Food and beverage businesses have been classified as essential since the beginning of “New York on PAUSE,” with Gov. Andrew Cuomo even making an exception and allowing any business with an existing liquor license to sell alcoholic beverages to go.
Though this special permission made it possible for cocktails, beer and wine to be delivered, getting the product to customers was only part of the challenge.
The ambiance and social atmosphere of going out for drinks is as much a draw for customers as the beverages themselves, so bars and taprooms across the county have had to reimagine their businesses and add products to stay afloat.
At Hopshire Farm and Brewery in Freeville, owners Randy and Diane Lacey used to host a cohort of regulars in their taproom, as well as weekly live music on Friday nights and a variety of private events.
The once-bustling space is now open for pick-up only, with tape markers to separate customers and only the owners behind the bar.
“When the PAUSE hit in March, we decided to make the business as small as possible,” Randy explained. “If income was going to be greatly reduced, then we had to reduce expenses as much as possible. All of our staff is on unemployment, with Diane and I working the tasting room during its limited hours.”
Randy said that he’s appreciative of the enhanced unemployment benefits, which allow his staff to be financially supported during this time.
Like many others, the Laceys created an online store to facilitate sales. The response has been positive, and they plan to keep the store live after this crisis passes.
“It forced us to think in terms of specific offerings,” Randy said. “We have sold frozen beef for two years, but that has become a big item through this crisis, as has our cooler of local cheeses.”
Hopshire carries cheeses from producers like Crosswinds Farm & Creamery in Ovid and Muranda Cheese Company in Waterloo.
“While the grocery stores have limited stock of beef, we picked up the meat of two angus in early March so we have plenty of selection,” Randy said. “We want our customers to know how grateful we are for their support. We see the same customers coming in each weekend to buy their beer, meat and cheese to take home as they try to help us through this.”
And though customers can’t linger, Lacey said that he’s aware of regulars who now have Hopshire happy hours via Zoom. Hopshire is open Friday and Saturday from 4 to 7 p.m. and Sunday from 4 to 6 p.m. for takeout or curbside pickup, with pre-orders available at hopshire.com.
Salt Point Brewing Company in Lansing has also supplemented its business with food, pivoting the focus from after-work drinks at the taproom to full meals to go twice a week.
“We were already doing Taco Tuesdays, and that was really a popular event at the bar,” said co-owner Sarah Hess. “The day we got word that we were going to have to shut down was the day I had just spent six hours smoking pastrami on the smoker for Saint Patty’s Day tacos. I already had the food done, so we pivoted to takeout and saw that there was just an enormous amount of interest.”
Friday nights, the offering is a local snack plate, and Saturdays feature a rotating barbecue menu with house-smoked meat and two sides. Beer is available in 32-ounce crowlers, alongside bottles of wine, cans of cider, house Bloody Marys and Sangria made with red wine from Treleaven Wines in King Ferry.
Hess credited the food program with keeping their sales similar to the same time last year.
“It seems like people really want the sense of normalcy and a break from eating their own cooking,” Hess said. “Honestly, it’s totally saved our business. It is a way for beer to go out the door as well; if people are coming to get food, then they’re taking beer too.”
Due to the steady business, Salt Point has been able to keep almost its entire staff on payroll and make due without any of the local or federal relief money.
“We decided to leave the money for other businesses which were really hard hit,” Hess said.
Continuing in the spirit of supporting others, Salt Point has also begun a Free Community Meals initiative. The first event will be Wednesday, May 20, with 300 classic pulled pork barbecue dinners distributed from the Lansing Town Center between 5 and 6:30 p.m.
Hess said that while they are not doing this event to make money, she has received requests for how to donate towards it.
“We are taking donations now, and my hope is that if we get enough donations we can roll it over to another one and another one and another one,” she said.
Orders for food and drink and donations can be made online at saltpointbrewing.com.
