Operators prepare for a much different St. Patrick’s Day

St. Patrick’s Day 2020 heralded the beginning of a year of pandemic shutdowns. But, this year, restaurants are cautiously optimistic that there’s reason to celebrate.
The Rambler Kitchen and Tap
Photo courtesy The Rambler Kitchen and Tap

For Clodagh Lawless, the Irish-born co-owner of Chicago restaurant The Dearborn, last St. Patrick’s Day “celebrations” were akin to a wake.

Patrons were dressed in green and attempting to have a fun time, Lawless recalled. But they were also waiting for the Illinois governor to announce the pandemic lockdown, a move that would come the very next day.

“It was actually like a wake,” Lawless said. “It was an air of despair. There was no joviality … We were trying to be upbeat, but it was gut-wrenching. It was like a funeral. The servers and bartenders and cooks were crying in the background and then came out to serve our guests.”

For much of the country, St. Patrick’s Day 2020 was when the impending impact of the coronavirus became a reality impossible to ignore. Cities and states demanded restaurants close their dining rooms, with some leaders even referencing “irresponsible” St. Patrick’s Day gatherings as motivation for the shutdowns. Customers went into quarantine, with delivery, takeout and drive-thus becoming their sole way of engaging with restaurants.

Making the situation even more difficult, St. Patrick’s Day is a massive event for restaurants and bars in many cities, particularly those with large Irish populations.

“Financially, it was our biggest day,” said Lawless, originally from Galway, Ireland, who owns The Dearborn with her sister, Amy Lawless. “It was just packed wall-to-wall with green shamrocks everywhere. All of our guests were loaded with green and shamrocks and green feather boas. There was four-deep, six-deep at the bar.”

Lawless’ restaurant has been closed since November, but it reopened earlier this week, largely to take advantage of that St. Patrick’s Day business—even though celebrations will look different this year.

There will be no live St. Patrick’s Day music at The Dearborn this year and reservations are required. Promotions for the event are much more measured, Lawless said, stressing safety and social distancing. And there’s an at-home option, where diners can pick up a meal of shepherd’s pie and more to take home.

“In previous years, we didn’t have enough storage room for the kegs of Guinness,” Lawless said. “They were just lined up outside. It’s sad, but I’m just glad to be open today.”

Vince Crysler, CEO of the Pilsener Haus & Biergarten in Hoboken, N.J., said he has never felt a sense of uncertainty in the restaurant industry like he did during St. Patrick’s Day 2020.

“St. Patrick’s Day last year was just a time to say, ‘We don’t know what we’re in for,’” Crysler said. “I’ve never seen anything more challenging than this.”

This year’s celebrations will be cautiously observed, he said, with a focus on outdoor dining and drinking.

Kyle Bagley, co-owner of Chicago neighborhood spots The Rambler Kitchen and Tap and The Graystone Tavern, recalled being on “eggshells” last St. Patrick’s Day.

“We didn’t know exactly how it was going to shake out,” Bagley said. “We wanted to approach it as if it was going to be normal.”

It’s easy to see why operators were reluctant to lose St. Patrick’s Day, given its impact on their business.

“It’s massive,” he said. “It’s kind of the start to our busy time. It signals we are out of the doldrums of January and February and we can start making money. We can look forward to warmer weather and Cubs traffic and festivals.”

On St. Patrick’s Day’s, Bagley’s restaurants would open at 6 a.m.

“And we’d be busy from the time we open until the time we have to kick everybody out,” he said. “St Patrick’s Day is our biggest money-maker, bar none.”

Bagley is not sure what this year’s festivities will look like. Chicago is at 50% capacity and his restaurants invested in putting in heated beer gardens.

They’ve hired extra security for crowd control. Everyone must be seated at tables, no standing-room allowed. The restaurants are also offering corned beef dinners, complete with nitro cans of Guinness, a bottle of Bushmills Irish Whiskey and some “cool swag,” he said, adding, “The only thing you miss is the people.”

Bagley’s taverns are also running an early-bird package, trying to encourage people to reserve tables during a pre-sale.

Communicating the new rules of staying seated and wearing a mask will likely be the most challenging tasks, Bagley said.

“Most people on St. Patrick’s Day aren’t going to have any clue what the protocols are,” he said. “Maybe they haven’t been out too much. That’s the thing we’re most frightened of. When you add libations, they want to do what they want to do. Getting six drunken Irishmen to stay seated at the table is not that easy to do.”





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