Return of nightlife?

After a tumultuous pandemic year, Chico's bars and clubs face uncertainty as state reopens

A lively crowd fills the outdoor patio area as The Maltese reopens for limited hours last month. (Photo by Ken Smith)
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This feature is part of the CN&R’s June 2021 Business Issue.

Archer Lombardi kicked off 2020 ready for big changes. After nearly a decade dedicated to establishing The Maltese as one of Chico’s cornerstone bars and live performance venues, the business had reached a level of self-sustenance that encouraged him to shift focus. He and his partner invested in a Placer County farm and planned to start a family.

Then COVID-19 came and bars went dark.

Archer Lombardi, owner of The Maltese, stops for a selfie in front of the bar during recent preparations for reopening.

“The last year’s been really, really terrible for us, like it has been for so many people,” Lombardi said during a recent phone interview. Like other business owners, Lombardi struggled to make sense of constantly changing health guidelines, weighed the benefits and risks of applying for relief programs and is still navigating complicated application processes. The fact that the bar does not serve food made it ineligible for some aid, and a reliance on concerts, dance nights and drag shows—all events that bring many people close together—leaves its future uncertain, even as California is scheduled to relax COVID-related restrictions June 15.

Other business owners in Chico’s nightclub scene had similar reports: The nature of their business made the pandemic especially difficult to survive, and it’s likely to be a long and complicated road back to normalcy.

“I’ve basically blown through my life savings in the last 14 months,” said Lombardi, who is considering selling the bar. “I’m going to keep fighting for it, but I have to be open to the idea of moving on.”

Navigating the pandemic

Lombardi said he’s included staff in discussions about the bar’s operations since the beginning of the pandemic. With consideration for the safety of employees and patrons, he decided in March of last year that the bar would remain closed indefinitely. It just reopened in May with limited capacity (patrons are seated on the outdoor patio) and limited hours.

Pre-June 15, Duffy’s Tavern is open with outdoor seating and a reduced number of indoor tables. (Photo by Jason Cassidy)

“That put us in an awkward position for the most easily accessible, forgivable loans—the PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loan,” he said of the decision to stay closed. “We would’ve been on the hook to pay employees, and pay them more than they would make on unemployment, with nothing for them to do. With the set of rules ever-changing, the risk factor of going that route and then not having the loan forgiven was too high.”

Lombardi said the bar had been closed for several months before receiving its first bit of aid, a $10,000 grant from the California Small Business Association. The business also received an EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster Loan) loan—which must be paid back, with interest. As expenses never stopped mounting, Lombardi said that money was spent swiftly after it arrived.

Considering the bar’s commitment to the Chico community, Lombardi said he found it extra painful The Maltese was excluded from the first round of aid given to 80 local businesses from the Aaron Rodgers Small Business COVID-19 Fund, operated by the North Valley Community Foundation. Though some bars were included in that batch, they had to serve food to be eligible.

“We’re a venue,” said Maltese owner Lombardi, who sees events (such as concerts with the likes of Jenny Don’t & The Spurs, pictured) as a critical part of the bar’s business plan. (Photo by Archer Lombardi)

“That whole prohibition element of some of the funding really rubbed me the wrong way,” he said. The Maltese was included in a second round of businesses awarded money from the Rodgers’ fund, for which Lombardi said he is “100 percent grateful.”

As of press time, Lombardi was eagerly awaiting the results of a Shuttered Venue Operators Grant. Though hopeful, he described that application process as “another rigmarole” complete with website bugs, unexpected date changes and conflicting messages regarding the status of his application.

“I’m hoping that aid will dig me out of the massive hole I’m sitting at the bottom of,” Lombardi said.

In separate interviews, two of Lombardi’s fellow local bar owners—Scott Baldwin of Argus Bar + Patio and Doug Roberts of Duffy’s Tavern—shared similar pandemic frustrations and the measures they took to survive.

