Baton Rouge bar owners talk shutdown— and keeping spirits high for the future

It feels like just yesterday locals were sitting in groups, sipping their favorite craft beers and cocktails at The Radio Bar’s happy hour and ordering mimosas at Olive or Twist’s brunch. But this spring, the COVID-19 shutdown changed everything for the Baton Rouge bar scene. Doors closed, bartenders and servers were laid off, and regular customers were homebound indefinitely.

“Most of my friends are in the service industry, and we’re all pretty much in the same exact boat: None of us are able to work,” Smiling Dog bartender Briel Edmonds says. “Without businesses having any income, they’re unable to complete payroll. So like most people, I applied for unemployment and am hoping for the best.”

Though times are tough, it’s not all doom and gloom in the Capital Region. Some Baton Rouge bars that also serve food, such as MID Tap and Mid City Beer Garden, are using this time to give back to local health facilities and their staff with fundraising events. Other bars are using online platforms to raise money for their crews, creating Facebook fundraisers, GoFundMe pages and a virtual tip jar system that lets people “tip” servers and bartenders through platforms like Venmo.

Every bar is affected differently by the shutdown, but one thing remains the same: Each seems to have optimism for the future. Here’s what several local bar owners and managers had to say in early April about the crisis.

How has COVID-19 affected your business so far?

George’s Place assistant manager Jeremy Longmire: “I’ve been here for 13 years, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen it close for more than two to three days at a time. We had to basically let all of our employees go. We gave them the option to still get regular pay with no tips, but bartenders don’t make that much. So most of our bartenders [chose] to go the unemployment route.”

Uncle Earl’s co-owner Jordan Piazza: “The shutdown happened on the heels of the largest event of the year that we throw, the annual Earlapalooza, in conjunction with the Wearin’ of the Green parade. We had a bunch of pre-sold tickets to the event, artists lined up and vendors booked. So with us having to close, we’re having to work to try and get back all those funds that we have paid out already for this event, on top of reimbursing our customers.”

How did you and your staff stay afloat while out of work?

The Radio Bar manager BJ Greenwood: “We started a fundraiser on Facebook for The Radio Bar staff so they can pay their bills, buy groceries and pay rent, because unfortunately, that stuff doesn’t stop just because you’re out of a job.”

Uncle Earl’s: “We’ve still [paid] our employees even though we were not receiving income. These are tipped employees. So we went through and basically took the average of what their average paychecks have been for the last few months and [paid] them that.”

What are your plans for the future of your bar?

George’s Place: “We are going to call a 2020 reset the day we open up. We’re going to have a New Year’s Eve party to restart 2020.”

How do you think COVID-19 will affect the local bar industry long term?

The Radio Bar: “It’s kind of scary to think that all of these bars can be in different financial spots. Being shut down and not being able to sell anything is going to hurt a lot of people.”

George’s Place: “I’m hoping that everyone can recover. We know the other bartenders; it’s like a little bartender family. I’m hoping that we can pull together as a community and support each other.”

This article was originally published as part of the ‘Restaurants fight to survive’ cover story in the May 2020 issue of 225 Magazine.