GMan Tavern manager Tom Cathcart, pictured Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, outside the Clark Street bar, which is only open Saturday afternoons for takeout. The shutdown of indoor service has dealt the bar a devastating blow. “Baseball was something we could hold onto and promote,” he said. “Then the hammer came down.” (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)
The Gman Tavern hadn’t sold a pint of beer in nearly four months when the 44-year-old Wrigleyville bar finally saw its route back into business in late July.
With the strangely late arrival of Cubs opening day on July 24, Gman decided it would piggyback off interest in its fabled neighbor to reopen at the city’s reduced 25% capacity.
Even just 40 people spread across Gman’s two rooms watching ballgames and sipping beers would have allowed the bar to hire back staff and get revenue flowing again during the COVID-19 pandemic, manager Tom Cathcart said.
“Baseball was something we could hold onto and promote,” Cathcart said. “Then the hammer came down.”
Gman Tavern manager Tom Cathcart waits Aug. 1, 2020, for carry-out customers during the five-hour span on Saturdays in which the bar operates. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)
It wasn’t Gman’s initial closure, in mid-March, that stung most, Cathcart said. It was the inability to reopen while hundreds of competitors were able to do so.
“That was probably the worst of all because I thought we had a foothold to get things going again,” he said.
Except for the five hours every Saturday that Gman sells beer to go, the bar continues to sit idle. Whether it can survive remains a question, and it’s the same question that echoes across the city through neighborhood bars and dives that, like Gman, can have decades or even generations of history behind them.
The closing two weeks ago of 34-year-old Guthrie’s Tavern, announced hours after the city said it would roll back bars’ abilities to operate, may have just been the first sign that the simple business model of offering a pint, a pool table and late night camaraderie has become particularly tenuous in the era of coronavirus.
Gman Tavern, 3740 N. Clark St., is not convinced the option to serve customers at sidewalk tables would help. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)
Before restaurant groups, before cell phones and before Chicago transitioned from blue collar to white, neighborhood bars were core pieces of Chicago’s fabric, and they remain key to understanding the city. They’re often far older than a neighborhood’s current character. They are vehicles to the past.
But the COVID-19 pandemic — and the city’s response to it, whether flawed, justified or somewhere in between — threatens their futures.
“Before the pandemic not having a food license and not having to deal with a patio was a blessing,” Cathcart said. “Now it’s a curse.”
Sentimental bar goers quickly lined up for beers and selfies during the final nights at Gutherie’s, but it may not be the last bar to get such a send off in the weeks or months ahead.
“We’ll probably lose 200 if there’s not a big change,” said Pat Doerr, managing director of the Hospitality Business Association of Chicago, a lobbying group that represents bars, restaurants and music venues.
What’s needed, he said, is the “immediate expansion of outdoor seating, including sidewalk cafes, and a relief program of tax breaks and employment incentives from the city, state or feds until there’s a vaccine.”
“They won’t make it short term without outdoor seating and won’t making it long term without (financial aid),” Doerr said.
Perhaps sensing the urgency — and the fallout of a bar of Guthrie’s stature closing — the city announced Friday it would expand outdoor permitting to allow bars that don’t serve food to apply to serve customers on sidewalks outside their front doors.
However several bar owners said the flexibility to start safely seating outdoor — on sidewalks, in parking lots, in loading zones — needed to start weeks ago and with as little hindrance as possible. Cathcart said Gman won’t even apply.
“We’re not sure how to promote it and who would come out,” he said. “We’re not sure if it’s worth it.”
Beermiscuous, a new breed of neighborhood bar in Lakeview that doubles as a craft beer bottle shop, is also unsure whether to apply for sidewalk seating.
“We’re leaning toward applying for sidewalk seating, but I’m skeptical how much this is actually going to help, and how many people we’d be able to accommodate,” co-owner Austin Harvey said.
“What would help us immediately in the meantime are things like aid, rent relief and a more case-by-case investigation on which establishments are taking safely reopening seriously,” he said. “I still think that having a kitchen doesn’t necessarily make your place any safer than one without.”
Harvey and two partners, all of whom were Beermiscuous employees, bought the business in February from its founder. Two weeks later, the bar had to close due to the pandemic.
