Despite Global Pandemic, Local Bar Stronger Than Ever

Alonna sat down with T of Thirst T’s Bar & Grill in Olyphant, PA to talk about how the restaurant and entertainment business is doing in the face of the Covid pandemic.

Alonna: The first question I have is how long have you owned Thirst T’s?

T: Um, since December of 2012, so we’re here 7 ½ years now.

A: Wow, okay, so did you take over ownership or did you open the bar on your own?

T: No, we took ownership from a previous owner, it was, um, it was Runko’s Tavern for 8 years, and then it closed it down for 4 months and remodeled and gutted the whole interior and then we, uh, the following year we extended the patio and, uh, kept adding on every year and every year, doing different things, added a band stage and everything everything else so…

A: Great, okay, cool. So, you petitioned and ended up getting approved for the bill for the cocktails to-go. What, like what made you think of that idea?

T: Well after we closed, it was, um, we were open for “parade-less day”, you know we didn’t have a parade, but we were still open and the next day I closed, because we were really packed that Saturday and I knew that the virus was in New York and I wasn’t feeling comfortable with all these people here, I was afraid to infect all the customers and everything like that and for the safety of my employees, so the next day I closed and that Monday the governor mandated us closed.

A: Mmhmm.

T: So…just..I read, I don’t watch TV at all. I haven’t watched television in probably 30 years, so, um, I read a lot and I was following the virus for months and months overseas and watching it come closer and closer and closer, and just from reading different articles I was noticing what different states were doing with their, um, restaurants and stuff which were, you know, basically telling them they can do takeout orders, but 30 states out of the 50 were allowing to-go cocktails…

A: Mmhmm.

T: and were weren’t one of them, so I looked into it and wanted to see why, so I appealed to the Pennsylvania liquor control board and I asked them the question, “can we just make an amendment, um, and do to-go cocktails?” um, I was a former chief of staff for the house of representatives back in 2007, 8, 9, and 10, so I’m kind of familiar with all the laws and everything like that…

A: Right.

T: so I, uh, they said they couldn’t it without legislation and legislation takes a long time…

A: Mmhmm.

T: so I started with a petition to the governor and that went well and basically in the petition I wrote out what I thought should be the legislation, which would have been cocktails from 16oz., um, up to a half gallon, uh, no deliveries so that we take out the, uh, chance of an underage, uh, person getting alcohol. And basically put it in the trunk of a vehicle or the back seat away from the driver, things like that, and make sure they’re in a sealed container. So, I wrote that petition as such,contacted some state representatives that, um, that I’ve known for years throughout when I was there, and contacted the senators too, I think that’s down your way.

A: Yeah.

T: And uh, because I’ve known him since the early days when I was there as well, and said, “Look we need to do something about this.” and I believe it was representative…um, jeez…I don’t even know…it was a representative down in Allegheny County that wrote the bill. And then he…the Pennsylvania Beverage and Tavern Association had contacted me through email. I didn’t even know we had a Beverage and Tavern Association for seven years, because they’re not really prevalent up this way. And they told me they were starting to work on it too and if I would help, you know, work with them and we also pushed from different angles and it got passed in the house, then it went to the senate and then at first it was gonna go into the senate as that going into the bill that they were trying to push to open everybody up…

A: Mmhmm.

T: and I knew that it was gonna get vetoed, that bill, so I tried to keep our thing separate, because ours wasn’t about opening up, we knew we’d be last to open…

A: Mmhmm.

T: um, I mean the inside’s still closed to this day. And they did it “clean”, meaning “on it’s own”, and it passed and the governor, thank god, signed it, you know, so we were able to start selling, I think it was, what, 11 days ago? So, we’re selling cocktails to-go.

A: Great. So, have you seen more success since the cocktails to-go?

T: Oh, absolutely. Because we’re a restaurant and, uh, a live entertainment venue. We have bands booked until 2021 and not able to do any of that and, um, all of a sudden turn your 300 or 250 seat, you know, restaurant-tavern into a to-go place is…

A: Mmhmm.

T: doesn’t work. We’re not even set up for to-go food. We had to go out, buy all different kinds of containers and stuff like that. And alcohol, the liquor license is our biggest asset here to begin with, so…

A: Right.

T: you know, we needed to utilize that.

A: Right.

T: So, and it helped a lot. Sales went up like 50%.

A: Right.

T: You know, we’re not back to what we were when we were open, but at least we can pay the bills and, uh, get some employees back to work, because it was, for a while it was just myself, my bar manager who was working for free, uh, one of my cooks that was working for free, and my son who’s 15.

A: Yeah.

T: That’s what we were doing.

A: Right.

T: but now we’re able to bring some people back, because when you have, our bartenders are our waiters as well…

A: Right.

