Patti Brett knows it’ll be a long time before she can welcome customers into Doobies, her bar at the corner of 22nd and Lombard Streets. “Probably for the rest of the year,” she predicts.
So she’s using this downtime to put in a new laminate floor — “which is helpful,” she says, “because that carpet’s been on the floor for … I’m ashamed to admit it, but 20 years.”
Brett took over the bar from her mother, who bought it in 1978. Though she’s given it a 21st-century feel with a craft beer-centric draft list and several shot-and-a-beer combos, not much else has changed about it.
“It’s been in my family for 42 years,” she says. “It’s been around for forever.”
Doobies is one of Philly’s many dive bars, known and loved for their low prices, low-key atmospheres, and low-maintenance interiors. As restaurants and bars around them have grown trendier and pricier, they’ve stayed the same — often feeling like portals to an older Philadelphia.
Coronavirus and its attendant challenges pose a threat to Philly’s dives, same as they do for all bars and restaurants. But post-pandemic survival may be more precarious for dive bars, which don’t typically have enticing Instagram accounts or PR reps. They’re not dining destinations, nor do they serve fancy cocktails you can’t mix yourself. Instead, they’re where one goes to have a cheap drink somewhere other than home.
But how will they fare in a pickup-and-delivery world, or even in the socially distant future?
“There’s hardly any profit at all in the food, because our prices are so low,” says Rich Chodak, who owns Oscar’s Tavern, the Center City dive known for its tall beers, potholed vinyl seats, and cheesesteak-and-a-half specials.
“I don’t want to keep raising the food prices,” Chodak says. “And when we buy alcohol and beer, it costs us the same amount of money that it costs Ladder 15. They’re charging $16 for a cocktail, and we’re charging $6.”
Chodak’s numbers are inexact — Ladder 15′s cocktail menu tops out at $14 for a Grey Goose dirty martini — but not far off. A whiskey sour at Oscar’s costs $5. At Ladder 15, the closest analog, a Knob Creek sidecar, costs $13. That’s in line with prices at other popular restaurants on Sansom Street.
The math is similar at Les and Doreen’s Happy Tap, a Fishtown watering hole owned by Doreen Thompson, who bought the bar with her husband in 1986, when it was Kelly’s Happy Tap. It’s a 10-minute walk from one of the busiest stretches of Frankford Avenue, where cocktails typically go for $10 and up.
Happy Tap’s mixed drinks are $4 or $5; a bottle of beer is $3 or $4. Thompson doesn’t want to raise prices, worrying that it might exclude the bar’s day crowd (it usually opens at 7 a.m.) of neighborhood retirees who have been coming there for 30 or 40 years.
“I love all the new people coming in. I think a lot of them stop in before they go out or before they go somewhere else to pay more money for a drink,” Thompson laughs.
“I would love to keep the bar the same,” she continues. “Thirty, 40 years, that’s all I’ve ever done. It’s just like family and my home.”
While cigarette smoke cleared in most Philadelphia bars after a 2006 smoking ban went into effect, there are some notable holdouts: McGlinchey’s, Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar, 12 Steps Down, to name a few. They’re exempted because food sales account for less than 20% of their revenue. And they are all dive bars, almost by definition (like the Dive Bar on East Passyunk Avenue).
But these same bars can’t sell newly legal mixed drinks to-go, because the law recently signed by Gov. Tom Wolf only allows them to be sold where takeout meals are also available.
That leaves some bar owners hamstrung, like Maria Lauer of Bonnie’s Capistrano Bar at 13th and Dickinson. The smoking bar, which her mom bought in 1974, has been completely closed since mid-March.
Lauer toyed with the idea of serving takeout food so that she could sell six-packs, too, but ultimately decided it wouldn’t be worthwhile. “We’re three blocks away from the Acme [that also sells beer]. We can’t compete with that,” she says. “People go to bars like mine for the social aspect of it.”
Lauer applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan and one of the city’s Small Business Relief Fund loans but didn’t receive either. She has a job with the city, so she’s able to cover her household bills, but the bar — which usually pays for itself — is still generating expenses: mortgage, cable, electricity, phone. Some is covered by the rent from apartments above the bar, but it’s not enough for everything.
To make up the rest, Lauer and her husband have dipped into retirement savings. “When it started, I thought, ‘Oh, two weeks, that’s doable. A month? Doable.’ Now, there’s no indication that we’re opening anytime soon.”
All she can do is hope that there will be some eventual easement in restrictions that does apply to Bonnie’s. She’s asked her employees if they feel comfortable coming back to work, and she’s thought about what reduced occupancy might look like.
“We’re going to try to hang in there. What’s the alternative? Sell it? Sell it to who? Who’s even going to want a business that you can’t open?” she says. “And I don’t want to do that. My mom bought the bar when I was 2. It’s something that’s part of my life.”
Business has been slow at Oscar’s, Chodak says, to the point where it didn’t open during a bout of bad weather on Memorial Day weekend.
At Doobies, Brett bought 1-ounce cups with lids in anticipation of being able to offer shot-and-a-beer specials again, but the takeout-drinks law prohibits selling both straight liquor and quantities less than 4 ounces. She hopes to jazz up her offerings with in-house beer infusions instead.
“I think that the places that are older, they get overlooked for the new places. So you try to reinvent yourself or you try to figure out ways to get customers in,” Brett says. “Honestly, for the past few years, it’s been very difficult.”
Happy Tap has offered takeout meals (including Spicy Time Thai) since the beginning of the shutdown, but it only generates a couple hundred in sales a day, Thompson says. “It’s nothing like it used to be at all.”
Reopening with reduced capacity will present its own challenges. Many of Philly’s dives are tucked into old, narrow rowhouses, where tables and barstools are spaced out just enough to allow servers and customers to pass by.
“Do we take out half of our barstools? But that doesn’t mean that people aren’t going to move them around to sit next to each other,” she says. “The whole concept of social gathering is a cornerstone of my business.”
Sweitzer was lucky enough to secure a PPP loan, but 75% of it must go to payroll, and the remainder can’t go toward big-ticket expenses like liquor liability insurance or maintenance. And all the funds need to be used by the end of June.
“I’m still one month behind on my rent, and I probably will be until …” she trails off. She thinks Franks might be allowed to open sometime in July, based on the state government’s initial reopening guidelines.
Though it seems far off, Sweitzer has been planning. She’s making masks for her employees and installing hands-free dispensers for soap, sanitizer, toilet paper, and paper towels. (No word on whether the men’s room will get a lock on the door.) She’s mulling over changes to Franks’ glassware and the laminate bar top.
“I want to be on top of it, I really do,” she says.
But there is one potential change Sweitzer can’t stomach: ditching the bar’s staunch cash-only policy, which she’s kept in place as a way “to keep Franks Franks,” she has said.
“There’s no way I can take credit cards. I think [former owner] Jay McConnell would roll over in his grave.”