Both bars availed themselves of PPP loans, and both opened to some extent during the pandemic. Both also suffered substantial losses and are holding out hope that business returns with the June 15 reopening.

Roberts said his first attempt at opening, last summer, was “an absolute nightmare.”

“It was so restrictive, and working within the boundaries was impossible,” he added. “We had to serve food, so we partnered with [Main Street Pizza]. We were inside, with tables spread far out.

“Usually, you just walk up to a bartender, order a drink, they make it and that’s that. But at that point, the bartender took a food and drink order, ran the order next door, went back to pick up the food and then served it. … The amount of labor for every order was just ridiculous.

“Even though we had the PPP money, it just didn’t work out,” Roberts continued. “One day I ran the numbers, walked downstairs and said, ‘Last call. That’s it, we’re out.’”

In order to stay afloat during the pandemic, Argus Bar + Patio started Monster Crate, a subscription service featuring home-delivered craft cocktail kits.

Duffy’s also delivered drink and cocktail makings locally, a model that Argus’ Baldwin dug even deeper into.

“I actually bought a liquor store license so that I could launch an e-commerce site,” Baldwin said. With that, he started a monthly subscription site selling the necessary liquor and mixers to make craft cocktails, called the Argus Monster Crate (argusmonstercrate.com). The boxes are being shipped out for their eighth month to about 140 subscribers. Baldwin said he would need 500 to 1,000 subscribers to be truly successful; he’s committed to the new venture.

Back on stage

Lombardi said his entire staff—which was already “small and like a family”—have returned since The Maltese opened its patio on weekends. He’s also hired two servers to facilitate the current setup, in which patrons are met at the door, led to the patio and served drinks.

“I’m really hoping people will come out to support us, and to enjoy a cocktail on the patio, but what it boils down to is that’s not us … we’re a venue.”

Although indoor gatherings will be allowed as of June 15, Lombardi said The Maltese will proceed with caution. He’s considering requiring vaccine cards for indoor events but realizes that’s a controversial and complicated undertaking.

“We’re not going to do anything that makes staff or patrons feel unsafe,” he said. “Until all my employees are on board, we’re going to be safe and continue to watch out for community.”

After restrictions on outdoor seating were loosened last year, Duffy’s secured a couple of parklets—sections of sidewalk and street for picnic tables set up behind road barriers­—which Roberts said has been a boon to business in recent months.

The Pub Scouts—longstanding Duffy’s Friday happy hour performers—are set to return to the bar in late June.

“We’re getting a lot of familiar faces back out and some new people have been showing up … weekends have been going well,” he said. “We owe a lot of that to the outdoor seating, which I hope we can continue.”

Roberts said he’s inquired with the city, but has yet to receive a definitive answer, about whether outdoor seating will continue, but said doing so will require permits from both the city of Chico and the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Regarding live entertainment, Duffy’s manager Scott Barwick said the bar plans to start phasing weekly live musical performances by the Pub Scouts back into the schedule by the end of June and Wednesday Dance Nights in July. The first evening concert there will be held July 10, featuring locals The Empty Gate and Bay Area band Cindy.

Barwick said there will likely be lessened capacity and restrictions on some level but that it’s too early to say what those might be.

As for Baldwin at Argus, even with his ambitious delivery venture, his main focus is on the brick-and-mortar bar’s future. Like Lombardi, he’s spent a lot of money and tremendous effort in recent years to establish the bar—especially its back patio area—as a music venue. He said at the time of the shutdown, Argus was hosting 60 shows a year and building momentum. When California opens up fully, he said the Argus is ready to rock.

The outdoor stage/soundsystem at Argus is revamped and ready for live shows.

“They lift restrictions the 15th and our first show [with Pat Hull] is booked for the 17th,” he said. The concerts will be outdoors, and many restrictions—like masks—will be done.

“We’ve taken this whole thing very seriously,” Baldwin said about the bar’s adherence to state mandates during the pandemic. “We’ll keep up the cleaning and a slightly less occupancy, but as for the rest … it’s all going away.”

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