T: so, um, we couldn’t bring ten bartenders back just to answer a phone for take-out food.

A: Right.

T: Know what I mean? So, um, so now at least we get to bring some people back to work and now the patio’s open, so, but that’s another thing, that’s weather pending.

A: Right.

T: You know, it rains, we’re closed, we’re going back to take-out, so…

A: Right, exactly.

T: So, we’re hoping to get to the green, um, soon, which really doesn’t mean much, because we’ll probably only have 36 chairs in here…

A: Yeah.

T: and the bar stools have to go one every six feet, so that gives us 5 in 10.

A: Right, yeah.

T: But it’s a start.

A: Yeah. So, I think it can go nowhere but up for you guys here.

T: Absolutely.

A: But, but was it, was it ever a thought that you guys weren’t going to make it through the pandemic?

T: Oh yeah, absolutely, 100%. Because of the fact that small businesses had a hard time getting these, uh, PVP loans and everything else, because, um, just an example if your payroll is only $10,000 a month and you can only borrow 2.5x off of that and, so that would be $25,000, then $20,000 would have to go back paying employees that we didn’t even need to bring in here and $5,000 would be left to just pay bills for as long as we were closed. Well, the electric bill here even when we were closed is $1,500 a month and the mortgage is $2,000 a month. So, um, and all the other utilities and the insurances and everything else is probably about $7,000 a month…so that wasn’t going to do anything.

A: Right.

T: So, we didn’t go that route either. So, really, we didn’t get any help financially, used all my savings to make it to this point and it came just in the nick of time too…

A: Mmhmm.

T: Because, we were down to a point where I think we had about $1,000 left and…

A: Wow.

T: with the mortgage coming up in, in the beginning of, uh, June so, it happened right at the right time.

A: Yeah, definitely.

T: Especially for a lot of my friends, like the other…’cause I formed a group with, like, Cooper’s, and the VSPOT and Cosmo’s, and Tony’s, and we talk every day and, um, basically I kept them up to date of what was going on, because, you know, a lot of those guys, they have families that they’re supporting out of those places too, so it was good for them as well that we got to be open back up, not so much for the VSPOT, because he doesn’t have a patio so…

A: Yeah.

T: but at least he’s doing take-out.

A: Yeah, so do you think that there was a silver lining to the pandemic?

T: No.

A: No?

T: No. The only silver lining I see is that it’s going to change the way we do business from now on as far as, um, I don’t know if, I don’t know if the 2am thing will ever come back again where we’re open until 2am, seemed like everyone got conditioned to go home early anymore.

A: Yeah.

T: Um, but, no there was no silver lining. I mean, the only, you know, usually we’d sit here, I’m sure other people that don’t have their own business could say the silver lining was that they got to spend a lot of time with their families.

A: Mmhmm.

T: Um, the silver lining when you own your own business, we basically use that time to strip the place and redo the floors and paint the whole entire place all over again, re-do the bar.

A: Mmhmm.

T: Uh, fix things that we could never do, because we were open seven days a week. And, and get that all ready to go for when we were willing to open, so, there was no time spent with my family. The only time I spent with my son was when he was here helping me do takeout. So, that was about it.

A: Yeah, so there was no silver lining.

T: No silver lining at all. It’s just terrible, especially when you own your own business, because we can’t collect unemployment or anything like that.

A: Yeah, exactly. I can’t imagine.

T: I felt for all my employees too, because they were struggling, because of the situation, how long it was taking to get unemployment.

A: Right.

T: Um, some of them, for a month and a half they didn’t get anything, so it was scary times.

A: Yeah.

T: It really was. And then the fear of, you know, the virus itself. I didn’t let anybody in this place for 2 ½ months. You might be the fourth person that’s actually been inside here…

A: Yeah.

T: for 2 ½ months. Especially with my kid here too. So…

A: Yeah.

T: You know, I have older parents too and I was worried, worried about everybody, but get to say that we made it through where none of my employees were sick, none of their extended family were sick, none of my family, and none of our customers that I know of, they’re all here, thank god.

A: Yeah.

T: You know, so…

A: Yeah.

T: We’re all safe, that’s the only silver lining I guess you could say.

A: Yeah.

T: That we’re all here and we’re all safe.

A: Yeah, definitely, I agree.

T: And hopefully it’s over.

A: Hopefully, we can get back to not necessarily normal, but a new normal.

T: I don’t even like that word “new normal” I want to go back to “old normal”. “New normal” is too depressing.

A: Yeah.

T: You know, I understand the whole physical contact thing, but you know what, we grew up like that – hugging people, hugging our families, and you know I didn’t even spend Easter with my parents and that’s a first time in my entire life that that’s happened.

A: Yeah, exactly.

T: Um, I don’t like the new normal at all.

