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Scott Gerber On Adapting To Pandemic Nightlife

Scott Gerber is principal and CEO of Gerber Group, owner and operator of bars and restaurants in New York, Washington DC, and Atlanta.

Things have obviously evolved over the course of this pandemic. We just listen to whatever the government says or the scientists say. The biggest issue for us was that a lot of our properties are in hotels. When the government said they wanted us to start checking vax cards, that was fine. Obviously in most of our places we were checking IDs to make sure you’re of age anyway, so to check vax cards was not a big deal.

But what became a big deal was that if you were checking into a hotel, you didn’t need to show your vax card. So you come down from your room, you want to come to our bar, and we ask you for a vax card. You’re like, “What do you mean?” Especially if you’re not from New York. They’re like, “I’m staying in the hotel. I didn’t need to show them a vax card. Why do I need to show you one?” And I was like, “Look, we don’t make the laws.”

Fortunately at our bars and restaurants—and most of them are bars—we don’t often deal with families bringing their kids. What do I do if you have kids, and they’re over the age of five or something, and they don’t have a vax card? Do I tell your family that you can’t come in because your kid doesn’t have a vax card? That gets a little bit awkward. But right now we’re checking everybody’s vax cards with their IDs because that’s what we have to do.

We’re just as gracious as we can be about it. We don’t make the rules. We just follow them. That’s what we have to explain to our guests. And most of the time, they’re pretty understanding.

When it comes to actually testing people, I’m not going to be that invasive unless somebody tells me that by law I have to do that. But we had a couple of private events last year, towards the end of the year, where the hosts made it mandatory that people showed a test within 48 hours. We actually had one event where people were tested on location. It was a rapid test, but they were tested before they came in. We gave them a hot toddy or something while they were waiting the three minutes for the test results to come back.

We have required that if you’re inviting 200 people to a private event, you would provide us with proof that you’ve asked everybody for proof of vaccination. That way we wouldn’t have to go through every one of the guests that are coming to your event. So we relied on you as the host to give us a list and say you’ve checked their vax cards, and that they’ve all been vaccinated.

Vaccination for staff has been very confusing because we’re trying to follow the new rules. We started off early on mandating vaccinations, even before the government asked for that. We thought it was important not only for our guests, but also for our staff to be vaccinated. We have not gone on to asking staff to prove that they’re boosted, but we are requiring a second vaccination. We’ve also gone back to having our staff wear masks. It’s for their protection.

Otherwise, pandemic effects include the supply issues which are not unique to us. We’ve run out of beverage products—tequila, bourbon, champagne—all of that kind of stuff. The biggest impact it’s had on us was increasing our inventories. It’s hard to operate a business when you don’t have the product to sell. But more importantly for us, we have a reputation for having a very wide variety. If you come in and you like to drink Casamigos, we should have it. I shouldn’t have to say, “Would you be okay with something else?”

What ended up happening is that if my inventories used to be—I’m going to make up the number—$100,000, now all of a sudden my inventories are $200,000 because I’ve got my supplier saying, “We’re probably going to run out of this product next month, so you better buy a lot more.” Fortunately, in New York, you can do what’s called “bill and hold,” so I can buy 100 cases from one of my suppliers, and they keep it in their bonded warehouse, and I pay them a little bit more in interest for it as I pull it. But even so, storage is definitely at a premium. It’s been difficult, but I don’t have a choice. I can’t not have a wide variety of great products.

Supply issues mean bars need to keep more spirits in stock to cover shortages, like the stockroom at Mr. Purple. Photo: Courtesy Gerber Group.

Pricing has been a little bit of an issue with some products, but that’s really more for the food. Those prices, whether it’s beef or poultry or whatever, are going up. You try and pass that along to your guests as best you can, but at a certain point, are you going to spend $25 on a hamburger? Probably not. So we’re not serving $90 steaks because it’s just not what our customers want. We think that they’ll go for a skirt steak that we can sell for $30.