“I just really want to express my gratitude,” Hess said. “It’s been incredibly uplifting to see what our business means to the community in the way that they’ve supported us and also in the way that they’ve tipped our staff.”
Bar Argos in Ithaca just wrapped up its fourth weekend of serving drinks to go (single and batch cocktails, beer growlers and wine), along with Stone Bend Farm’s farm-to-table brick oven pizza. Pre-orders are required and can be placed online at argosinn.com.
“Not being able to have the business open to guests is of course difficult,” said owner Avi Smith. “People come to Bar Argos to socialize and for the beautiful atmosphere, so drinks to go are not nearly as popular as having a drink at the bar; we’re doing about 5% of our normal May business. However, we did choose to close the bar even before the state mandated it, so we think it has been the right thing to do.”
A mortgage deferment and the receipt of both a grant from the Small Business Association (SBA) Disaster Loan as well as the SBA Paycheck Protection Plan loan allowed him to take time to plan how best to re-open.
“With the condition that local COVID-19 rates stay low and people maintain social distancing and other safe practices, we are excited about reopening this summer,” Smith said. “We are expanding our outdoor seating beyond the patio space; we will have socially distanced tables all throughout the front yard and parking lot. We will make these tables feel cozy by having outdoor rugs and mood lighting all throughout the outdoor space.
A host will seat guests and wipe down every table and chair with sanitizer before guests are seated, Smith said.
“We are also turning the carriage house into an outdoor bar and will occasionally have music on the roof of the carriage house,” he said.
Finally, Bar Argos is planning to host food trucks by the patio Wednesday through Saturday.
Smith noted that while the Argos Inn has a private parking lot it can use to safely increase capacity, other restaurants do not.
“In order for other restaurants to survive, they will need to have more outdoor seating as well, so the city of Ithaca needs to close off some streets to traffic so that they can put outdoor tables in the streets,” he said. “I think many of them will not survive if they are not allowed to do this.”
Just a few blocks away at Nowhere Special Libations Parlor in Ithaca, owner James Dean has stayed open by supplementing his cocktail menu with spirit and beer tasting flights. Each week, he offers a selection of three to four spirits or craft beers, delivered anywhere in the county and accompanied by tasting videos in collaboration with other local bartenders.
“Being able to deliver my Libations Club flights has been a really fun [and] interesting pivot to my business,” Dean said. “I’ve been leading people on beer and spirit tastings for over a decade. My backbar is one of the weirder ones in town, and it’s been nice to share my collection.”
Nowhere Special’s cocktail menu – including frozen cocktails – is available for pick up evenings Monday through Thursday from 4 to 8 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 4 to 10 p.m.
Dean takes orders by phone via text or call 314-NOWHERE (669-4373), which presents its own challenges, as it changes the normal flow of the bar.
“Normally when your bartender is busy when you enter the bar, you know you might have a bit of a wait,” Dean said. “With a call-in situation, the normal flow can be a bit more hectic and disruptive. There is an added stress of getting everything made and ready because you don’t want people to be in a group.”
Still, Dean is grateful to be able to rely on off-premises sales to stay open.
“I haven’t been able to qualify for any aid,” Dean said, noting that the various programs either didn’t apply to him due to his small business size (only one part-time employee), his product (some have restrictions since he predominantly sells alcohol) or the money running out too quickly.
Looking ahead, he hopes that takeout and delivery will remain an option until it is safe for restaurants and bars to once again operate at full occupancy. Dean echoed Smith’s sentiments that closing off city streets would be a benefit to downtown bars and restaurants.
“Everyone’s support has kept me going,” Dean said. “These are hard times for anyone at their best, but you all give me something to work towards and the feeling that I’m helping someone’s day means the world to me.”
Food For Thought is a monthly column highlighting the hidden gems of the culinary world across Tompkins County. Sarah Barden is a dedicated foodie who, along with her husband, shares her passion with neighbors and visitors through their business Ithaca is Foodies Culinary Tours. Find more information at IthacaIsFoodies.com.
Recommended for you