As the coronavirus pandemic rolls on with no end in sight, many of Oakland’s restaurants and bars face the possibility of closing for good. To help local businesses weather the storm, the city has launched efforts such as the Flex Streets initiative, which allows restaurants and shops to use sidewalk space for dining and vending. But many owners are adopting other strategies to stay in business. The Oakland side spoke to the owners of four popular bars in the downtown and Uptown district about the communities they represent and serve, and how they’ve been dealing with the prolonged shutdown.
Make Westing, 1741 Telegraph Ave.
Downtown Oakland was not a go-to destination when Glenn Kaplan was growing up. By the time the Oakland native decided to open Make Westing nine years ago, not a great deal had changed — the area was still riddled with vacant storefronts. Kaplan, who’d worked as a journalist for years until the Great Recession hit in the late 2000s, was working at a bar in Brooklyn, New York, when he decided to roll the dice, move back home to Oakland, and open his own place with a childhood friend.
“It was the best risk I took in my entire life,” Kaplan told the Oaklandside. “We never thought the neighborhood would explode like it did.”
Kaplan talks about Make Westing as if it were his firstborn child, and it might as well be. His entire livelihood and a good deal of his social life revolve around the bar; his closest friends are an array of regulars who frequent the establishment.
“I can say this without even thinking twice: We are probably the most diverse bar in the world,” said Kaplan.
Kaplan has a front-row seat to the devastating impacts the pandemic is having on downtown businesses. Make Westing and all of Kaplan’s neighbors in this once teeming hub of nightlife on Telegraph Avenue, he said, have suffered financial losses.
“No one makes a profit doing takeout,” Kaplan said. “At least bars can’t.”
“Our chance of opening is gone until COVID really sees a decrease, or there’s a vaccine. Who knows when that’s going to be?” —Glenn Kaplan
Kaplan isn’t sure if the bar will survive these tough times, partly because he isn’t willing to risk the safety of his staff. “Some staff want to give it a go, but our chance of opening is gone until COVID really sees a decrease, or there’s a vaccine. Who knows when that’s going to be?”
Kaplan has been vocal about his frustrations with government officials, who have sent mixed messages at times. He says he’s intent on staying closed until the state, county, and city can agree on a reopening date.
“We thought June 19th was actually going to be a reopening date, turned on all of our trash, recycling and other required operations, only to find out that opening wasn’t possible. That costs money, which is currently in short supply,” Kaplan said.
“The emails that are sent to small business owners like myself don’t just go into some void — we act based on government’s guidance and that guidance has not been reliable.”
Oeste Bar and Cafe, 730 Clay St.
When Anna Villalobos and her business partners Sandra Davis and Lea Redmond first opened Oeste Bar and Cafe in Old Oakland three years ago, they had no idea their establishment would be filling a huge racial diversity gap in Oakland’s bar scene. “I never thought how much of a void there was until here we were, and people can come here and feel something they’ve never felt before [in a bar], which is comfort.”
Normal anxieties that POC patrons face, such as worrying about being the only non-white people in an establishment, are non-existent at Oeste. “We’re all women of color who own this spot. It was in the initial business plan that I created where I said over and over, ‘Yeah, I want this to be for people of color.’”
On a typical Friday night prior to the pandemic, patrons would pack into the upscale cafe and line up at the bar to order a drink. Groups of young professional types, mainly people of color, would book tables and spend hours talking and laughing.
Villalobos said the culture of the space grew organically. “The community kinda created this spot, We just let it happen.”
The pandemic shutdown has cut Oeste’s weekly sales in half. The business currently relies on a contract with World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit providing food to people in need during the pandemic, for much of its revenue.
“A lot of our kitchen staff is occupied with trying to fulfill those orders,” Villalobos said. Oeste’s upper deck is being used for limited outdoor dining. During previous summers, they would seat 50-60 patrons on the deck, but now they’re only allowed to host 30 guests at a time.
“I think we make a big difference in this community,” said Villalobos.” It would be a bummer if we don’t survive.”
The Port Bar, 2023 Broadway
In the years before rideshare giants Uber and Lyft dominated the gig economy, Sean Sullivan and Richard Fuentes were tired of hailing a cab or riding BART to San Francisco just to have a night out. So in 2016, the couple opened The Port Bar in downtown Oakland to create an LGBTQ space in the area.
“There was really no space for people to gather,” Sullivan said. “You had this influx of new people as well as people who had grown up here their whole lives who could find commonality through their shared identity, but they needed a safe space.”
From day one, community input was the driving force for almost every business decision they made. The name and theme of their bar, The Oakland Port, came from workshops. They hired and trained POC bartenders because that’s what the community asked for. Bebe Sweetbriar, a famous local Black drag queen, hosted their first drag show. “She and I share the same values of community, so having it come from her and not from me made it resonate that much more,” Sullivan said.
To survive the pandemic, Sullivan and Fuentes have set up tables outside The Port Bar for events such as their Tuesday Gay Trivia nights, and for patrons to enjoy a to-go meal. They’ve also partnered with local food trucks so they can continue to function during the pandemic, something they had never done before. They’ve even invested in heat lamps to keep patrons warm during the evenings.
Sullivan said he and his partner have adapted as best they can, and it’s now up to customers to do their part. “We’re all struggling and pennies away from bankruptcy, but we’re hopeful people will come out and support.”
The Good Hop, 2421 Telegraph Ave
Professional brewer Melissa Myers opened The Good Hop Bar and Bottle shop in 2014. She started her career in her native state of Colorado and later moved to Northern California where she brewed beer for Drake’s Brewing Company in San Leandro.
“The goal was to get to California,” Myers said. She arrived in 2009, just after the recession hit. She didn’t have the funds to open a brewery so she decided to invest in a bar that specialized in carrying the kind of craft beers she enjoyed making.
In pre-COVID times, the establishment was a neighborhood corner bar, selling a wide selection of craft beers that numbered in the hundreds. “My whole goal is to serve people good beer,” she said. “We check all the snobbiness at the door. If anyone comes in and asks, ‘Can I get a Budweiser? Can I get a Heineken?,’ our immediate response is, ‘We don’t carry that but let me find something for you that you’ll like.’”
When the pandemic shutdown began in March, Myers wasn’t sure what to do. She thought The Good Hop was over and done for. Four days later, she came to her senses.
“I’ve been fighting for five months now and I’m not ready to give up.” — Melissa Myers
“I’ve been fighting for five months now and I’m not ready to give up,” Myers said.
The Good Hop quickly transitioned to online orders and curbside pickup. Myers also decided to sell Community Supported Agriculture produce boxes as an extra source of income. Myers is constantly thinking about how to adapt her business model and believes the changes being adopted now by her business and others in the area will transform Oakland’s downtown bar scene entirely in the future.
“Hopefully the landscape will be a mix of the seasoned, battle-hardened bar owners and people doing different kinds of seating concepts,” said Myers. “The landscape will be completely different.”