The Struggles of America’s Neighborhood Bars
There are no missing posters stapled to telephone poles. No hopeful Craigslist ads or milk carton pictures. But something has gone missing in neighborhoods across the country.
Maybe it disappeared while you were sipping a chilled rosé and working on a hunk of gouda at the cafe down the street. Maybe it packed up while you were sampling a flight of sour beers on the patio of the local brewery. Maybe it vanished while you were enjoying a smoked old-fashioned prepared by an earnest 23-year-old who talks about the golden age of cocktails as if he personally experienced it.
Maybe you mourned its passing, or maybe you barely noticed the day your neighborhood bar unplugged its Corona sign and closed down for good.
The neighborhood bar is dying in America. According to a report from Nielsen published last fall, one in six neighborhood bars went out of business between 2004 and 2014. That stat isn’t simply a reflection of Great Recession belt tightenings. While the economy has rebounded, 2014 was actually the worst year for bars that Nielsen examined: An average of six closed every day.
Steve “Carpi” Carpentieri knows their struggle. When you ask why him why he decided to buy Dunville’s, a neighborhood bar and restaurant in Westport, Connecticut, he’s quick to answer: “Temporary insanity.”
Carpentieri and Dunville’s were featured in the 2013 film "Hey Bartender," which showed the former banker endeavoring to attract new customers with strategies like barbecues and a craft cocktail menu.
“I don’t know how much longer I want to do it,” he says at one point during the documentary. “It’s almost impossible to stay in business.”
It’s hard out there for a neighborhood joint, even one immortalized on the big screen. Costs are up for everything — liquor, rent, insurance, health care, wages — and Carpi, as he’s known, is hesitant to pass along those increases to his customers. If you price them out, he says, they’ll just find somewhere five miles down the road that fits into their budget.
Dunville’s is a neighborhood spot in a neighborhood that’s changing. When Carpentieri was growing up, he estimates the town had about 20 bars in a three-mile stretch. Today, most of them have closed. “Now in our town we probably have at least 30 to 40 restaurants and only three of those I would classify as having active bars.”
Carpentieri has been adjusting to the new environment with tweaks to the menu and branding. “Since we got into craft beer our beer sales have probably gone up close to 40 percent in the last couple years,” he says. A cocktail menu has lent the place fresh credibility and brought in a dining clientele that skips over the burgers and goes straight for the entrees.
“We did more business in 2015 with less transactions,” he says. “That means people were staying a little bit longer, they were ordering a little bit more.”
Carpentieri has also dropped the Bar & Restaurant tag from his venue’s name. Today, it’s just Dunville’s. “Our bar is the heartbeat of our establishment and what has caused us to be successful for the last 30 years,” he says. But he also worries about losing customers who write Dunville’s off as a dive or come in for a final beer after spending their money on a meal somewhere else.
For many corner bars, Carpentieri says, there’s not a lot of margin. “If you lost 10 percent of your business for a couple of months because something opens, it could close you.”
In San Francisco, Dovre Club owner Elvis McElhatton is also dealing with a landscape in flux. Literally a corner bar, Dovre is at the intersection of Valencia Street and 26th Street in the heart of the Mission, a traditionally Hispanic neighborhood that’s seen an influx of tech workers — and with them, rapid gentrification — in recent years.
“A few of our customers have been priced out of the neighborhood and had to move,” says McElhatton, who inherited the pub from his brother eight years ago. Some still make the trip from across the city.
Gentrification has also flooded the area with an array of bars and restaurants, from craft cocktail spots to sports bars to a brewery bistro just a few blocks away. McElhatton keeps his prices low to stay competitive and because the bar is “more than a business, it’s my extended family.”
That attitude has its downsides. “Our profit margins, they’re pretty slim,” he acknowledges.
But the changes have also brought unexpected benefits for Dovre: tech workers who’ve joined the ranks of the bar’s loyal regulars, spillover customers from the year-old Michelin-starred restaurant across the street.
“This is one of the last good local bars,” a regular chimes in over his a pint of Lagunitas. “If this one closes, I’m going to die.”
Cindy Slight has had equally devoted regulars during the 10 years she’s been running the show at Davy’s Locker, a classic Las Vegas gaming bar presided over by a neon sign of a perky fish. She started as the manager in 2006, then became a partner. By 2010 it was solely hers.
But the bar was also reeling from the recession, which had hit many of Slight’s construction worker and convention staffer customers hard. When projects dried up and trade shows slowed, so did their bank accounts and Davy’s business. Even the landmark neon started to burn out, in need of more than $6,000 in repairs.
The building’s owners figured they’d just tear it down, but Slight and her people rallied. Customers donated to a crowdsourcing campaign, bartenders washed cars to raise cash. Eventually, Davy was restored to his former glowing glory.
But Slight has had to keep costs down in other ways, like never hiring a manager to help run the place. She’s essentially been on call for the last 10 years. “It’s a seven-day-a-week, 24-hour kind of job,” she says. “And usually if you’re getting a call from the bar it’s not good news.”
Staffing up simply hasn’t been an option. “When you’re struggling, you can’t afford to pay someone else.”
This year, it finally got to be too much for Slight. She sold Davy’s to new owners who took over the space April 1.
“I’m just really tired,” she says over the phone from Vegas. “This has been my entire life, and I’m just ready for something new. I have a passport that I want to have stamps in and family I want to go see.”
Other than plans for a needed remodel, she’s not sure what’s in store for the bar to which she’s given 10 years of her life.
“I hope that they maintain respect for the history,” she says, adding that places like Davy’s are important to the community for their link to the past and their lively present. Her regulars cover the spectrum, from old timers and union workers to hipsters and grad students. “It’s nice to have a place where people do end up becoming a family. There’s got to be somewhere people can go and be social without it killing them.”
That sense of family and connection is one of the things that keep customers coming back to their neighborhood bars all across the country.
“We call everybody by their first name,” says Carpentieri. “We usually remember how they like their steak cooked or how they like their Manhattan. We’ve had standing reservations on Friday night for 20 years.”
At Dovre Club, McElhatton is behind the bar every Wednesday and Friday, greeting old friends, pouring pints of Guinness, mixing a martini or two for some new faces. He brags about the food his regulars bring to their Super Bowl potlucks, and he takes off on DJ nights so he can dance with the customers. On weekdays, he says he knows just about everybody in the place.
“People find jobs through here and find places to live through here. A bunch of people in long-term relationships met here,” he says, then he smiles, “including me and my wife.”