Greater Cincinnati Bar Owners Look for Aid to Make it Through Pandemic Winter

Winter is coming and local bar owners are bracing for one of their most challenging seasons in living history.

click to enlarge An igloo on Braxton's rooftop to make outdoor seating more accommodating this winter - Photo: Sean M. Peters
Photo: Sean M. Peters
An igloo on Braxton's rooftop to make outdoor seating more accommodating this winter

Winter is coming and local bar owners are braced for one of their most challenging seasons in living history. (Except for perhaps the advent of Prohibition.) 

Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Cincinnati’s independent entrepreneurs have their backs up against the wall and, while grateful for any government assistance they can procure, some feel left to fend for themselves.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s Bar and Restaurant Assistance Fund is “designed to assist Ohio’s on-premise liquor permit holders...to help them through the financial difficulties experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to the state’s official messaging on businesshelp.ohio.gov, where business owners can apply for the aid. The governor designated $38.7 million of funding received by the State of Ohio from the federal CARES Act and aims to provide $2,500 assistance payments to on-premise liquor permit holders because “these permit holders have not been able to fully use their liquor permit and it’s had an impact on their business.” 

Applications for this assistance opened Nov. 2 and many say they’ve had difficulty accessing the website in this early rush for relief, which is acknowledged by the governor’s office; if you attempt to log in you’ll likely be greeted with, “Due to great interest, you may experience some delays...Thank you for your patience.” 

The most recent offering from Mayor Cranley’s office would use $4 million in CARES Act funding to dole out grants to locally owned, non-chain bars, restaurants and breweries. Grants would be between $5,000 and $10,000 and applications can be submitted at tasteofcincinnati.com, which has transformed from the annual food fest’s landing page to an application portal hosted by the city and Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. (The application deadline is Nov. 15.)

“Honestly, 10k is a pretty fair number to me from the city,” says Chris Breeden, owner of Cincinnati’s oldest bar, Arnold’s Bar and Grill. “I hope that there will be a federal stimulus in place before the holidays.” 

Business at Arnold’s is down 75% over last year, Breeden says, but he, his family and employees are in a position where they can float for a few months before it becomes more challenging, thanks to cooperation from the city and their federal PPP loan. He fears that is not the case for a lot of restaurants and bars and that the compounding mix of fewer patrons, a 10 p.m. mandated last call and cold weather could turn this into a nuclear winter for many businesses.

Jesse Baker, owner of Arcade Legacy: Bar Edition in Northside, says the $5,000 he qualifies for would not even cover one month’s bills for his retro video game bar — but any assistance is welcome.

“The PUA unemployment money is drying up and that leaves me with no help very soon,” Baker says, referring to the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program many self-employed and contract workers rely on. “We’ve just reopened and business is down by about 70% so far. I am hoping that will rise as people realize we are back open. There’s not much to work with, though, since we still have to stop serving at 10 p.m. I’d say about 75% of our business is after 10 p.m. most nights. It doesn’t add up for us.” 

Baker believes the only thing that would truly work to save more businesses is a rent freeze through the winter, but does not hold out hope that something like that would happen. 

Nothing the federal government has done has made him feel confident his business will survive; Arcade Legacy has subsisted on revenue from its original retail location in Fairfield’s mainly vacant Cincinnati Mall and from donations given by loyal customers.

Jake Rouse, CEO of Braxton Brewing Co., anticipates a lot of bars will go belly up unless something drastic is done on a federal level. His family’s Covington brewery installed insulated plastic igloos on their rooftop to encourage wintertime guests to patronize their taproom while maintaining health standards concurrent with the pandemic. This, like many local business owners who were allotted additional outdoor seating space to encourage patrons to visit, was done out of necessity to help with thin profit margins. 

“We’ve been pretty big advocates in D.C. on additional stimulus,” Rouse says. “It just feels as though D.C.’s left an entire subsegment of the economy behind with restaurants and bars...a lot of restrictions on capacity, but no restrictions on rent forgiveness or debt forgiveness. So it’s very, very difficult to continue to make it.”  

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear recently announced some help: the state’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control is giving current licensees a 12-month fee renewal waiver, which could add up to thousands for some. But it’s not much.

Rouse says sales were down around 50% in his breweries’ taprooms the weekend we talked to him. These wildly fluctuating sales trends have forced him to reconsider some plans and find whatever way he can to help his team “survive this timeframe.” They’ve also only sold about 40% of their volume compared to last year to other bars and restaurants, which are no longer buying normal quantities. 

So what can patrons do to help? Baker of Arcade Legacy says, “Just come and support the business when possible. That’s all any business can really ask.” 

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