Published October 2nd, 2020 at 6:00 AM
Tim Gutschenritter is trying — really trying — to stay positive. He posts encouraging messages on Facebook. He cheerfully greets customers who wander into The Riot Room, his Westport business.
But privately, Gutschenritter grows a little more afraid every day. The Riot Room is meant to host live bands and standing-room-only crowds five to seven days a week. But most bands aren’t traveling in these days of COVID-19, and restrictions that Kansas City put in place to deal with the virus would make it impossible to accommodate them if they were.
So Gutschenritter and his brother open up to serve cocktails a few nights a week. Local DJs have entertained small crowds with fundraisers for the business. They offered a rap karaoke night, masks required.
But Gutschenritter has too few customers and too much time on his hands. He worries about the bills coming in and signs that his landlord’s patience might be running out.
“In the last couple of weeks I’ve started to get really anxious,” Gutschenritter said. “I’m really scared about a lot of stuff. I don’t anticipate a lot of places surviving.”
That’s the big fear facing Kansas City’s restaurants, bars and nightclubs as winter approaches, endangering the small boost provided by outdoor seating. Dozens of places in the region already have given up. Talk to people in the industry, and predictions of demise run to 50% or even higher.
“You can’t successfully run a place at half occupancy,” said Bill Nigro, a Westport businessman and property owner. “How long can a business go on losing money?”
Operators of small businesses say they are doing all they can. They’ve gotten creative with food, drink and swag sales. Restaurants that feature upscale dining are operating as sports bars when the Chiefs play. They’re purchasing outdoor heaters for new patio spaces. Whatever it takes.
But operators say they could use some help. Another round of low-interest small business loans from the federal government, please. And maybe, some say, the city could cut them some slack on things like fees and inspections.
Since March, bars and restaurants have been under city orders that at first limited their business to carry out and delivery and now require them to operate at 50% seating occupancy. But the cost of doing business in Kansas City, the owners point out, remains unchanged.
“There’s been no discounts for being closed for six months,” said Steve Tulipana. He hasn’t found a way to safely open two businesses he owns, the recordBar downtown and the miniBar in midtown, under the current restrictions.
Justin Norcross, one of the owners of Lucky Boys, a bar in the West Bottoms, said he and his partners had to close down for a few days this spring while they scrambled to come up with about $800 to renew their liquor permit. Ideally, he and others said, the city would prorate license fees to factor in the loss of business created by city orders.
“It’s hard not to feel like everyone needs to get theirs before I get mine,” Norcross said. “I find that discouraging but at the same time I’m on the same side as them. We want to be properly licensed and we want to be safe for our customers.”
Jim Ready, manager of regulated industries for the city, said a decision on license discounts would have to originate with the mayor and City Council, not his office. But he added his office had tried to help businesses by recommending that restaurant-bars — places that primarily sell meals and liquor by the drink — to either make half of their revenues in food sales, or sell more than $200,000 worth of food annually.
“We’re not trying to get rid of people’s licenses,” Ready said.
Other city actions, such as allowing expanded outdoor dining and to-go cocktail orders, are universally popular, and business owners hope they’ll continue once the city’s latest emergency order expires.
John Couture, owner of the Bier Station in Waldo, turned his parking lot into an outdoor, awning-covered dining room. “People absolutely love it,” he said. “We’re trying to encourage the city to make it long term or permanent. It would help us get back on our feet after a tough winter.”
Eddie Crane, co-owner of Ollie’s Local in midtown, is also thankful to have a spacious patio, which is keeping him afloat.
But Crane said he was taken aback when a city health inspector showed up immediately after he reopened earlier this year and cited several violations, including sour cream past its sell-by date and he and an employee for not having up-to-date food handler cards. They had let them lapse while the restaurant was closed.
He renewed his card online, Crane said, but his employee doesn’t have easy internet access. He said the health inspector returned in three days — the minimum amount of time allowed — and cited him again. Crane said he ended up paying about $500 in reinspection fees “at a time when I had zero income.”
“Everyone should have their food handler card. I agree with that,” Crane said. “But there’s a different reality going on and the bureaucracies are blind to it.”
Naser Jouhari, manager of the Kansas City Health Department’s environmental health services division, said inspectors have discretion regarding reinspections and the absence of a food handlers card alone wouldn’t usually be a reason for requiring one.
“We need to protect the public from food-borne illnesses,” Jouhari said.
He added that the percentage of food-serving establishments that pass inspection on the first visit has actually improved during the pandemic, possibly because businesses are sanitizing more scrupulously. In recent months, around 80% of businesses have passed on the first inspection, up from the norm of about 75%.
The pandemic also has been difficult for his team, Jouhari said. The Health Department has 19 field inspectors — six short of being fully staffed. As well as their usual duties inspecting about 600 food-serving establishments a month, they’re also responding to complaints about mask and social distancing violations at all kinds of businesses and public places.
“It’s extremely stressful,” Jouhari said.
Anita Moore, owner and head chef of Soirée Steak & Oyster House in the 18th and Vine District, said she appreciated the city’s flexibility with take-out cocktails and outdoor seating. For a while, she said, to-go hurricane drinks were popular with her customers. But that seems to have waned a bit.
“I can’t say anything bad about the city,” Moore said. “They have backed Soirée 100% since we opened.”
Moore said her sales were about half of what they’d been before the pandemic. She’s cut her staff to compensate. And if the winter forces her to close her patio at 18th Street and Paseo, she’ll have to come up with something new, like special events that don’t require table seating.
“We have to go back to our creative mind, which is why we went into business in the first place,” Moore said.
Around the city, that’s what businesses are doing. Bars and venues that used to host fundraisers for other causes are now planning events for themselves.
“We’re trying to be as creative as we can,” said Tulipana, who recently mounted a fundraising campaign to keep the recordBar afloat. “We should be able to squeeze by until spring when the touring bands come back, if there’s a vaccine.”
And if there isn’t a vaccine? Tulipana can’t really bring himself to go there, and neither can others in the industry.
Norcross, at Lucky Boys, said he was experimenting with take-out pizza, something he’d always wanted to do but never had the time. It’s selling “amazingly well,” he said.
But Lucky Boys is a self-described dive bar. Norcross and two friends opened it about five years ago, envisioning a place where people could hang out, relax and sample good bar food. On a good week these days, the place brings in about half the amount it used to.
“We’re going to ride it until the wheels come off,” Norcross said. “But the wheels are starting to come loose.”
Flatland contributor Barbara Shelly is a freelance writer based in Kansas City.