“Obviously we can’t punch at weight until there’s a vaccine or treatment,” Harvey said. “We’ve had to completely alter our business model several times since March and it looks like we’ll be doing so again soon. It would be refreshing to have a consistency and a plan from people in power.”
Steven Frytz, owner of Harbee Liquors & Tavern in Pilsen, said neighborhood bars such as his are experiencing “a train wreck in slow motion.” Harbee’s, which has sat on 18th Street for more than 100 years, hasn’t served a beer since March 13; Frytz said he chose not to reopen at 25% capacity because he had a feeling it would be rolled back.
Instead, he said, he has sold a small piece of property and borrowed money to build a 900-square-foot deck behind his bar that can accommodate 20 to 25 people with COVID-19 social distancing. He had aimed to open the deck by late July. Construction delays means he now targets late August.
Frytz said his wife is constantly second-guessing investing in the bar during the pandemic. He doesn’t blame her.
“We’re nervous running on borrowed funds and hoping things go back to normal,” he said. “No one can sit down with a calculator and say ‘I’m gonna make a go of it, I know what I’m in for.‘”
Still, he said, he does it because of Harbee’s history in the neighborhood. The bar has been at its location on 18th Street for more than 100 years, and endured even as the demographics around it have changed several times.
“Everyone has a grandfather or great-grandfather who said they drank there when they were young,” Frytz said.
Four Treys, a 52-year-old bar in Roscoe Village is “just scraping along,” said co-owner Colleen Flood.
The bar was early to partner with a nearby restaurant to open on the sidewalk — Kitsch’n on Roscoe — but it can only seat about 12 people, Flood said.
Even when Four Treys could serve indoors, it did so tentatively. What would have been more helpful, Flood said, was the ability to expand outdoor seating sooner. Still, she acknowledges that the city is navigating an unprecedented crisis.
“I put myself in peoples’ places before I condemn them,” she said. “I do think in the beginning there was this question of how do you manage this and keep people safe. It’s OK what they’re doing. But they could step it up and make it a little better with more capacity.”
Flood said she knows at least one fellow veteran bar owner who has been closed because he sees no way to operate, even in the parking lot behind the bar.
“I said hell’s bells, you’ve been there 34 years,” Flood said. “This is a kick in the teeth for people who have had their business for a long time, but I also feel bad for the people who have just opened and are paying rent.”
The Inner Town Pub, shown in 2017, is one of the great corner bars of Ukrainian Village. (Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune)
Inner Town Pub, a classic corner bar in Ukrainian Village, reopened July 1 at 25% capacity, which owner Denis Fogarty said “was not a viable business option, but I was willing to keep it going because the business is important to me and the people who work for me are important to me.”
His uncle, Mike Gormley, opened the bar in 1983, long before the neighborhood had become the gentrified domain of young families. Fogarty took over Inner Town in 2015.
“Sometimes I feel more like a curator than a bar owner,” Fogarty said.
Even when the city closed Inner Town and other bars without food licenses for indoor seating three weeks later, Fogarty remained hopeful about a six-table patio he’d built behind the bar in a lot previously used for storage and parking.
The patio was opened July 7 and closed July 9 after a red tape roller coaster: Inner Town was initially denied a permit to operate the space, then granted one, but told two days later it had been issued by mistake.
“I have this little space that would be a lifeline to us during this pandemic and I feel like we’re being shut out,” he said.
The East Village Association finally relented at a meeting Monday night, but Fogarty is still awaiting word from Hopkins. Meanwhile, the end of patio season approaches and Inner Town remains closed and its future unclear.
“At the end of the day you have to look at the hard economics of what’s going on,” Fogarty said. “There’s only so long you can own a business with no revenue. The city and state will still want liquor licenses renewed and there’s insurance and property tax to pay, plus trying to pay staff when you can.”
The pandemic and the response to it is “strangling these small businesses,” he said.
“We’re a niche business that caters to our local clientele,” Fogarty said. “We don’t charge a lot for product. We’re a place where you can get a Chicago handshake (a can of Old Style and a shot of Malort) for 5 bucks. We’re a place where people can afford to spend time and you can bring food from somewhere else and play free pool and listen to great music and have a great relationship with our staff. We’re a neighborhood joint.”