tiki bar closed due to covid-19 pandemic

Helping Tiki Bars Survive the Pandemic

“We rise by lifting others.”

-Robert G. Ingersoll

As we near the 9th month of the novel coronavirus pandemic, we’re reaching a very pivotal point. There’s been a lot of ebb and flow since life as we knew it changed completely, and the news about the direction we’re headed (not a very good one) has me thinking about a few things I feel I need to share.

Although my household has been fortunate to work from home, there are so many people who simply aren’t able to do that. Many of these people we know work in the hospitality and service industry, or are stakeholders in local restaurants and bars we frequented pre-pandemic.

Over the last 9 months, I’ve seen story after story about places here in SoCal, back home in Dallas, and all over the country that permanently closed because of the pandemic’s devastating economic impact. It’s especially jarring when they’re places that were around a long time and considered historic, local treasures.

A Precarious Time for Tiki Bars

Talk to anyone in the Tiki community, and they’ll probably have a Tiki bar they frequent that’s like their version of “Cheers”—everyone knows your name, and every visit involves imbibing in a drink or two, with a little friendly banter on the side.

Tiki-Ti in Los Feliz, CA
The Tiki-Ti, my personal “Cheers” (photo by Elizabeth Daniels)

True Tiki bars are a labor of love. They’re typically owned and managed by people who care, not corporations, which is why they’re successful in building a real following among their patrons and standing the test of time. They also require a very high level of commitment by owners who want to build relationships as well as business.

It’s scary when I think about how many of our beloved Tiki establishments are suffering right now and trying hard to stay open, if they’re allowed to even be open at all. Between ever-changing local health regulations and trying to keep staff safe, it’s got to be a fucking nightmare to even operate.

Every time I’ve had a conversation about this with a bar owner, I learn more about how hard it is. Staff concerns, layoffs, takeout and dine-in rules, enhanced cleaning procedures, paying bills…the list is endless.

Worrying Signs and Frustration

Martin and Rebecca Cate of Smugglers Cove in San Francisco laid their frustrations bare for an SFGate article back in July, which was heartbreaking to read. And Ed Rudisell of Inferno Room fame in Indianapolis also echoed similar sentiments in an interview for Indianapolis Monthly. Both are hanging on, but just barely, and assistance funds only go so far.

Then came the news that Max’s South Seas Hideaway, arguably one of the most impressive Tiki establishments to open in recent years, filed for bankruptcy, less than one full year after its opening. I know many of us haven’t been able to visit yet, which is a tragedy, given how much work Mark put into it.

Max’s South Seas Hideaway (photo from website)

Some, like SoCal favorites the Tiki-Ti and the Tonga Hut, have remained closed since the start of the pandemic. Others, like False Idol, Latitude 29, 4 Kahunas, and Trader Vic’s Atlanta have either only recently opened, or have opened and been forced to close once again after case spikes. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have the outdoor space to serve, and even when you do, if you don’t serve food, you often get shafted.

A Rallying Cry for Tikiphiles

More than ever, our Tiki establishments depend on us to help them survive. Unfortunately, I don’t think the pandemic will ever really stop being an issue until there’s a vaccine and accessible treatment options. Sadly, wearing masks and distancing have been politicized to the point of no return, so if we want our beloved places to survive, we need to help where we can.

Some things you can do:

  • If your favorite bars have merch, buy it. For some that are closed, it’s the only money they might have coming in for a while.
  • If they have takeout or delivery, order from them when you’re able, but PLEASE don’t use third party delivery apps like Doordash or GrubHub (these kill small businesses).
  • Donate to their staff fundraisers if they have them.
  • If they’re open and you feel comfortable, visit them and tip well.

Oh, and don’t be that guy (or girl or whatever) who pitches a fit about their mask policies. You might not care if you get sick, but the staff has a right to not be put at risk. One industry friend told me this past weekend that a recent group of out-of-towners balked at their mask policies, saying, “We didn’t have to wear them at the last place we went to.” Um, are you fucking kidding me?

With the holidays fast approaching, now is the time to be generous if you’re in the position to be so. One of the things I love about our Tiki community is how much we care about one another and lift our friends up when they need us. If you’re not in the position to financially support, share their social posts. We must support our local haunts in any way we can, or they may not be around much longer.

Tonga Hut interior
C’mon…do it for Big Mo. (photo by Christina Champlin)