Bar, restaurant, venue owners discuss COVID-19 survival

Alx Stevens//October 30, 2020

Bar, restaurant, venue owners discuss COVID-19 survival

Alx Stevens//October 30, 2020

photo of city club zoom
Dave Krick, Eric Gilbert and Rocci Johnson, moderated by Kâren Sander, discuss bars, restaurants and live music venues Oct. 27 in a City Club of Boise panel discussion. Photo by Alx Stevens

Bars, live music venues and restaurants continue to face an uphill battle as COVID-19 concerns continue and Idaho moves backward in its reopening phases, but industry leaders are coming together to fight.

Dave Krick, restaurant owner, Eric Gilbert, live music coordinator, and Rocci Johnson, bar and nightclub owner, discussed community and government involvement in saving their industries during an Oct. 27 panel discussion, hosted by City Club of Boise.

When asked by moderator Kâren Sander why saving their industries mattered, Krick, Gilbert and Johnson agreed on shared cultural and economic significance, among other benefits.

photo of rocci johnson
Rocci Johnson

“[I] ask our leaders, especially here, to try and turn down the noise and be more empathetic and caring for those of us on the frontlines,” Johnson said. “We need to be here when this is over.”

Struggles, solutions

While Krick was the first to say his industry was ill-prepared for a pandemic, he also feels it’s time for the government to step in and help financially, mentioning that quick bail-outs have happened for Wall Street, big banks and similar institutions in times of economic downturn.

“Our businesses are luxury businesses. It probably is best to keep [us] closed, but we need economic tools to support that,” he said. “Our small businesses don’t have access to capital when we have things like this happen. This is our community capital.”

Krick is the president of the board of directors for FARE Idaho, — Idaho Food, Agriculture, Restaurants and Beverage Establishments — which is helping lead local legislative efforts around providing relief funding and other assistance to the industries. This organization is connected to the Restaurants Act, which, primarily, proposes a $120 billion Revitalization Fund. Krick is optimistic for these efforts.

Both are parallel to the Save Our Stages initiative, legislation relevant to Gilbert’s industry.

While the industry leaders praised some government actions, from Personal Payment Protection loans to city government partnerships, such as adapting downtown spaces for outdoor dining, government leadership, they said, is still falling short.

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Eric Gilbert

“Leadership has to do a more nuanced approach,” Gilbert said. “With live events, we have to wait it out. Everything feels like Band-Aids.”

Johnson, who owns Humpin’ Hannah’s, found this especially true for the PPP loans; the duration was short and Johnson was running out of work to give to employees, who were pleading with Johnson to reopen.

Krick believes nothing will happen until after the election.

“I think our leaders are stuck in the mud,” Krick said. “We’re stuck in the middle of being cheerleaders and needing more.”

In the meantime, each industry is also striving to overcome its own unique struggles.

Permanently vanishing talent pool?

With winter coming, restaurants that used outdoor dining as part of their solution to reopening safely may be back at the drawing board.

photo of dave krick
Dave Krick

Krick owns Bittercreek Alehouse/Red Feather Lounge and Diablo & Sons Saloon, and all use outdoor dining, which help compensate for their smaller building square footages. Red Feather’s size, in particular, is not large enough to generate viable revenue for the restaurant to open for the fraction of occupancy it is allowed during the winter months.

To help the industry, and its partner in agriculture, Krick helps lead efforts to provide local produce to restaurants and vulnerable populations that need it, especially food insecure children. This happens around a new organization: City of Good.

“If we [Idaho] had a superpower, it’s a network of good people,” Krick said. “Building networks has been a good outcome in all this.”

Gilbert, who works with Treefort, seconds that. The live music venue industry, though, faces the concern of a possibly vanishing talent pool. Local musicians are often not big stars, and those who work in producing shows often rely on gigs.

While some help has come from live streaming events, Gilbert believes it is not a permanent solution.

Johnson feels her industry is caught in the middle of politics; some question why her establishment is open at all while others ask why it’s not open full-bore.

And as Idaho moves back into Stage 3 of reopening amidst hospital capacity concerns, Johnson questions if more should be done around the enforcement of COVID-19 protocols. Johnson said people will still want to gather and will seek distraction.

“We provide that sense of place. As COVID progressed we could provide that and do it in a safe fashion,” Johnson said. “If we are able to provide a safe place, that’s better than just going out willy-nilly. It’s better to come together as a community and promote those good behaviors.”

One change Johnson made to her operations, and will likely be permanent, was adding a few socially distanced seats to the dance floor and scheduling live music performers to perform in early evening hours on the stage.

“I’m proud of the work we’ve done as a business and member of the community,” Johnson said. “It’s an important part … of vibrancy and livability.”

“Sense of place is a very big part of why a lot of us love living here,” Gilbert added. “Culture matters, and it’s a huge economic driver, directly and indirectly.”