Can Doobies, a quintessential Philly corner bar, survive?
Corner bars are facing a huge challenge during the pandemic. Doobies at 22nd and Lombard is on the line.
The future is not so hunky-dory for Doobies, a corner bar that began serving the Graduate Hospital neighborhood when there actually was a Graduate Hospital.
Owner Patti Brett, who started working there even before her mother, Joan Sands, bought the joint in 1978, says the pandemic is catching up to Doobies, whose bar stools have been empty for seven months.
Brett works solo nowadays, selling drinks out of the front door at 22nd and Lombard six days a week. On Sunday, Doobies' gross receipts were $37.
Meanwhile, her bills are stacking up. Her liquor taxes must be paid by the end of the month so she can renew the liquor license — $2,000 to Harrisburg. She has been paying other bills with her credit card. After what she calls “a lovely outpouring of support” following her posting of Doobies' dire straits on Facebook, she started a GoFundMe drive on Oct. 19 that topped its initial $10,000 goal in less than 12 hours. It’s a start, Brett said.
What’s happening at Doobies, a total throwback whose homey, cluttered atmosphere is an homage to Brett’s idol David Bowie, is happening at likely thousands of small bars in America. Their raison d’être, as cozy neighborhood gathering spots, is precisely why they are suffering, as many jurisdictions have banned bar seating altogether on safety grounds. Limits on table seating in these small rooms make indoor service unprofitable. Many bar owners lack the outdoor space for tables or the clout for a streetery permit, and also don’t have kitchen operations sophisticated enough for takeout or delivery business. Doobies’ galley kitchen is about 3 feet by 8 feet, among the smallest in the city.
As fall teeters toward winter, the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association, the trade group representing 445 bar and restaurant owners in the state, is stepping up its fight against Gov. Tom Wolf’s restrictions. It just lost its latest battle, to seek an override of Wolf’s Oct. 16 veto of House Bill 2513, bipartisan legislation approved by the House and Senate that would return indoor capacity to 50% without a self-certification process, allow people to sit at bars, and eliminate the requirement that customers buy a meal to accompany drinks served indoors.
The meal-with-drinks requirement was not the reason that Brett declined to open indoors. “I have no intention of letting people in," she said. “This place is too small.” She feared “careless people” on sidewalks. “I don’t want to get sick. I don’t want my customers to get sick. I don’t want my neighbors to get sick,” she said.
Doobies closed March 16 with the rest of Philadelphia’s bars. After reopening May 2, Brett shut down again at the end of May for 10 days during the Black Lives Matter protests.
The summer was great, she said. She bought a blender to make slushie pouches. Her ice machine broke, forcing a trip to the store every day. Rather than spring $2,500 for a new machine, she found a used one. She endured the heat all summer because she didn’t run the air-conditioning with the front door open.
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But then came what Brett called “too many $30, $40 days" — compounded by Pennsylvania’s mandatory 11 p.m. last call, which shaves off three hours of selling time. “That’s months' worth of revenue,” she said.
Last weekend, after that $37 Sunday, she logged onto Facebook and wrote a post viewable by her friends: “I tried to keep it going, but I’m not holding out much hope at this point. Unless there’s an uptick in customers in the next couple of weeks, Doobies will be saying a final last call. Looks like I’m going to be looking for a job soon. Any suggestions for what I can do that will be easy on my knees?”
“The response was overwhelming,” Brett said. “I admit it was a little dramatic but that’s how I felt at the end of my shift. My intention was to show how dire it is.”
She said she did not apply for a Paycheck Protection Program loan issued through the federal government because she worried about repaying it. She has applied for several grants, but has not heard back.
Brett, who turns 65 at the end of October, is Doobies, which was previously known as Slicker Sam’s and before that as a jazz bar called Billy’s Bandbox. She started going there when she was old enough to drink legally and musician Kenn Kweder was tending bar in those gritty days.
Everything changed in May 1976. Brett, then 22, and her mother stopped in after a Paul McCartney and Wings concert at the Spectrum. Joan Sands fell in love with the place. She hated her job as a legal secretary, and started working there — as did her daughter — and in October 1978 bought it from the three men who owned it.
The name, Brett recalled, came from the owners' fondness for smoking pot in the basement, not in honor of the Doobie Brothers. Brett, who has managed the bar since 1985, inherited Doobies after her mother’s death in 2003. You can still see “Joanie Doobies seat” written in red nail polish on the bar top; when Sands wanted a breather from the kitchen, she needed a place to sit.
Meanwhile, two generations of Philadelphians are sharing their memories with Brett — remembering the wedding once held at the bar, the benefits held. During the pandemic, Brett has compiled hour-long play lists of the jukebox so customers can feel connected. People ask her to send them cellphone photos of the back bar, for old time’s sake.
Retire? “Not an option,” Brett said, sharply. “I love what I do. It’s in my blood. If I can just hang in there until we can open safely. I’ll do what I have to do to make this work.”
An earlier version of this article quoted Brett as saying that Philadelphia Gas Works had shut off the bar’s service. After PGW investigated, Brett said she determined that someone had manually turned off the valve to her stove.