Hello, bottled cocktails. Bye-bye, expressed lemon peel. Here's how some bars are adapting to the new normal.

Tiki bars reached their peak in the 1950s and ’60s as a form of escapism following World War II—a way of conjuring R&R trips to sandier, more exotic climes. But in 2020, during a pandemic, how do bars like Powell’s Huli Huli Tiki Lounge create an escapist atmosphere when their employees are wearing masks and new social distancing restrictions are in place?

After a two-month ban on dine-in service by the Ohio Department of Health, some of Central Ohio’s cocktail bars are easing back into business. But new guidelines meant to combat COVID-19 mean things aren’t the same—and won’t be for a while. Employees (including bartenders) and guests need to be a minimum of 6 feet away from one another. Employees must wear facial coverings, and groups are limited to 10 or fewer. It’s a tricky balance between providing safety and creating the experience that bar patrons expect. Right now, Columbus-area bars are throwing Maraschino cherries at the proverbial wall to see what sticks.

Regulations and adaptations

With lowered capacities, bars are finding it difficult to break even. For Vaso, a rooftop hotel bar and restaurant in Dublin’s Bridge Park, that translates into phased rehiring of employees and a smaller staff. “It’s about adapting,” says general manager Rebecca Monday. “[We are] worried about the future. Will we have enough guests? We can’t fill the venue as much, and some people [still] aren’t comfortable going out.”

And the now-ubiquitous masks? They aren’t ideal behind the bar, says Doug Winship, a bartender at Huli Huli in Downtown Powell. “Wearing a mask to work in a restaurant or bar is brutal. It’s hard to breathe. It’s hot, especially for a six-hour shift. And it makes it hard to communicate with customers.”

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These businesses built around hospitality now find themselves in the awkward situation of having to enforce the rules. Vaso, for example, doesn’t allow customers to leave their table unless they’re going to the restroom. “Bars are a social environment,” Winship says. “People want to stand up, to move around and to talk to other people. We can’t let them do that. It’s tough.”

Several establishments—including Vaso and Giuseppe’s Ritrovo in Bexley—are trying to ensure safety by doing as much prep work prior to a serving shift as possible. “We don’t do fresh garnishes, and there’s no pouring in front of the customer,” Monday says. “We make our cocktails in a large batch in advance and pour them into coolers with drafts. And then we sanitize the tap after each use.” For garnishes essential to the drink, gloved Vaso bartenders are pre-skewering prior to the shift. The restaurant has also switched from bulk to individually wrapped paper straws.

Some bars have also changed the entire ordering process in order to minimize the spread of COVID-19. At Vaso, customers now access the menu by using their phones to scan a QR code held in plexiglass that is sanitized between uses. According to Monday, the new menus have been well-received and offer bartenders flexibility. “Right now, if something is out, I can replace a cocktail on the menu daily,” Monday says. Giuseppe’s also uses QR codes, and both restaurants keep disposable paper menus on hand should a guest not have access to a smartphone.

A new lifeline for bars?

In April, during Ohio’s dine-in ban, the state’s Liquor Control Commission passed a rule allowing carryout cocktails, a change that many in the industry hope will stick around. The Ohio House took a step in that direction in early June, passing legislation that would make to-go cocktails permanent. At press time, it was headed to the Ohio Senate.

“For us, takeout [cocktails were] a lifeline,” Winship says. “It was a real game-changer.” The Powell tiki bar premixes its carryout cocktails in mason jars, only adding the alcohol when the order is placed. Each take-home cocktail comes with a bag of garnishes and tiki bar paraphernalia.

Luke Pierce and Annie Williams Pierce, co-owners of the small cocktail and wine bar Law Bird in the Brewery District, view a to-go cocktail program as a possible viable source of income until they’re ready to reopen. The couple, who opened Law Bird just four months before the shutdown, launched Law Bird at Home, a bottled cocktail service, in June.

“We’re not planning on opening for any dine-in service in the foreseeable future,” Pierce says. “We can’t offer the experience we want to deliver under the current circumstances.”

Law Bird (which was already named one of the best bars in America by Esquire) is bigger than the sum of its parts, Williams Pierce says. The bar is built around customer experience, which is why the state’s restrictions don’t make in-person operations feasible. The pair designed their carryout service with elements that intend to bring the atmosphere of Law Bird to the customer, including playlists and video tips from Law Bird staff. “We want you to close your eyes and sit in the bar with us,” she says.

Their switch to carryout drinks has taken planning. “We had to consider what instructions need to be included, how they’d be carried, find new bottling infrastructures, new equipment and secure packaging,” Williams Pierce says. (While many restaurants offer to-go drinks in mason jars, Law Bird’s selection is pre-bottled and branded.) “This was never on our radar when opening the space,” she says. “We spent so long figuring out our glassware in the bar, and now it’s the same feeling with the bottles as well.”

“We miss our patrons”

Winship believes that there’s going to be a push to forget these times and go back to the way things were. He predicts people may get used to making more basic cocktails at home, opting to visit bars for specialty cocktails that have ingredients like infused liquors, bitters and special tinctures.

Williams Pierce of Law Bird says everyone is searching for what works for them. “At some point, there will be sharing of best practices, but right now, everyone is figuring out what those are.”

Meanwhile, Giuseppe’s beverage director, Sean Ward, simply asks for patience. “We will return to the congregation of people in bars, and the sharing of stories and hospitality,” he says. “Bars are assemblies of peace and understanding. We want to get back to the good times. And I can speak on behalf of everyone [in this industry]: We miss our patrons. We want them to know that we are more than happy to see their faces in the coming months and years.”