PDT’s Jeff Bell on the Future of Bars
Bars are the third spaces where we gather with a drink in hand, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, and sometimes, with newly made ones. They’re the public spaces that anchor our communities.
And for 13 years, in the heart of New York’s East Village, PDT, short for Please Don’t Tell, has been one of those anchors. The pioneering speakeasy, founded by Jim Meehan, Brian Shebairo, and Chris Antista, is as famous for its (in)accessibility — to get in, you have to call from a payphone inside Crif Dogs, the subterranean hot dog stand next door — as for its cocktails.
But even a bar as influential as PDT has had its challenges this year, as general manager Jeff Bell recounts. Bell, who began working at PDT in 2010 as a barback, has seen the bar evolve over the years, even expanding to Hong Kong in 2016. He’s currently in the process of buying the original New York location of PDT, as well as the Crif Dogs next door, from founders Shebairo and Meehan.
Resy recently reached out to Bell to learn more about how PDT is dealing with the current crisis, as well as how he sees the bar industry evolving in the coming months and years. Here’s what he had to say.
Resy: What’s your day-to-day like these days?
Bell: Well, we are now open for takeout and delivery only, so our hours of operation have reduced by about 40% so I’m not physically behind the bar, nor do I have as much to do in a traditional sense as a bar manager. I’m using the extra time to maximize family bonding, as we welcomed our son into the world this April.
In addition to being more present at home, I’m spending a lot of time planning the next steps for PDT after the shutdown is over. It’s a lot of meetings, phone calls, brainstorming, and everything else, trying to make the most of the pause to make significant improvements to the business so we can come out of this in a better place than we went in.
How are you feeling about the future of the bar business?
“I don’t know” is the short answer. However, this will have some sort of change. There are so many segments to the bar business that it’s really hard to say; it will affect different styles of bars differently.
I think that night clubs and bars that rely on being packed shoulder to shoulder will have a longer road to recovery, due to how the capacity limitations will impact their model. Smaller, seated cocktail bars should probably be able to weather the storm a little better because they typically have an occupancy model that is more akin to a restaurant than a club, so it’s easier to space patrons out.
If you currently own and operate a bar, now is a good time to think of all the variables that may alter your business moving forward, and how you can adapt to address those changes. I think we will be fine, but I think it will take the better part of a year to get there. However, I may be looking at this with rose-colored glasses.
What are your thoughts on current pandemic-related restrictions on bars, especially now that more states seem to be closing bars down yet again?
Shut them down for dining in. City and state governments need to allow us to provide takeout and sidewalk/patio seating so we can offer a nice experience for our patrons while producing limited cash flow that can help keep our businesses afloat.
I love the bar industry. However, opening bars so people can come inside to drink seems like such an arbitrary activity given the circumstances we are living in.
How has business been at PDT during the pandemic?
We have been quasi-open since May 5 for takeout and delivery cocktails and, at our peak, we were probably doing about a third of our normal revenue, which is actually, surprisingly, good. But, in the two weeks or so since patio dining has been allowed, we have seen a significant drop in sales, so we are trying to figure out what to do next to supplement the income.
We don’t have space on the sidewalk in front of PDT and Crif Dogs to place tables, so we won’t be doing sidewalk seating. A bunch of us bar and restaurant operators on Saint Marks Place have petitioned the city to close the street to traffic so we can utilize the street as our al fresco dining rooms, but I’m not sure if that will happen or not. If it does, we’ll think of a cool way to activate the space so it’s a fun experience for people in the neighborhood. (So, if anyone reading this has any pull with the city, please make a phone call for us.)
PDT built its reputation on being a speakeasy and it seems like that model has shifted over the years. You’ve even got a location in Hong Kong, too. What prompted that shift, and where do you want to see PDT a year or more from now?
I think there is a delicate balance in running a successful bar or restaurant for a long time. It’s important to remain who you are, but also to evolve a little over time. It’s possible to evolve without abandoning where you came from.
When PDT opened in 2007, it seemed like a necessary addition to the New York drinking scene. I don’t want the concept to change from what it is, but we’ll adapt to a few things here and there so we aren’t the old dinosaur left in the dust that’s too stubborn to realize the world is turning.
For example, we had a same-day phone reservations system only for 13 years, then this year, I created a hybrid system where we still do day-of reservations for most tables, but we offer a few advanced reservations each day for parties of six to eight on Resy. Our phone system is awesome, but we were neglecting the large groups that wanted to come in and ended up reserving all of our large booths on a first-come, first-served basis, which was attracting mainly four-tops, so this allowed us to secure larger groups periodically.
Our Hong Kong location is great; it’s like the little engine that could. It’s been a rocky 18 months in Hong Kong with the protests there, China’s actions, and the coronavirus, but it’s still doing well. We have a great partnership with the Mandarin Oriental hotel there. However, it’s so tumultuous over there right now. We are managing, but it’s a trying time for sure.
It’s hard to say, publicly, what I see from PDT in a year from now. I have some ideas, but I want to keep my cards close to my chest for the next few months. Maybe we can do a follow-up in early 2021?
Is it still financially feasible to have a speakeasy-style bar model? Or is it better to be in more places and to be more accessible?
It is, but it won’t make you rich. So, if that’s your goal, don’t open a small cocktail bar. To each, their own. I won’t open a bunch more PDTs, but I would like to explore some more concepts that potentially fall under the brand.
Has this been a bit of a reset for bars and restaurants? What’s the path forward?
In a way, yes. This whole thing is like a massive forest fire for the world and there will be so much devastation, which will be terrible and sad, but it will be followed by rebirth and renewal. I’m excited to see what the savvy minds come up with on the other side.
I think people are going to have to be creative and start thinking outside the four walls of their restaurant or bar on how to generate a little more income. I think we’ve tapped out the traditional model. I think the best podcast to listen to about this is The Dave Chang Show with [Resy CEO] Ben Leventhal as the guest. They do a deep dive on this subject, and I agree with almost everything they say, wholeheartedly.
If you could speak to bar patrons directly, what would you want to tell them?
I would like it to be a dialogue of what should happen next. I want to know how the bar-going consumer’s mindset will change: Will they want something different from their local watering holes after this is all said and done? Will they want to learn more about the craft, so they can spend more time at home and create their own cocktails? If so, maybe there’s a way we can work together to educate to get them to that point.
We will be here, we will always be here innovating and trying to find ways to create great drinking experiences.
Will PDT be able to survive after the pandemic?
Yes, I am very confident that we will be able to. Actually, yes, we will.
Resy At Home Specials is a four-week special Resy program featuring exclusive dishes from a handful of top New York restaurants, all available for takeout. For more information, click here.
This week (July 6-13), the special at PDT is as follows:
Coconut Cocktails ($55, serves two)
One whole young Thai Coconut per person with a coco-jack for opening, Ron Zacapa 23 to mix with the coconut water, fresh PDT Piña Colada mix and rum, and a Ron Zacapa 23 Old Fashioned. Mon.-Sun.
Deanna Ting is a Resy staff writer. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter. Follow @Resy, too