There may no longer be a bar where everybody knows your name, as the famous theme song from Cheers goes. These understated spots get locals through the work week, but a trendline is showing neighborhood bars are on the rocks.
The number of what the U.S. Department of Labor statistics call “drinking places” — a subcategory of restaurants that is focused just on sales of alcohol — have seen a multi-year decline in number. The number of privately-owned locations dropped by nearly 4 percent between 2013 and 2016, from 44,599 to 42,961 establishments. Nielsen data from 2015 paints an even starker picture, stating that one out of every six neighborhood bars closed between 2004 and 2014.
When customers are looking for the next place to snap a photo of glitter dusted lattes or liquid nitrogen ice cream, these neighborhood bars just don’t stack up.
Francois Houlard, general manager at the Golden Gopher in Los Angeles, jokes that he watched every episode of Cheers after accepting his position.
“I have learned a few things out of it. First of all, Ted Danson is not too bad of a bartender, I might offer him a job if he comes to apply,” says Houlard. “I was actually seeing things that we were already doing–knowing the people who came in for a reset or an escape of their lives, taking care of them, making sure they’d get home safe. [It’s] somewhere where people can come share ideas, meet new people make friends and be home away from home.”
Bartenders and patrons offer similar descriptions about what defines a neighborhood bar. Some might recognize the old neon sign out by the road or in the window. For others it’s synonymous with dimly-lit rooms, pool tables or cozy bar stools and booths. Michelle Hodan, the entertainment director at Three Clubs, a Hollywood standard known for its theater, burlesque shows and Old Fashioneds, explains that their formula comes down to three components: music, temperature and lighting.
“It’s all about the vibe and how you make people feel…we want you to feel like it’s an extension of your home – no one’s judging you, everyone’s welcome,” says Hodan.
Yet, the very things that define the neighborhood bar are also putting them in peril. According to research by Zizzi, a chain of Italian restaurants in the U.K., 30 percent of millennials said they would avoid a bar if its Instagram presence was weak. A Washington Post report found a simultaneous trend in bars closing and liquor stores opening, suggesting a generation of consumers who prefer to drink at home.
There was once a time when a neighborhood might actually have multiple “neighborhood bars.” But as consumer preferences adjusted, chains proliferated, and the makeup of communities changed, the bars and taverns once a favorite among “the usuals” have been especially vulnerable.
For the neighborhood bars, surviving often means embracing technology, such as a bar point of sale system. It also means adapting to changing tastes. But that’s a double-edged sword when the simplicity of a local watering hole is part of the lasting appeal.
“We have always catered to the shot-and-beer crowd, and we still do. That has never changed,” says bartender Dawnee Aubert, who has worked at the Golden Gopher since 2004.
She adds that classic cocktails are gaining traction again, so drinks like the Moscow Mule, Mint Julep and Old Fashioned are among their most popular cocktails. The Golden Gopher also donates $1 of every Moscow Mule sold to The Spirited Coalition for Change, a nonprofit committed to end homelessness in L.A., a nod to the bar’s community improvement efforts.
“With all of the massive growth downtown in the last decade, our clientele has changed over many times,” Aubert says. “As the neighborhood continues to change and grow, so do the people that consider our bar their home bar. So many more people live downtown now than they did 10 years ago.”
Still, rising rents and restaurant concepts backed by large investors or hospitality groups pose a very serious threat to neighborhood watering holes. Even in a large city like Boston, just 13 hospitality groups own over 90 restaurants in the area, reports BostonInno. This number is the norm rather than an exception at cities across the U.S.
“We don’t see the [newer bars] as our competition; they’re just our neighbors,” says Hodan, adding that many of the Three Clubs staff frequent the adjacent bars and restaurants because when local workers visit nearby establishments it contributes to the sense of community.
“A lot of people forget that bars are about hospitality. Be gracious, be open-minded, accept people for who they are. Do it to put a smile on your patron’s face, and eventually become friends with a few of them,” says Houlard. “They are plenty bars to go grab a drink, but they keep on seeing you on your shift. That is pretty rad.”
“As the neighborhood continues to change and grow, so do the people that consider our bar their home bar. So many more people live downtown now than they did 10 years ago.” – Dawnee Aubert, bartender at Golden Gopher
Bar owners and workers are optimistic about their continued success. When they talk about their outlook for the upcoming years, both Houlard and Hodan point to their established fan bases and long histories. They see their business being buoyed by loyal customers and attentive staff rather than food gimmicks. After all, charcoal ice cream may come and go, but a reasonably priced PBR is eternal.
“If you get in this business for a quick buck, you are not going to last,” says Houlard. “I mentioned Cheers earlier. Watch the last five minutes of the series and you’ll get why Sam’s bar was still running.”