A: Yeah, yeah. I completely agree.

T: So, hopefully we get back to almost the new normal.

A: Yeah.

T: Maybe change our…our, uh, health habits a little bit, but get back to, uh, the way we were.

A: Yeah, I agree.

T: So we can have bands again and…

A: Yeah.

T: hear live entertainment and the music and everything else. And I feel bad for those guys too, and girls, because, uh…a lot, a lot of the entertainment we have is, that’s their main, that’s their income, that’s their job.

A: Yeah.

T: So, they’ve been out of work. So, I don’t know if there was anything available for them that they received, but, um, and it doesn’t look good for bands for the rest of the year either so…

A: Yeah, and now that there’s some bands trying to put some small shows together that…the reality of it is that’s probably not gonna happen.

T: No, they don’t want gatherings, they don’t want, uh, large groups, um, we’re waiting, I’m actually waiting for PLCB now to make a decision on where we’re going with entertainment, um, solos I think are okay right now…

A: Mmhmm.

T: and then hopefully they’ll make a determination, maybe there’ll be duos and solos, and they’re gonna give us a date on when we can have bands again, but considering that, uh, a lot of the nation and everybody already canceled concerts til the end of the year…

A: Yeah.

T: like no baseball or anything like that, I don’t think we have a good chance of having bands.

A: Yeah, because I just saw that Bethel Woods canceled all of their events too for the rest of the year, yeah.

T: Yeah.

A: So, so, it’s doubtful, but, you know, you try and be a little bit optimistic…

T: Absolutely.

A: that, you know, maybe there’s a slight chance…

T: Absolutely.

A: but the reality of it is is that it’s probably unlikely.

T: Yeah.

A: Yeah.

T: Absolutely, you just gotta plan for both.

A: Yup, exactly. So what does the future hold for Thirst T’s?

T: Future for Thirst T’s is that we’re gonna keep kicking. And I told everybody that no matter what we will still be standing. I didn’t care if we were closed for six months, I would fight my way through this and for my employee’s sake and for the customers and all that, they’re like family, the customers that come here, um…we’re probably gonna make some changes as far as our hours are concerned, like right now for the yellow phase, usually, like, we’ve been open seven days a week. We don’t close Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, maybe Fourth of July, for seven years.

A: Mmhmm.

T: So, it’s, in the beginning of the red phase, the first five weeks, we’re only open Friday/Saturday for takeout. Um, and then when we got to the yellow phase, what we were…towards the end of the red phase we started opening five days a week, and I needed to, because I couldn’t afford to pay bills anymore.

A: Mmhmm.

T: And, um…but, now in the yellow phase, we’re still closed Sunday and Monday, uh, we’re open Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday from 4 to 10, um and then Friday/Saturday from 3 til 1am we’re gonna try this weekend, we’ll see what happens, um, but before all this we were open until 2am every single day, um…maybe when we get to the green phase we’ll probably start bringing Sunday back a little bit and see where we go with our hours like that, but as long as there’s no bands, um, there’s no reason to stay open til 2am, especially during the week, I mean…

A: Yeah.

T: You know, people wanna come out, they wanna hear music, if you can’t have music, you know, you can’t have music outside after 9 o’clock anyway, so…

A: Mmhmm.

T: It’s kinda like…and it all depends on the weather too, so…

A: Yeah, exactly.

T: That’s gonna be rough, but we’ll get through it and hopefully, like I said, hopefully by August or September we get to get back to somewhat of a normal and as we do that we’ll extend our hours. But we did learn something while we’re closed and we have these ten amazing new drinks that, uh…uh, my bar manager Gina, uh, and uh, one of the bartenders, Al, that was here, they created these ten new drinks. One is called the T’s Frozen Fruity, I mean these things are unbelievable…

A: Mmhmm.

T: They’re like signature drinks, like…I keep putting on Facebook that we’re going world wide to the, with the Catalina, the 21, 2021 Catalina Wine mixer…

A: Mmhmm.

T: You know? That we’re gonna be featured at.

A: Yeah.

T: And um…but they’ve been selling like crazy, they are really good, uh, and it’s something that we wanted to attempt for seven years, but we were always too busy.

A: Mmhmm.

T: You now, when you have 200 people here on a Saturday night and then you’re waking up Sunday morning to do it all over again, you don’t really have any time to create anything, so there’s a silver lining, we got to create some different things while we were…

A: Right.

T: on down time. So that is…otherwise we would have never had these ten new drinks, so…

A: Yeah.

T: um, that’s, that is, a good thing. And we’re gonna keep plugging away, that’s all can do, you know?

A: Mmhmm.

T: Stay safe, everyone stay safe, stay healthy and, uh, keep the faith, and just hopefully this thing is gone and hopefully it doesn’t come back and we can move forward from here.

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