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‘Hard To Stay Ahead’: Bars In St. Louis Region Struggle As New Rules Go Into Effect

Melanie Meyer, owner of Tiny Chef, pops her head out the takeout window attached to her kitchen, which operates out of  the Silver Ballroom bar.
Corinne Ruff
St. Louis Public Radio
Melanie Meyer, owner of Tiny Chef, is preparing to get more use out of a takeout window attached to her kitchen, in case bars are ordered to close again. Her restaurant operates out of the Silver Ballroom bar in the Bevo Mill neighborhood.

The bar scene in St. Louis is a shadow of what it was before the pandemic. Now with more restrictions being put on the businesses, some owners worry that their bars won’t survive.

Last week, St. Louis County and St. Louis health officialsbegan enforcing new rules to curb a noted increase in COVID-19 cases among people under 40. In St. Louis County, bars have a 10 p.m. curfew and 25% occupancy limit for at least the next month. Meanwhile, the St. Louis Health Department temporarily shut down four bars for violating social distancing and mask orders.

Mimi Fowler has been scrambling to figure out whether those new county restrictions apply to her Ferguson-based bar, Mimi’s Subway Bar & Grill.

She thought about making up the hours by opening earlier for the breakfast crowd. But then she learned that as long as she continues to serve food, her bar can stay open past 10 p.m.

Fowler said that’s a huge relief for her employees, who are already bringing in smaller paychecks than usual. But she still worries what will happen if she has to shut down again.

“Right now, people don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “I can’t even tell my employees if they’re going to have a job again next week or not because I never know.”

That uncertainty is exhausting, Fowler said. She understands the need to keep people safe — her fiance’s compromised health is always on her mind — but aside from takeout orders, she said there’s not much more the bar can do to make money.

Other bars have run into the same problem and thrown in the towel. Three Monkeys, a bar in the Tower Grove South neighborhood, announced last week it would shut down permanently.

In a Facebook post, the owners said, “We believe now is the time to take a step back and close our doors to focus on the future.” While the bar’s business model may not work during a pandemic, the owners hinted at a new concept to come down the road.

Months into the pandemic, many bars are still trying to figure out how to make money.

Corinne Ruff
St. Louis Public Radio
Melanie Meyer, owner of Tiny Chef, prepares kimchi inside her kitchen, which is based in the Silver Ballroom. As the bar crowd shrinks, Meyer plans to sell more family-style meals from her street-facing takeout window.

Planning for bars to close again

With so much uncertainty in the industry, Melanie Meyer is planning for a scenario where bars are ordered to close again.

She’s the owner and sole employee of a Korean restaurant, Tiny Chef, which operates out of the Silver Ballroom in the Bevo Mill neighborhood.

With the bar limited to 25% capacity, she said her usual customer base has dwindled, so she’s had to think up new ways to stay in business.

“Not everybody who goes there is going to get a meal. So I've had to get pretty creative with certain types of orders to go. I mean, it's really, really hard to stay ahead,” she said.

Meyer is getting more use out of a street-facing takeout window attached to her kitchen. And she’s pivoting toward family-size batches of tteokbokki, Korean lettuce wraps and soups to go.

“I'm just fighting as hard as I can to keep it. Because this has been a dream of mine since I can remember,” she said. “And I'm finally able to explore my own culture with my food.”

While many bars are struggling to stay open, Tatyana Telnikova is still wrestling with how to do that safely. She’s kept HandleBar, based in the Grove neighborhood, closed for months.

“I think if we open, we would probably have a lot of people coming out. It’s just, the thing is, we don’t want to do that,” she said, adding that she doesn’t see how a nightclub can be safe for employees or customers until a vaccine comes out.

Telnikova has experimented with hosting a couple of private parties, with a dozen people or so, but she found it hard to enforce social distancing, and there wasn’t a lot of demand.

With the bar closed, Telnikova said it’s hard to find the motivation to keep it going.

But she recently hired back a few employees to help expand the patio in hopes of reopening for small outdoor concerts in mid-September. In the meantime, she’s constructing a pickup window to sell pizzas and cocktail kits.

“Even if we don't make money, if we don't lose money that would already help us last this thing,” she said.

Corinne is the economic development reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.