Ahh, the holiday season. Twinkling lights, shiny decorations, festive cocktails, and more parties than you can cram into a Google Calendar. It’s exhilarating, exhausting, and - if you’re lucky enough - excellent for your bar’s bottom line. Business is booming! That’s where Hilarey Leonard, the warm and effervescent co-owner of the beloved popular D.C. bars Lost & Found (Shaw) and Free State Atlantic Bar (Chinatown/Penn Quarter) found herself in early 2020. The 2019 holiday season had been their best yet as both bars played host to happy hours and after-office shindigs. With two successful businesses, one brand new baby, and a recent move to Annapolis, MD, with husband and business partner Brian, the world looked really good. Enter: The ‘Rona. (cue: ominous music)
Both of Hilarey’s bars had built up a loyal following of customers who appreciated the local-centric beverage selections. Lost & Found launched in November 2014, establishing itself within 3 months as the go-to place in Shaw for craft beer and casual comfort. It’s that delightful neighborhood bar that brings a community together. Couples who met there for a first date even came back to celebrate their engagement with a photo shoot. Free State followed in January 2017, with a mid-Atlantic regional focus. While it took a little longer to become established, Free State eventually became a welcome respite from the flashy chain restaurants that have engulfed Chinatown. Local sports season ticket holders knew to skip the crowded tourist traps and head straight to the nautically-themed basement hangout off 5th Street. By March 2020, both bars were well-established and with the Division Champion Washington Capitals in the hunt for their second Stanley Cup, Free State was poised to *ahem* capitalize on the Caps.
That all changed abruptly in mid-March 2020. On March 11, the World Health Organization declared CoVID-19 a pandemic. Within hours, major cultural and sporting events across the nation were cancelled. At this point, restaurants and bars were still allowed to operate at full capacity, but Hilarey was concerned for the safety of her staff, her guests, and her family. Brian, with whom she co-owns Free State and Lost & Found, is normally a “just push through and make it work” kind of guy, but not this time. Throughout this week of high anxiety, they discussed whether or not to close their businesses, knowing full well that decision would impact their staff’s physical and financial health. Most of their employees were young and did not have enough savings to miss paychecks. How would they manage to pay rent? The decision became an easy one when a staff member called out sick with a sore throat on Sunday, March 15. One day later, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser would close all restaurant and bar dining rooms, authorizing takeout and delivery service only.
These developments weren’t a complete surprise to Hilarey. A friend from her home state of Iowa had been working in China before heading back to the United States in December 2019. The photographs and posts she shared while abroad told a far different story than what little the media had picked up. Something was happening and it was scary. Upon arrival stateside, this friend and her family had to quarantine for two weeks. When news broke that cases were spreading to other countries, Hilarey took notice. She describes herself as always having been “an anxious person”, but I found her to be thorough and thoughtfully analytical. Perhaps those can sometimes be the same thing. She and Brian care deeply about their staff and employees, as well as their customers, and with a new baby in the house, they took every precaution to stay safe. She kept up with CDC guidance, making sure staff had the proper cleaning supplies and PPE to come to work safely. In the early days, though, that guidance was frequently changing. There was always the question, “are we doing enough?”
With both bars closed down indefinitely, Hilarey’s focus shifted to her employees and their financial security. She and Brian continued to pay them for what was expected to be a two-week pause in service, as they didn’t feel the employees should be penalized while this matter was being worked out. Two weeks without service feels like an eternity in the bar industry, but when talk began of stimulus payments, Hilarey realized this was not going to be a short term disruption to business. The number of cases - and deaths - in New York was spiraling to inconceivable levels. Just how contagious was CoVID-19? With the future uncertain and little help coming from local government entities, they decided to apply for PPP loans. Completing that process was among the hardest things they’ve ever done. Then, things got so much harder.
