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Barron’s and MarketWatch will check in regularly with entrepreneurs across the U.S. as they confront the challenges of reviving their business amid the Covid-19 crisis.
- The Fireside Lounge
- Owner: Sandy Russell
- Location: Alameda, Calif.
- Employees: Nine full-time before Covid-19, now five part-time.
- Status: Open for bottle, takeout service, expanded outdoor seating, contactless payment
It took nearly six months of hard work, but one neighborhood bar went from barely bringing in one-tenth of its receipts as a glorified packaged-goods shop back to firing on nearly all cylinders through a lot of ingenuity.
On the day before St. Patrick’s Day, when California ordered the closure of all bars to limit the spread of Covid-19, Fireside Lounge owner Sandy Russell spent a “week of freaking out” trying to figure out how to survive. The Fireside has been an Alameda institution since 1942, when the island city near Oakland was best known for the U.S. Naval Air Station. Since 2011, Russell has been an owner of the neighborhood bar, and is currently seeking sole ownership.
Read the first entry in Fireside Lounge’s Small Business Diary here.
This past weekend, the Fireside added to its many Covid-19 adaptations by opening up a 60-person dining/drinking area that she shares with a few other neighborhood businesses in an adjacent parking lot. With four DJs spinning, the turnout brought business “pretty darn close” to pre-Covid-19 levels, Russell said.
“Our first weekend out of the gate, our numbers were almost like normal Friday and Saturday night,” Russell said. “It’s 10 times the work and requires two times the staffing, so we’ve got to work that part out, but I’m cautiously optimistic.”
Slideshow: The Fireside Lounge’s Small Business Reopening Diaries
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The Fireside Lounge currently offers beer, wine, and spirits to-go through front windows on Webster Street, Alameda, Calif., Saturday, July 11, 2020.
Photograph by Kelsey McClellan
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In addition to standard bar operations, Russell said the outdoor seating requires much more work in having to put out and pull down the seating and umbrellas every day the bar is open. Currently, the Fireside is open Thursdays through Sundays, and will be open on Monday for Labor Day.
Back in March, Russell had to lay off all nine of her employees, but slowly she has been bringing them back. First, she brought two back to handle curbside business when Alameda reduced lanes on two main street to convert curbsides to outdoor areas for customers. Using “pallet parklets”—mobile outdoor seating areas made from pallet material that are often placed in parking spaces—Russell was able to accommodate about 20 people under social-distancing guidelines for drinks service. Now, with the parking lot seating addition, she’s been able to expand the number of customers and take back five other employees, rotating them on a part-time basis.
What’s ahead is figuring out how to weatherproof all the outdoor gear and seating, Russell said, as fall and winter is when the Bay Area sees most of its rain. Russell also said she plans to launch a fundraiser to install a small kitchen in the bar and serve food, as patrons are currently being served by neighboring restaurants.
Russell has started using smartphones to facilitate contactless payment in the outside seating area. By placing QR codes on menus, bar patrons snap a picture of the code which brings up that night’s menu. Ordering and payment happens using Weebly and
(ticker: SQ), and drinks and food are delivered by a server.
From the start, Russell has kept up outreach efforts to keep her brand and neighborhood presence alive, from posting online videos to remind patrons that the bar was still around to live-streaming bands.
Russell’s also doubled down on merchandising such as T-shirts and hoodies, expanding into dog tags, bottle openers and stickers to keep brand awareness high.
What’s Not Working
Not taking breaks and assuming everyone knows exactly how to act when they’re out at a bar in the Covid-19 era. Other than that, Russell said many of her efforts have worked out with adjustments here and there, the key being persistence.
Case in point, the first weekend outdoor bar service went into effect last month, many bar patrons had to be reminded they had to wear a mask when they were not explicitly eating or drinking, or to keep their distance from other patrons.
“I feel like it’s gotten better but we still have a long way to go,” Russell said. “The order says unless you are actively eating or drinking your mask needs to be up. But some people are like ‘I’m gonna take another sip right away.’ But, I can say it’s gotten better.”
Advice to Other Small Business Owners
Since we started following the Fireside in July, Russell has kept to a mantra: Never give up. Adapt in any way you can. Be creative.
Pretty much everyone’s business is forever changed, Russell said, so the most likely survivors will be the ones who can adapt the best to post-Covid-19 realities.
Most cities are offering webinars and town halls to local chambers of commerce or through business associations, Russell said. “There’s a lot of information available and being apprised of those things, we’re able to share best practices with other businesses and then also recognizing what it is the city is able to do,” Russell said.
For example, Russell, who is also president of the West Alameda Business Association, said the city of Alameda recently approved $125,000 grants for both WABA and the Downtown Alameda Business Association to help pay for outdoor seating.
Small Business in Crisis
Barron’s in coming months will be exploring how the pandemic’s impact on small business is playing out, and how small businesses’ struggles will affect the broader economy and financial markets. Please reach out to us with your stories, questions, and tips to [email protected]