Beer Here, Bouquets Next Door: How a Bar Defied the Pandemic

OAKLAND, Calif. — One year ago at the Hatch, a narrow neighborhood bar in downtown Oakland, dozens of unmasked people crowded inside to say goodbye for a while. California’s governor had just ordered the nation’s first effective coronavirus lockdown, and the bar’s staff and regulars thought they wouldn’t be back for weeks, maybe even months.

So began an arduous year. The coronavirus killed more than 500,000 people in the United States and forced more than 100,000 small businesses to close for good. At the Hatch, some of the staff fought for the bar’s survival. Others just tried to survive.

The New York Times followed the bar and its employees for the first months after the lockdown, chronicling overdue bills, missed rent payments, a failing takeout business and cancer diagnoses. In the middle of a second lockdown in December, as coronavirus deaths broke records daily, the bar’s owner, Louwenda Kachingwe, known as Pancho, said he thought the Hatch might have served its last beer.

Giacchino Breen, a bartender, taking an order from the Hatch’s new takeout window.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

He is happy he was wrong. On a recent Saturday, a masked bartender handed beer and tater tots out of a takeout window cut into the kitchen wall. Groups gathered around picnic tables on a patio that was previously a lane of traffic. A D.J. broadcast hip-hop onto the sidewalk. And a man on roller skates bounced to the music, drink in hand.

The Hatch is alive, albeit as a different place. It is one of hundreds of thousands of bars and restaurants that have scraped by over the past year, finding ways to survive. Many have relied on government aid and donations, and nearly all of them have had to be creative and adapt.

In the United States, 260,000 businesses, including 85,000 restaurants, have reopened over the past year, according to a report last week from Yelp. In September, Yelp reported that the pandemic had forced nearly 100,000 businesses to close permanently.

At the Hatch, Mr. Kachingwe used ingenuity and a bit of good fortune to take advantage of federal money and discounted leases to not only hold on but expand.

The Hatch’s manager, Robin Easterbrook, and owner, Louwenda Kachingwe, in their new flower shop next door.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Last month, he and the Hatch’s manager, Robin Easterbrook, opened Pothead, a flower and wine shop, next door to the Hatch. They also took on a third lease in the empty space next to Pothead as a place to build larger floral arrangements for events, to stage a new operation making bottled cocktails and sauces, and to sublease the storefront to some friends’ apparel business.

Such a bet in the midst of a pandemic was bold, but Mr. Kachingwe saw opportunity. He had just received his second $72,500 forgivable loan from the federal government, and his landlord was desperate. So Mr. Kachingwe negotiated a deal that gave him access to the three adjacent storefronts for $7,500 a month, or 20 percent more than what he was paying for only the Hatch before the virus. The landlord said they would assess the arrangement at the end of April.

Mr. Kachingwe said he had tried to reassure his employees for months that his plans just needed time to work. “Now we’re finally getting there,” he said. “That seems to be a big turning point for the entire staff, going from being depressed by the pandemic to being like, ‘OK, maybe things will turn around.’”

Yet some members of his staff are struggling.

Santos, one of the Hatch’s two cooks, who asked to be identified only by his first name because of his family’s immigration status, has been stuck for months in his three-bedroom home, which he shared with 11 relatives on the outskirts of Oakland. He had complications after hernia surgery in June, and hasn’t worked since. The Hatch’s new takeout business was so slow, he also wasn’t needed.

Santos, one of the cooks, has been out of work for nearly a year but is finally preparing to return to the Hatch’s kitchen.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

In December, Santos’s daughter moved out with her four children, leaving fewer people to split the nearly $3,000 monthly rent. That was particularly difficult without the $2,500 he used to take home each month from the Hatch. To get by, he and his children who still lived with him borrowed money from relatives and frequented food banks. He received a visa in 2019 after arriving in the United States a decade earlier from Guatemala, but he hasn’t received any unemployment or stimulus checks.

“I need to work,” he said in Spanish. “For everything — the rent, other needs, the family in Guatemala.”

There is good news. A second surgery has eased the pain from the first, and Santos is scheduled to return to the Hatch’s cramped kitchen this week.

Maria, the Hatch’s cleaner, said she had hardly left her home since her cancer diagnosis shortly after the pandemic began. Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Maria, the bar’s undocumented cleaner, is not set to return. (The Times also agreed to not use her full name because of her immigration status.) She is undergoing chemotherapy for multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells in her bone marrow. Her health declined sharply after the lockdowns began, and by May she could hardly walk. But since she began treatment, she said, she has slowly improved and is getting around with a walker. With her out of work, Mr. Kachingwe hired her husband to clean some days.

Mr. Kachingwe, Santos and Maria all were aided over the past year by an unexpected source: donations from readers and listeners of The Times. After The Times published an article and a podcast about the Hatch and its staff last year, roughly $75,000 poured into the bar’s online fund-raisers. Most helped keep the bar afloat, while about $10,500 went to Maria and $260 to Santos. (Maria received far more because, unlike Santos, she was featured in a Times podcast.)

“Thanks to God and the people who, without knowing me, have helped me,” Maria said in Spanish. “Without that help, we wouldn’t have survived.”

Mr. Kachingwe said the donations, as well as the $145,000 in federal money, had helped him change the business. He lobbied city officials to close down a lane of traffic and then twice built a patio in its place. (Days of rain ruined the first patio.) He and staff built the takeout window, rewrote the menu, moved a projector and screen outside, and bought an outdoor sound system off Craigslist.

He said the Hatch was now better suited for a post-pandemic world, with more outdoor space and a takeout operation. It also suddenly has a few sister businesses.

Customers at the Hatch now gather on a patio in what used to be a traffic lane.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Ms. Easterbrook, the Hatch’s manager, had been planning to open a sister bar called Good for Nothing, but she quickly ditched the plan when the pandemic arrived. Then, in a late-night conversation while waiting for takeout orders at the Hatch, Ms. Easterbrook, a trained florist, and Mr. Kachingwe came up with the idea for Pothead. To them, the concept made sense: There was still demand for flowers and plants, the Hatch’s new outdoor space could attract customers, and they could use the bar’s liquor license to sell wine.

Ms. Easterbrook said the first weeks had been a success, though Mr. Kachingwe still had plenty to learn. “In the beginning he asked me things like, ‘Should I get more sand for the flowers?’” she said.

Mr. Kachingwe teamed up with the Hatch’s cook, Leonardo Garcia, to make and bottle sauces, including Hatch Fire Ketchup and Hatch Fuego. And he worked with Giacchino Breen, a 23-year-old bartender, on bottling cocktails under a new brand, Wolfmoon. As part of Mr. Kachingwe’s effort to empower his employees, Mr. Garcia and Mr. Breen have stakes in the sales.

Now, after a year in which he worried the Hatch would never fully open again, Mr. Kachingwe said his biggest anxiety was welcoming customers back inside. He is trying to figure out how to make the sound system cover both the indoor and outdoor spaces and whether to have indoor customers order food at the outdoor window. Until they receive a vaccine, some on the staff are also uncomfortable with customers returning inside the compact bar.

In fact, Mr. Kachingwe said, he prefers the new Hatch to what it was before the pandemic. With the outdoor seating, “it’s more lively,” he said. “I don’t see things going back to the way they were.”

Kirla Oyola-Seal contributed reporting.

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