Original guidance for PPP loan recipients stated that funds had to be used within 8 weeks in order to qualify for forgiveness, but bars weren’t even allowed to open during that time. However, at the end of those 8 weeks, guidance was revised and extended to a period of 24 weeks. Recipients who had followed the initial rules found themselves out of funds while still facing severely limited operating capacity. What were those businesses supposed to do? The next stimulus package wouldn’t come until the end of the year and approved loan recipients have only just begun receiving funds in the past few days. By now, many businesses have been out of money and resources for nearly a year. Help was not coming from the federal or local governments and no one was listening to small business. Dealing with any D.C. government entity on a good day is an incredibly frustrating experience. Now that system was completely overwhelmed. Attempts to call for guidance were met with either an interminable busy signal, or repetitious hold music that would be the soundtrack of the next four hours of life. Even if one eventually spoke to a human being, there was no guarantee they could actually provide helpful information or assistance. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Hilarey found the most help came from fellow industry members who turned to social media groups to share resources, information, and support. Businesses came together to help one another even though they were competing for dramatically reduced sales. She and Brian made a strong team effort to support one another, their staff, and their child. They split their shifts at Free State and Lost & Found so that someone was always home with the baby, as they knew sending him to day care or having a sitter come to their home created an unacceptable extra risk of exposure. If anyone in their house got CoVID-19, they would have to shut down both businesses, meaning their employees wouldn’t get paid. The now hour-long commute from Annapolis made this arrangement exhausting, but it was worth the effort.
While the demands of this past year have brought Hilarey and Brian closer, the same cannot be said for all of her relationships. Many in her previously close circle of girlfriends were in dramatically different situations - they did not lose any income, could easily work from home, and were able to risk traveling to see family or go on vacation. They were living a very different version of the pandemic experience and could not relate to the overwhelming pressure she faced to safely sustain two bars in a city that was seeing businesses close at an alarming rate. Even now, Hilarey estimates that approximately 70% of the storefronts in office-space-rich Chinatown are shuttered. Those closures may not be permanent, but with no break on rent and nearly non-existent communications from landlords and landladies, the prospects of many returning are quite bleak.
As autumn leaves began to fall, CoVID-19 cases were on a rapid rise, dashing any hopes of a bank-account-salvaging return to those lucrative holiday parties from the year prior. The cooler temperatures brought with them the need to invest in heaters for the Blagden Alley patio dining area, which also brought with it the expense of daily propane tank deliveries. Each shift, 20 sets of tables and chairs had to be brought out to the patio, set up, and sanitized, then complemented with umbrellas, tents, and propane heaters. These all then had to be cleaned, sanitized, and brought indoors at the end of the shift. It was twice the amount of work for one-eighth of the payout, with even the best nights only bringing in 20% of pre-pandemic sales. The additional cost of PPE for their staff and CDC-approved cleaners (which became a $400/bottle line item in the budget) were a painful, but necessary, expense. Another challenge involved the refusal of vendors to lower their order minimums, which led to product waste. Draft beer did not sell fast enough before the keg went bad, so they switched to ordering canned beer. This provided a longer shelf life, but at a higher per-piece cost to the bar, thus lowering the profit margin. It seemed a lose-lose situation.
With no guarantee of additional PPP loans or a second stimulus package, Hilarey and Brian decided to temporarily close Free State on November 7, devoting their increasingly limited time and resources to patio seating and take-out service at the more accessible neighborhood favorite Lost & Found. They were able to transfer over the Free State bartenders, waitstaff, and managers, ensuring everyone stayed on payroll. The winter would bring new struggles, though. Efforts to create virtual cocktail events were derailed when necessary materials failed to be delivered for three days straight, thus forcing cancellation of the class. To-go cocktails were a popular pivot for bars, but that required sourcing appropriate packaging, creating labels, and then assembling and storing the libation-filled bags for pick-up. Those recipes then had to be updated seasonally, as did the labeling. At this point, every task was exhausting and the staff was burnt out.
