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How the ‘World’s Best Bar’ is Dealing with COVID-19

Linden Pride Portrait by Jason Loucas

Linden Pride, the owner of Dante in New York City, accurately calls March’s lockdown a ‘wartime situation’. New York City was hit particularly hard by COVID-19, and Linden and the Dante team needed to pivot quickly to adjust to lockdown regulations. 

On a Sunday in March, Linden decided to close up shop. Just 24 hours later, the government announced that foodservice operations were able to open for delivery and takeout so Linden brought back some of the staff previously furloughed and sold single-serve cocktails to go. 

Using coffee cups leftover from a previous event, the team reused much of what they already had in stock and quickly revised operations to meet this new business model. According to Linden, “that first week was manic.” 

Adding to the stress, that first Thursday back in business, the team was approached by a customer for a donation of meals to frontline workers. With hospital employees working overtime to account for this influx of patients, many of them just didn’t have the time to dedicate to grocery shopping. 

The team prepared 100 meals to deliver to a local hospital, and with the success of this first attempt, they decided to do the same the following day. Preparing these meals for frontline workers allowed the Linden to bring back roughly 70 per cent of the staff and carried them through until June 2020. Linden estimates that they created approximately 5000 meals from March to June this year. 

As the need for frontline meals waned, Dante needed to refocus on their delivery and takeout program. Before COVID-19, Dante did not have an online portal for purchasing products, but as we’ve seen with many other establishments, the pandemic forced the acceleration of digital trends. 

Dante interior, photo by Steve Freihon

Partnering with a bike messenger delivery service, Linden built an online platform to seamlessly deliver products to customers. The team had tested out third party delivery apps but found challenges with these services; he wanted to be able to quickly and easily change menu options – he wanted a platform that could adapt to the needs of the pandemic as quickly as his business had. Opting to own their delivery instead, has allowed Dante to update their menu depending on what is available, or what is needed. 

With the addition of a more robust delivery and takeout program, Dante was able to get up to an 80 per cent staff level. Having more staff on hand also led to the ability to explore more menu options – this was essential as they depended on takeout and delivery. Dante looked into cocktail kits as well as large batch cocktails to maximize profits. 

A tasty and cost-efficient menu is just half the battle of working through COVID. Without dine-in service, Linden was thinking more about what leads a customer into Dante, and what brings them back again. “I wanted to focus on what our cocktails mean to people from an experiential standpoint,” explains Linden. 

Dante patio space in pre-COVID times, photo by Steve Freihon

The idea of bringing Dante into a customer’s home brought about more innovation for Linden and the team. “People spend time in our bar, not just because of the cocktails but because of the atmosphere – the music, the aesthetics, the overall feeling that is cultivated,” says Linden.

“When customers couldn’t experience that here, we still wanted a way for them to feel a part of Dante and to engage them.” With the cocktail kits delivered, Dante added coasters, complimentary flowers, bottles of sparkling water, hand sanitizer, and even created Spotify playlists to give customers the feeling of sitting at a Dante table.

“The online transition forced upon us has been a positive side effect of the pandemic,” says Linden. “This provided us with the opportunity to reposition our brand and broaden our reach. We’re also developing an app to help connect us directly with our customer and we’ve installed QR codes rather than giving out menus.”

Also allowing them to broaden their reach was this year’s virtual conception of Negroni Week, which took place from September 14th – 20th. This year, Negroni Week presented by Imbibe Magazine and Campari, raised money for struggling hospitality workers. In Canada, the event supported the Bartender Benevolent Fund

The negroni is a staple for Dante. While a classic features three main ingredients: Campari, gin, and vermouth, the team has developed exclusive takes on the cocktail and has become well known for them. Adding negroni flight kits to their delivery menus has proved successful for the bar.

This year, Dante took part in Negroni Week by hosting both an industry and media event, sharing their insights, experience, and developing cocktail recipes. Moreover, joining in Negroni Week just made sense for Linden as a way to support the industry at a time when it needs it most. “This was a way for us to raise money and awareness,” Linden states. “Restaurants need support from their communities now more than ever.” 

New York recently allowed restaurants to open at 25 per cent capacity for dine-in so with the addition of patio service, Dante is refocusing on how they can keep customers safe and employees healthy inside the establishment. 

One of the most interesting innovations Dante is implementing is temporary structures outside the bar. Key for the winter months ahead, Dante will be erected three-sided outdoor, heated booths for customers to dine in. Inside the restaurant, Dante is following the necessary protocols (as all other operators are) including physically-distancing tables, supplying hand sanitizer, and checking temperatures of staff and guests. They’ve also recently commissioned plexiglass dividers on a steel frame to settle between tables and ensured that they have changed the filtration on air conditioning and heating.  

While the Dante team is doing all they can to keep everyone who comes into their restaurant safe, Linden acknowledges the importance of government assistance at this time. “Here in New York, restaurants were able to apply for forgivable loans but the process was so complicated and personally, these loans weren’t helpful to our business,” he points out. “What I want to see now is rent relief. With 25 per cent capacity, I’m still paying 100% of my rent – it doesn’t make any sense.”

Going forward, it’s difficult to decipher how restrictions and guidelines may change and evolve, especially in New York City. But the Dante team feels confident that they can take from their key learnings of the past seven months to inform their next decisions. Linden explains that they will continue to rely on delivery and takeout, and they will keep slinging their signature cocktail kits that customers have begun to rely on.

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