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Kurt ~ Bar Owner

“We've had about a month at a pretty scary pace. It just got so it was unnerving to keep operating under those conditions."

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“The week after we were forced to shut down in March, we decided to do a pizza night and have every penny raised go to the staff because they're the ones who needed money. I kid you not, there were four blocks wrapped around with cars, people were waiting three hours to get their pizza. It was insanity. We had put it out on Facebook and people shared it like crazy. It was the most unreal thing I've ever been a part of and it was so moving, it was like ‘Holy mackerel, look at this!’ None of us will ever forget it.

Speak of the Devil has been known for our pizzas and our cocktails. We shared the kitchen here with a dear friend of ours, so we were basically two businesses under one roof. He had an incredible following making his pizzas. But the problem was that as long as COVID was going to last, we had to operate at reduced capacity in the bar and he wasn’t going to be able to do the kind of business he needed. He got an opportunity to build a pizza drive-thru at another place and we parted the best of friends. Now he’s doing 80 pizzas every two hours.

Our little place, Speak of the Devil, started off unexpectedly fast in 2017. By the time 2020 rolled around, we had lines out the door. Huge Fridays and Saturday nights. And to be honest, my wife and I were really getting to a point where this was more than we could do. We were pretty exhausted when the year started.

So you know how 2020 ended up. It's a double-edged sword. I mean, clearly, nobody wanted to see what happened to anybody from a personal standpoint. As a business, it may be one of the better things that could have happened to us, forcing us to shut down. Like I said, my wife and I weren't happy. We wanted to start a quaint little cocktail bar, but the community rallied around this place so quickly when we opened that we didn't really have time to take it in and figure out how we were going to cope with that. Our staff kept growing, our business kept growing.

This is a second career to me. I'm a retired air traffic controller with a pension. So by the time the shutdown came in Ohio, March 14th, 15th, we looked at it as an opportunity to take stock of where we were at and if we wanted to change things. And we realized quickly we did want to change things. It would have been one of those situations where one our community wouldn't have taken it well if we decided midstream to suddenly become a different kind of bar than we have been. The forced shutdown restored a little sanity in our lives.

And we were fortunate on several counts. When we started the bar, we bought the building and now we live upstairs. So we don’t have a rent check, which usually is the biggest expense for anyone in this industry. We were also in the position of being a business that had been successful beyond our wildest dreams, so we had a cushion in the bank. When something like this happens, you think ‘Oh thank goodness we had X amount in the bank.’ We did get PPP after a while.

When the governor started letting businesses open on May 26, we opted not to open at that point. The problem is that we're a very small space, just a 16-foot wide shotgun. So figuring out how we were going to set up the bar for social distancing, where we would put people, how we would do it, was a constant debate.

We decided to open a drive-thru along the side of the building with an alley. But the city owns the alley, not us. The city was very, very helpful, but it took a little bit of time to get everything ironed out. How we were going to block it off, what hours we could block it off. Once we kind of felt like we had it figured out, we reopened. We did a pizza and cocktail drive-thru in June. And then we shut that down and took just some time off for everyone to decompress.

We opened back on August 21st for service and were open until early December, when it really got kind of scary here. Fortunately, no one on the staff got COVID but we collectively knew about 49 other people who had contracted it. Here in our area, we were on a real upward trajectory prior to Thanksgiving. That was in the news every day, and it was kind of scary, so I don't think there was a lot of gathering at Thanksgiving. We are just starting to see it trend down now, three weeks into December. So we've had about a month at a pretty scary pace. It just got so it was unnerving to keep operating under those conditions. My wife and I decided it just wasn’t worth risking the safety of our staff or guests.

People don't understand that servers are out there, having to make money, risking themselves. They are there each day, dealing with people. I personally don't know that I should have ever been open again, but we had outdoor seating during the summer, which helped quite a bit and made people feel a lot more comfortable. This winter, though, my wife and I decided that we just didn’t feel right being open and encouraging people to gather indoors. So it's been that kind of a year. We're going to probably stay closed into at least the beginning of February.

In the meantime, though, we’re doing cocktail drive-thrus about once a week or so. Last Wednesday, we sold 70 cocktails in a two-hour window. Crazy. Our regulars are like family. There are so many of them and they are refusing to let us struggle. Our bartender, Jack, said the tips were so unbelievable on Wednesday night that ‘it's unfathomable how these people feel about this place.’

I am utterly and completely disgustedly disappointed with the handling of this in this country. The fragmenting of our entire country into small states that have no control over boundaries, no control over travel. To say ‘each of you are responsible for your own fates’ was to me the most absurd experience I've ever had in my life. This required a national response and for the love of God I have no idea why we didn’t have a national response. I certainly think that we would never have gotten this bad if we had some sort of real response to this other than, ‘Good luck.’ It’s frustrating. This country has really changed. You know, we were watching ‘Eight Days to the Moon’ on TV last night, a documentary about Apollo 11, and my wife just looks at me and says, ‘What happened to this country?’”

- Kurt, Speak of the Devil (November 2020).


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