Ups and Downs

16 Sep. 2020
European bars' most complicated summer

Last June we talked to a few bar entrepreneurs about their expectations and strategies for the post-lockdown reopening (which took place, depending on countries from mid-May to late-June). They were enthusiastic about reopening their doors but were very careful about their prospects. With summer now almost behind us, we ask them how everything went, what helped, what didn't and what are their projects for the coming months.

To drink outdoors or not to drink
Summer is often a complicated season for cocktail bars since many are set up very much as indoors operations. Thankfully, many cities around the globe have allowed their bars (or, rather, some of their bars) to expand and 'conquer' the pavement. This has been a lifesaver for many bars. Swift Soho, Edmund Weil told us « is killing it. We're able to basically have a very similar number of people through the doors as we did before ». The same applies in Paris, where, according to CopperBay's Aurélie Panhelleux, « it allowed people to go out in a context that was more reassuring ». In Frankfurt, Armin Azadpour's Hunky Dory broke its June and July 2019 numbers this year, largely thanks to a similar scheme.

Drink like a local
With international travelling severely limited, all bars had to focus on locals. But many cities empty out over the summer, as their inhabitants flock to sunnier, airier, saltier surroundings. This was a huge problem in Madrid, where Salmon Guru's Diego Cabrera speaks of trade going down 60 to 65% over the summer. Eye-watering figures, although he manages gallows humour better than most (« the good news is that we've lost less money than expected »). Likewise in Athens: in July and August residents leave the centre to tourists. With none around, bars such as Baba au Rum or The Clumsies saw their business fall between 50 and 60%. The CopperBay case, with a bar in Paris and another in Marseille (« one of the summer's main holiday destinations », according to Aurélie), is the perfect example. In August, business in Paris went down almost a third compared to 2019 while she was very happy about the numbers in Marseille. At Aperture, another key bar in France's south, Julien Escot also benefited from this trend: « I expected a catastrophically bad summer, but the last three months have actually been good. Montpellier city centre's kept busy and we've become a destination place ».

Restrictions still abound, and they obviously affect bars whose business model were not built with social distancing in mind. Escot says he had to refuse various events over the summer and they could have made all the difference. But there are worse cases: in Madrid, in early August, opening hours were cut short, with bars told to close one hour early and to stop admitting clients one hour before (the new and reduced) closing time. « Over the weekends, the last two hours represent 50% of our business. This is a huge loss, » says Diego Cabrera. Similar restrictions have been put in place recently in Athens. According to Lelos Georgopoulos, from The Clumsies among others, this could represent a 25% loss. Thankfully, says Baba au Rum's Thanos Prunarus, clients are flocking to the bar between 9 pm and midnight, which might help compensate.

Summer's out!
With kids back in school and their parents at work, big cities, where most cocktail bars are located, should come alive. Remote working and the lack of tourism will bite hard, but some bars have already felt the effect of the return of the masses. « Neighbourhood bars in Athens were full in the summer and downtown was dead, but since the end of the vacations, many regulars have come back to visit their favourite bars », says Lelos. « The first weekend of September, we saw our number shot up », says Diego. 

With talks of second waves and the dangling possibilities of new restrictions, it's hard for entrepreneurs to look forward to the next few months. Keep your head down and work hard seems to be the motto. « Its business as usual, », says Julien. « I'm working on a fall menu, I think about improving food and drinks ». New menus are in the works for Lelos, Aurélie and Diego too. As the latter says, « In times like these, you need to stand out and we hope to do it through our new menu ». In Frankfurt, Armin would agree. On top of a new menu, he will also have a new website, a new reservation system and a new bottled cocktail shop. « My recommendation to everyone is to make sure that your online image is as well set up as possible to have positive numbers in the future », he adds. Diversification will also be key: Thanos is about to open a new place near Baba au Rum. « We're going to create a pastry shop / speciality café / flower shop. It will be open from morning till late and I believe it will help the bar », he explains.

The next few months are going to be very important. For some, they will be brutal. Others, hopefully, will thrive — in new, unexpected ways. We just hope when we write a follow-up piece in January — maybe — the skies have cleared somewhat.

François Monti