Speakeasies, those mysterious shadowy spaces where whispers linger. Where dimmed bulbs accentuate our companions’ features, creating a medieval woodcarving effect in an unintentional study of light and dark. Accessed by the ring of a doorbell, a series of coded knocks, or a bouncer managing an often snaking line — the twenty-first century reincarnation of the 1920s era drinking club harnesses that burnished glamour, serious in its playfulness. In semi-darkness, we might believe we are invincible, particularly if sipping a craft cocktail impeccably concocted by a skilled mixologist who maintains control over both martini shaker and charming conversation.
Then came the Covid-19 pandemic. Although we ushered in the year 2020 mindful of its meaning — that it heralded the arrival of a century since this country constitutionalized Prohibition — we believed we had grown as a civilized people where speakeasies could exist for simply whimsical purposes. We soon came to understand that biology holds sway regardless of our sophistication.
But Northern Colorado restaurateurs are an intrepid bunch.
Ty Fulcher, co-owner of Social in Old Town, Fort Collins, has found transitioning his tufted leather, Prohibition inspired cocktail bar during the pandemic to be fluid and always-changing.
“During the shutdown period, we were offering the Social experience by doing jarred cocktails with instructions on how to stir, shake, garnish, and put the drinks back together once they got home. Since then, the nation has run into a jar shortage because during the shutdown, a lot of people got into gardening and pickling,” Fulcher said.
Social switched to standard to-go cups after that; Fulcher learned people didn’t drink out of the jars, as it was, preferring their own cocktail glasses.
To the east, The Kress Cinema & Lounge in downtown Greeley similarly offered cocktails to-go early on in the shutdown, available for purchase alongside charcuterie plates and other bar nibbles.
Since the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE) moved Larimer County to Safer at Home Level 4 Red on November 24, Social now offers single servings and bottles of mixed cocktails to-go. As varied as the seasonal Fall Fashion, a mix of apple, cinnamon and vanilla-bean infused bourbon, or floral Lavender Sour, with house-infused lavender sour, there are also classics like the Marble Rye and Old Fashioned. Bottles are priced at a discount and serve from 2 to 4 sippers. Cocktails are available to-go daily from 4-8 PM.
Weld County was moved by the CDPHE to Level 4 a few days earlier, on November 22 at 5 PM. And while The Kress co-owner, Justin Ghofrani, had been doing at least one private party weekly during the summer and fall until the level change, hopes for a busy holiday season were dashed with the newest restrictions. The Kress, which operates a basement speakeasy in addition to an upstairs bar and lounge connected to its movie theater, had temporarily closed both bars. Private events are currently on hold.
“It really doesn’t make sense for us to open up the speakeasy until the Kress is opened up because no movies are being released until the middle of next year. As of now it’s all up in the air,” Ghofrani said.
Over the summer, when outside dining was permitted and indoor facilities were capped at 50 people in the basement bar, Social was the first emergency outdoor patio that was approved. And with oncoming winter weather on the horizon, Fulcher and his business partner, Ryan Houdek and his wife Christine, pulled together a new iteration of their concept — Social Above Ground —, when a space became available upstairs. The trio knocked it out in under three weeks. That spot offers views of Old Town Square.
“It’s new for everyone,” Fulcher said. “Most people were just happy they didn’t have to wait in line outside the original Social. The name of the game for us is adaptation — that’s the word of the year. This mindset is better than a tent. For seven years, people have been drinking our cocktails in the basement, so they thought it was a treat to drink our cocktails in the sun.”Ty Fulcher, Co-Owner of Social
The response was strong, he said. While business was down about 20% over the previous year, some weekdays would match and even beat the previous year’s numbers. Weekends were lower, although the upstairs bar added 30-40% of sales.
Fulcher wants Social, inspired by Prohibition with its underground feel, to be known as a cocktail bar, not a speakeasy. “The summer menu was seasonally based, featuring bright, beautiful drinks. It was a blast. The fall menu is fall flavors like caramel, apples, and allspice.”
What will happen next is the crystal ball question. Fulcher is being creative, and adapting as things change. Social Above Ground is leased for six months with another six month option. He and his partner will re-evaluate, particularly with the planned state extension of to-go liquor licenses. The above-ground expansion allowed them to keep 3 to 4 employees. The investment was made to retain staff. After the original furlough in March, they were able to bring everyone back, even hiring additional staff due to some moving away during the closure or switching industries.
With the latest restrictions, Fulcher has had to furlough 100 percent of his employees.
He believes the restaurant industry was stigmatized as being unhealthy and unsafe because it was the first to shut down and the last to reopen in early summer. And now it’s shut down again.
“Sanitation has been the name of the game since I got into this industry 23 years ago. All we do is wash hands and clean surfaces. Menus are all QR code, the tables are spaced, there’s hand sanitizer across the board, pens are one time use and then sanitized.”
But he’ll do it as long as he has to, there’s no giving up. Right now, the focus is to just operate however he can.