I think people are still making pretty good money when they come to work with us, because unfortunately we have fewer people working for us. On normal rights when I might want to have four bartenders on, now I may only have three. So that’s one problem, because I can’t find the fourth bartender. But I think our guests understand the difficulties that our business has been going through, and I think that they’ve been more generous with their tips. I find that I’m always tipping more than 20 percent. I’m not penalizing a place because the service isn’t what I would expect it to be, because I understand the challenges. Maybe that’s unique for me because I’m in the business, but I do find that people are becoming more understanding when service levels aren’t there.

But as far as availability of labor, nothing has gotten any easier. Everybody thought that when the stimulus was over, people would come back to work. It hasn’t been that way, and I think the primary reason is that there are a lot of other opportunities where you don’t have to be face to face with a new person every five minutes.

So whether it’s a question of you’d rather sit at home and be on a computer, or you’d rather be on a bicycle delivering for DoorDash and making the same amount of money—if not more—or you’re truly concerned about getting COVID and don’t want to put yourself in that position of being face to face with people. All those things are making it difficult to find staff.

We’ve gotten to the point where we’re going back and retraining our staff and making sure that our service levels are where we want them to be. Over the past year and a half, we were putting our finger in the dam trying to plug holes in staffing. I would take anybody that I could find and put them on the floor with not as much training as I’d want them to have because I just needed a warm body.

But now we’re able to say, “Okay, we’re going back to basics.” Especially in January, which is traditionally very slow in our business. Now it’s even more so because you can’t travel, and hotels are not open. So we’re going back and retraining everybody in the hopes that in February and March, our levels of service are back where we want them to be.

The other thing we’ve done in certain places is mobile ordering. We use systems where if you’re sitting in the lobby of the hotel and you want a cocktail, you just go on your phone and order it, and somebody runs it over to you.

That’s for two reasons. The first is because we don’t have the staff that we’d like to have. But the second is that if you decide that you want to leave your apartment and go hang out in the lobby of the hotel and work on your laptop for three hours, you don’t want somebody coming over every 10 minutes and saying, “Can I get you something? Can I get something? Can I get you something?” But at the same time, when you want something, you don’t want to go chasing after the person to get you that something.

So we’re using mobile apps where if you do want something, you punch it in, and our bartender or server is going to come and bring you your coffee or your beer or your water or your salad. This way you’re not inconvenienced by somebody bugging you all the time, and we make sure that we’re providing you with the service that you’d like us to provide.

Mobile ordering can make the experience easier and more comfortable in some places. If you’re going out with people that you know and that you feel comfortable being around, that’s great. But you probably don’t know my server, and you probably don’t know my busser. So the less interaction you have to have with them, the better. And if I have less staff, and you’re done with your drinks and your food and you’re ready to leave, you don’t want to worry about, “Where’s my server? Is she on a break? Is she in the restroom? Where is she? I’m ready to get out of here.” If you can go on your phone and pay the bill and leave the tip, you want to be able to do that.

It’s a delicate balance, though, because we’ve always prided ourselves on our hospitality and the environment. If you don’t want that service level and you don’t want that social environment, you might as well sit at your house and have the cocktail. It’s going to cost you a hell of a lot less than at my bar, right? So I’ve got to offer something.

We’ve had to adapt like everybody else. We’re opening a property in Whitefish, Montana. I happen to have a house out there. It’s definitely a second-home market that’s been expanding like crazy, and we’re doing a brewery and brewpub. We set it up to be operated in a quick-serve model. If we can’t find the staffing that we need, you can go up to a counter and order your food and drink. You’ll have a runner that will bring it to you.

We’ll have a server that will come over and check on you to see if you want to refill your beer, but if I can’t find the 20 people I need to work there this summer, I can still operate under a different model. My preference is to have bartenders, servers, and food runners and not have you go up to the counter to order, but I have to be prepared for that because these markets are expensive to live in. We need to be prepared to be able to hire half as many people as we would want to hire under normal circumstances, and still operate our business.

I know that personally I still like having that interaction with the servers and the bartenders when I go to a restaurant. I still like that level of service, but I’m also understanding of the fact that things may take a little bit longer. I’m not going to excuse the quality of the cocktail or the quality of the food not being what I think it should be. But if it takes a little bit longer for the server to approach my table, if it’s not within three minutes of me sitting down—hey, I get it. It’s not the end of the world for me.