In hindsight, Aaron Gordon wishes he would have been more prepared. The owner of the Red Light bar on 14th Street NW says there were a few measures he could’ve taken to prevent a chaotic situation Saturday afternoon. Customers drawn outside by picturesque spring weather disregarded city orders closing restaurants for sit-down service and knocked back to-go drinks on Red Light’s patio while an overwhelmed kitchen hustled to distribute to-go orders of Detroit-style pizza.
“We just didn’t think,” says Gordon, who wasn’t at the bar but was in touch with managers. “We didn’t think of them sitting on the patio and drinking or whatever, and that turning into a scene.”
Red Light has removed its patio chairs and implemented a policy to only serve to-go drinks — on Saturday, they were jars of sangria — when food orders are ready.
Gordon says although he knew spring weather was coming, he didn’t anticipate the extent to which a population that’s been driven inside by a “stay-at-home” order would react to a sunny day with temperatures in the 70s in what has so far been a chilly, rainy season.
72 degrees and it's patio season on 14th Street no matter what pic.twitter.com/JLrOnPN1WQ— Gabe Hiatt (@Gabecito) May 2, 2020
Red Light has been operating at about 30 percent capacity during the pandemic, mostly filling call-in orders or deliveries for GrubHub and Caviar; so the staff on-site fell far behind when customers began placing orders from a takeout window.
A backed-up kitchen that typically turns around orders of square, deep-dish pies in 15 minutes was taking around 45 minutes. Customers facing extended wait times picked up their cocktails and lingered outside, and Red Light staff focused on fulfilling its orders rather than policing the patio. Gordon says the bar’s sales were about double what they have typically been during the pandemic, but his staff told him there were never more than 16 people outside.
“It’s tougher than people think to turn a restaurant or a bar into 100 percent takeout and delivery,” Gordon says. “It’s a completely different business model.”
I walked by the patio on Saturday and shared a photo of the scene on Twitter. Red Light later fielded a call from the office of the D.C. mayor and received a visit from an inspector working for the city’s liquor authority. By that time, the bar had cleared the patio and asked customers to wait for their orders on the sidewalk. When Red Light managers explained the bar was not attempting to serve customers at the tables, they got a warning.
It also didn’t help that the line to buy pouched cocktails from nearby Pearl Dive Oyster Bar stretched for blocks. Some people on the Red Light patio were holding pouches from Pearl Dive. Other revelers on the popular brunch corridor plopped down on curbs to drink their pouches in defiance of open container laws. People also turned out in droves on the National Mall and Meridian Hill Park to watch a flyover by jets from the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds.
A spokesperson for D.C.’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration says it has issued written warnings to Red Light, Pearl Dive, Rito Loco/El Techo, Dirty Water/Beetle House, Mythology, Felicity Lounge, and Tony & Joes Seafood Place. Repeat violations could lead to suspended or revoked licenses. According to ABRA, every bar is responsible for devising and enforcing their own plan for keeping customers from eating and drinking on-site.
While states such as Georgia and Texas have already begun reopening restaurants for in-person dining, D.C. could be weeks or months away from joining them. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s “stay-at-home” order is set to expire May 15, but a presentation she shared in a public update Monday indicated the city may be farther away from entering that first phase. Bowser’s parameters call for 14 consecutive days of declining cases; D.C. has recently expanded testing and has yet to see a persistent downward trend.
Gordon predicts it will take two years before people want to fill restaurants again, and he thinks reopening now would be foolish.
“I definitely see a restaurant armageddon, in that I see 40 to 50 percent restaurant failure, and if you can’t do takeout and delivery, then you’re not going to be open.”
Gordon says Little Beast, his neighborhood bistro in Upper Northwest, has done so much takeout and delivery “that in some ways we’re doing better than we did before.”
Little Beast was notified that it will get a Paycheck Protection Program loan from a federal stimulus program but has yet to see any money.