary Beshears is reviewing feedback and ideas from these business owners and considering options for a sensible plan forward.”

Like others in the hospitality world, Lilly lamented the lack of financial help at the federal level. His bar received a small business loan under the Payment Protection Program, but it’s far from enough to save his business in the long haul.

Without opening the bar, he still owes $30,000 a month — to cover mortgage payments, utilities and loans on brewing equipment. If he reopened with a full staff, the additional costs from payroll would bring that number closer to $40,000.

Two weeks ago, Lilly got a food license. He didn’t want to — he just didn’t see any other way he could keep his business afloat.

Bartender Scooby Olivier pours a drink at Rock Brothers Brewing on in Ybor City. Olivier was considering leaving the bar industry to work for the U.S. Postal Service before the bar he worked at reopened with a food license.
Bartender Scooby Olivier pours a drink at Rock Brothers Brewing on in Ybor City. Olivier was considering leaving the bar industry to work for the U.S. Postal Service before the bar he worked at reopened with a food license. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

For those employed in the bar industry, the future remains uncertain. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the job came with the allure of flexibility, shorter work weeks and a dependable income. Now, many bartenders who are working at bars that do have food licenses are forced to work two or three different jobs to make ends meet. The clientele base isn’t what it used to be, and there are serious health risks to consider.

Scooby Olivier, who works with Lilly at Rock Brothers Brewing, was preparing to join the U.S. Postal Service and leave the industry when the bar got a food license and he decided to stay on.

Olivier, 36, has a three-year-old daughter and another child on the way. He’s worked in the bar industry for 16 years. He said he is making a fraction of his pre-pandemic earnings, and he worries he will still have to pick up extra work if business doesn’t grow.

“Where do we go? What do we do? What else is there to get into?” Olivier said. “Everyone is looking at backup options now — keeping something in your mind that maybe you could do outside of this.”