A few months ago, Michael Clintsman did what entrepreneurs are supposed to do, and took a risk. He sunk the nest egg he’d built from his two successful bars — Bar PM and Local Bar & Grill — into a third establishment: Atomic Lounge & Pizza Kitchen.
For 13 years he’s served the City of Lubbock, and particularly the college students from nearby Texas Tech University. A Tech graduate himself, Clintsman met his wife Page at school in Lubbock.
Michael and Page built their establishments, clientele, and relationships from the ground up. But since the pandemic reached stateside, the Clintsman’s enterprises stand on the verge of collapse.
Between March 19 and April 6, 20 percent of Texas bar and restaurant owners say they have been forced to shutter their doors for good.
Clintsman’s bars have been closed to general foot traffic since the state and localities issued emergency orders to prohibit the public from patronizing those establishments in order to curb the spread of COVID-19.
In succession, the Clintsman’s bars went from 50 percent occupancy, to 50-person occupancy, to closed entirely.
When officials allowed food retailers to operate to go services, Clintsman reconfigured his operations to work within that stipulation. Some customers were better than none and he was bringing in enough money to make ends meet.
But when the governor allowed restaurants — classified as those at least 51 percent of their revenues coming from food — to open at 25 percent capacity, Clintsman saw his revenues decline 80 percent.
Clintsman’s food-to-alcohol sales ratio is 35:65, meaning he could not open even at the limited capacity.
Serving curbside pickup was no longer a viable option.
With the reserve capital invested in his new bar, Clintsman no longer had the financial cushion he did this time last year. He now worries about whether he’ll be able to reopen at all, once permitted.
“It’s been terrifying and scary,” Clinstman told The Texan, “Every day means more and more debt, and we constantly wonder when the hole will become too big to dig out of.”
Michael and Page met, coincidentally, at a bar at which they had each started working on the same day. They now own that very bar together.
The pair, with their business partner Chad Elliott, employ 87 people — every one of which is now unemployed including Clintsman himself. “For the first time since I was 16 that I’m out of work.”
May is an especially bad time to be closed for the bar owner, as it’s typically his best month due to both finals week and graduation when Red Raiders celebrate the end of a school year. May profits, he added, enable him to make it through the summer months when business is slower and students are often back home.
The closure of the school, were he open, would still seriously inhibit his May earning potential. Students make up about 85 percent of his business.
“I’m really hoping school comes back in the fall, because if it doesn’t, you can probably put a fork in us.”
But given all that, he is still unsure when he’ll be able to bring his employees back to work.
Some of his employees are college students but others are full-time working adults. One of his cooks has far more than just unemployment on his plate. His wife is dying of cancer and now he’s effectively unable to earn a living.
“When you have a small business, your staff becomes like your family,” Clintsman added.
This week, America’s unemployment total eclipsed 36 million people. This total is nearly triple the number of unemployed in the worst year of the Great Depression, 1933, though the rate of unemployment is still lower than it was then.
In March, Congress passed a relief package which boosted funding for business loans, unemployment insurance, and provided direct payments to citizens. The main aspect of the business loan section was the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
Elliott has been able to secure PPP aid, but for him it’s effectively unusable as 75 percent of the aid must go toward personnel costs. Being closed, he cannot come close to spending that threshold. Businesses across the country are experiencing the same problem.
A bill coauthored by Reps. Chip Roy (R-TX-21) and Dean Phillips (D-MN) aims to eliminate that 75 percent requirement.
To date, Governor Abbott has not included bars in the timeline he has sketched out for Texas’ reopening.
“I fully believe [the closures are] an overreach,” Clintsman said, echoing the sentiment of a growing number of Texans including Dallas salon owner Shelley Luther who was jailed for opening her business in violation of a temporary restraining order from the county.
Salons, barbershops, restaurants, retail stores, and more have all been allowed to reopen in limited capacity — with gyms set to open today — but no indication of when bars will be included has been given.
Clintsman said, “If you just give us a timeline, we could at least begin planning.”
“But right now, there’s nothing.”
Despite the radio silence from the government, the Clintsmans have a plan for operations whenever reopening comes.
“We don’t want anyone to get sick, and we’re going to stick to the CDC guidelines, but we haven’t been given the opportunity to demonstrate that yet,” he added.
Part of the plan includes moving tables 12 feet apart (doubling the CDC’s guideline of six feet), providing hand sanitizer, switching to single-use condiments, and having one person on-duty at all times whose sole job it is to sanitize constantly.
“Whenever reopening comes, some businesses are going to do it safely and some are not, but we’re going to be one who does it safely.”
Clintsman mentioned an industry colleague of his who owns an establishment that makes all of its profits on alcohol and attracts customers with live music.
That colleague plans, once allowed, to put tables and chairs on the dance floor, adhering to the CDC guidelines, and will only have one person playing acoustic on stage. This will prevent crowding on the dance floor but still provide a place for those interested in entertainment.
He also added the Texas Restaurant Association — which, according to Clintsman, typically only represents 51 percent-plus establishments — has been lobbying on behalf of bars, trying to help them reopen.
Clintsman appreciates the help, and said, “our back is really against the wall.”
The other part of this equation is consumer confidence and whether they will resume their pre-pandemic purchasing habits at some level. Likely, it will not be the same, and Clintsman said he doesn’t begrudge those who’d rather stay home. But he would like the chance to host those who want to get out.
Whenever they are able to reopen, Clintsman concluded, “We look forward to providing a safe, fun environment for our customers.”
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Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad watching and quoting Monty Python productions.