Then supporters of a certain former resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue flocked to nearby convention center hotels, descending upon local bars and restaurants after a fun day of destabilizing democracy. These newest members of the No-Fly List also happened to be ardent anti-maskers and diametrically opposed to social distancing. Since the Mayor had publicly posted the phone number for ABRA (Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration) and encouraged D.C. residents to report offending businesses whose customers violated CoVID-19 safety regulations, allowing this non-compliant group in could easily result in both a harassed staff and thousands of dollars in fines. Again, the risk was too great, so they once more temporarily closed Lost & Found until The Insurrectioneers found a landbound way home.
Despite all of these ACME anvils falling from the sky, there have been several bright moments over the past twelve months. Hilarey decided to use the Free State social media accounts to promote local small businesses during what she knew was likely to be a dismal holiday season. Lost & Found had previously hosted summer and winter makers’ markets, through which relationships had been built up with many local vendors. She wanted to keep people engaged in the bar, but knew other businesses were hurting from lost revenue. With so many holiday markets cancelled, Hilarey began to seek out and promote local makers - which is exactly how we met! She realized that many artisans had built up or expanded their online presence over the past year, and it takes only a bit more effort to source meaningful gifts from small businesses than it does to fill a cart on Amazon. This was a way to “pay it forward” to the community and help neighbors boost their sales.
The effort fundamentally changed Hilarey’s own approach to sourcing. She has decided to keep a weekly “Small Business Sunday” social media post and concentrate more on making personal and professional purchases from small local businesses when possible. Seeing the resiliency and creativity of fellow bars and restaurants, especially the fabulous patio setups along U Street and at Annie’s Paramount Steak House on 17th Street, was inspiring. She saw that same spirit of resiliency in her own staff, no doubt fostered by the knowledge that their employer valued and wanted to protect them. Let me tell you, as one who has freelanced in countless work environments, employees take notice when an owner puts safety above profit. Hilarey and Brian’s commitment paid off as they have retained all their main employees throughout this past year with the exception of a few who decided it was time to move out of the area.
Another silver lining was the time Hilarey could spend with her baby. Even before the responsibilities of running two bars, she had a “work over life” mindset in her previous career of video production. That may have remained unchanged had CoVID-19 not had the impact it did. This year was an opportunity and wake-up call to reprioritize and put life first. That lesson was reinforced by the loss to suicide of three people she knew. We can sometimes be so overwhelmed by our own challenges that we forget to check in on others who may feel more alone than we realize. This has been a year where hard working people who put their life savings into businesses have been devastated by the dramatic loss of income. Many have had to close through no fault of their own. Hilarey believes the full gravity of these losses - the cozy cafes, favorite lunch spots, boutique wine stores, and the like - has not yet fully hit. Neighborhoods will take a long time to recover and that will require a conscious effort on the part of consumers to keep supporting small businesses.
Starting Wednesday, March 17, 2021 - or St. Patrick’s Day, if you’d like to be specific- you can show some of that small business support as Free State Atlantic Bar reopens for patio service and pick-up orders. They will offer service Wednesday to Saturday, from 4:00PM to 10:00PM. Walk-ins are welcome, but reservations are recommended and you can click here to secure your own table. Let’s hope this auspicious day is a sign of things to come, and the good luck that propelled Free State and Lost & Found to their high-earning 2019 holiday season finds its way back home.
On a final note, I asked Hilarey what she thought people needed to know about her experiences over the past year that would surprise them, and what advice she would give to women small business owners who are still struggling. “If most people had to go through this as an employee or business owner, they wouldn’t make it. The loss of income is devastating.” So true, and as a business owner, you feel it the hardest. For women business owners who are still trying to find their footing on unstable terrain, “Support each other. Lift one another up in whatever way we need. Collaborate, don’t compete!” Hilarey is already brainstorming how her venues can support other small businesses and continue to give back to the community they serve. She also reminds us, “You can’t do it alone - ask for help.” With the growing number of women in leadership roles across the nation, more women standing up to harassment, and people being called upon to rethink their language, she is hopeful this will be a great year for women. Here’s hoping it’s also a great year for you and yours, Hilarey. Go n-eirí an t-ádh leat!