The Philly dive bar experience doesn’t translate well to takeout. The classic Citywide Special — a cheap shot-and-beer combo — imbibed on the couch just doesn’t have the same appeal. Dive bar owners are feeling that discrepancy as they try to adjust their businesses to the outdoor, aboveground, socially distant reality the city is facing during the COVID-19 crisis. With bars not allowed to operate as usual and takeout an inadequate option, dives are relying on other means to stay afloat.
“As far as making money… we’re not doing that,” say Lou Capozzoli, the longtime owner of Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar, a South Philly dive his father owned before him. It’s just up the street from famed cheesesteak stands Pat’s and Geno’s. The bar’s location and consistently friendly service made it a destination for tourists — in addition to the local clientele — but that business has dried up.
“We’re just trying to let the bartenders make something,” Capozzoli says, “and keep ourselves busy.”
For now, the saving grace is that Capozzoli and his family own the building that houses Ray’s. It’s been in the family since he was a child, and it’s all paid off.
“If we didn’t own this building, we’d be closed by now,” he says. “Karaoke is really big at our bar — people love to do karaoke here — but that’s gone now. And I’m the front man for one of the bands that plays here, and the guys in the band keep calling me up, asking when we’re gonna play again. I say, ‘You gotta keep people six feet apart, how’re you gonna do it?’ The drummer would be at Geno’s Steaks by the time we set it up.”
Capozzoli says he and his wife, Rose, are trying to follow Pennsylvania’s and Philadelphia’s bar and restaurant restrictions as closely as they can, even though it’s been difficult.
Another bar owner, who asked to stay anonymous, said it would be impossible for him to survive if he followed the rules, which include stopping alcohol sales at 11 p.m. and closing at midnight.
Along with the early last call, customers ordering alcohol are required to also order a meal, and all orders have to be placed from a table — no sitting at the bar counter. Indoor service is limited to 50 percent of a venue’s capacity.
“I’d love to just stay closed,” the anonymous bar owner says. “I take this virus really seriously and I don’t want anyone to get sick. But if the state and federal government aren’t going to offer me any support, then I have no choice but to run my business. I had a very open conversation with my small staff, and I told them if they weren’t comfortable coming back, I would hold their jobs and they could continue collecting unemployment. Most of them were really excited to come back.”
He owns the property that houses the bar, but says the mortgage deferment program offered by his bank would have just increased his payments after a three-month pause, so he has continued to pay according to the pre-pandemic schedule. He’s been able to keep the bar going by staying open past the curfew and allowing people to order alcohol without ordering food.
That owner isn’t the only one skirting the rules. Capozzoli of Ray’s say he’s aware of several places that have been allowing guests to order at the bar, rather than while seated at a table.
At Bob & Barbara’s, an iconic family-run dive on the 1500 block of South Street, managers (and siblings) Oskar and Katrina Duva say their advantage has been the other businesses around them. The 51-year-old bar, now set up outside, is surrounded by Wine Dive, Jet Wine Bar, and the Cambridge, all of which have done a decent business thanks to outdoor dining.
“Our block is popular, and the businesses around us offer different things than we do,” Oskar Duva says. “So they attract a different crowd, but then people see us outside and give us a try. In general, our neighbors have been really generous in terms of lending us furniture or letting us use their street space. Everyone is really rooting for each other, and that’s been a highlight.”
The staff at Bob & Barbara’s helps keep the community feeling going, the Duvas say, even though table service amid social distancing can feel formal and stilted — very much at odds with the usual dive bar experience. Several staff members have been cooking food to sell at the bar, which is another draw for customers.
“Karen has been here for many years and she’s kind of famous for her baked mac and cheese,” Katrina Duva says. “It was her idea to come sell it, since we have to have food now, so she did it one Friday night — and now people expect it every week.”
The Duvas also recently restarted the drag shows that were a weekly event at the bar before the pandemic, with performers dancing and singing in the street. They’re led by Lisa Thompson, who’s been organizing the shows for 25 years.
“That’s been the number-one question for the last six months,” Oskar says. “People just wanted to know, ‘When are you bringing back the drag show?’ And when we finally brought it back, everyone came out to support, and the energy on South Street was amazing.”
The Duvas, like many restaurant and bar operators across the city, aren’t sure what will happen in the winter, as temperatures drop and outdoor seating loses appeal.
“We talk about it all the time, but no matter what we do, we’re taking a risk at a difficult time,” Oskar says. “We don’t know what’s going to happen.”
For now, they’re enjoying the energy from customers and intend to continue offering live entertainment for as long as possible, and as safely as possible. “Even if we’re not super profiting from it,” Katrina says, “the energy on South Street during the drag show just completely made it all worth it.”