LGBTQ Bars and Restaurants Get Creative to Survive

by Kevin Schattenkirk

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday December 19, 2020

New York City's Henrietta Hudson, pre-COVID.
New York City's Henrietta Hudson, pre-COVID.  

In the current COVID-19 conditions, LGBTQ bars have been forced to find creative ways of staying in business. A feature by Inc. explores how those venues that haven't shuttered are banding together, seeking innovative and fun ways for their bars and clubs to survive — and hopefully revive and thrive — in a post-pandemic world.

Truthfully, the pandemic has only compounded the challenges many have faced in the last decade, as the confluence of dating apps and greater acceptance of LGBTQ people have, in part, led to the closure of many of these historically safe spaces. Before the pandemic, bar and club owners in gay neighborhoods as prominent and diverse as the Castro District in San Francisco and Capitol Hill in Seattle, among others, have been concerned with the decline in patronage in recent years. A study published last December by Greggor Mattson, professor at Oberlin College, showed that LGBTQ bar listings dropped by 36.6 percent, with lesbian bars dropping by 51.6 percent between 2017-2019.

Inc. lays out some of the more successful strategies by bar and club owners in navigating the pandemic. In some instances, bar and club owners have given their venues a "makeover" in anticipation of appealing to post-pandemic patrons hungry for in-person socialization.

Lisa Cannistraci, owner of Henrietta Hudson, the oldest lesbian bar in New York City, said that since temporarily closing in March, federal aid, a $40,000-plus GoFundMe campaign, and the bar's savings have helped to pay rent and conduct some necessary renovations. Cannistraci hopes to unveil a new Henrietta Hudson in April, a dive bar turned high-class eatery with outdoor seating and a "living room salon vibe." In winter, Cannistraci also hopes to boost virtual events livestreamed from the bar, such as talks with activist Roxane Gay and other queer authors, chefs and comedians.

Similarly, Ken Lowe Jr., co-owner of JocksPHL in Philadelphia, has also taken the opportunity to renovate. A new kitchen specializing in his Aunt Shirley's soul food will assist in expanding bar service. Offerings such as oxtail, seasoned party wings, and boozy adult slushies have been recent staples. Lowe hopes a new and bigger kitchen will help sustain the bar for years beyond the pandemic.

In some cases, pandemic restrictions have compelled owners to consider appealing to different crowds. Michael Sharpton, managing partner of Charlotte, North Carolina gay club The Scorpio, has considered ways of reaching "5 to 9" post-work, happy hour crowd. Primarily because The Scorpio didn't pick up steam until after 10 p.m., and the state has imposed alcohol sales to end as early as 9 p.m.

Lesbian and queer bars such as A League of Her Own in Washington D.C. and Herz in Mobile, Alabama are stepping up their events, both virtually and live in-person. The former will host a virtual ticketed New Year's Eve Party with a DJ, complete with lessons in cocktail mixing and making charcuterie boards, as well as mindfulness/intention-setting sessions; while the latter is focusing on booking a broader scale of entertainers, from rock to country bands to drag kings and more, to appeal to a broad range of patrons.

In early December, Brooklyn gay bar The Rosemont began its own twist on standard food take-out service: "drag queen delivery" of hot dogs, ramen, and other menu items. In addition to delivering an order, the bar's drag queens perform physically distanced numbers outside customers' homes. The first performance is included in the cost of delivery, and the next performance is $10. Roly China Fusion in Palm Springs has launched a similar program.

Finally, owners have increasingly turned to a strategy that's helped many in the arts over the last decade, and certainly in the pandemic: Crowdfunding. Lisa Menichino, owner of New York City queer bar Cubbyhole, raised more than $70,000 via GoFundMe. Filmmakers Elina Street and Erica Rose's recently launched the Lesbian Bar Project, a documentary film and crowdfunding effort. The project has so far raised over $117,000 since October 28.

Peter Alexander co-founded Los Angeles gay bar Akbar in 1996, after nearly a decade and a half in which the LGBTQ community had been ravaged by HIV/AIDS. He says, "We were born out of response to a pandemic, and would love to still be there for our community and our neighborhood and our people when this one is over." Alexander initially resisted the idea of crowdfunding, questioning the purpose of burdening patrons. At least, until conditions worsened. In early December, Alexander and his co-founders launched a GoFundMe campaign, bringing in $150,000 in its first 24 hours and has surpassed $170,000. "That's how special the community thinks Akbar is," he said.

Kevin Schattenkirk is an ethnomusicologist and pop music aficionado.

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