Opinion: Our Bar’s Christmas Wish Didn’t Come True. Here’s What We Need in 2021

Christmas Wish

The Barking Dog has been a Bethesda favorite for 20 years. We’ve hosted people’s biggest moments, everything from birthday parties to anniversaries to community fundraisers. Whatever it was, we’ve been there for our friends and neighbors.

But we have not had one event since March 2020, and now we just passed what would typically be one of our busiest seasons. As you may have heard, Thanksgiving weekend was a disaster for bars across the country, with sales down nearly 60%.

Around the holidays, we would usually do over $350,000 in business. This past year, it was my wish to be celebrating with you all by Christmas and New Year’s Eve. But, sadly, that didn’t happen. All indoor dining was shut down again on Dec. 15, and we haven’t opened since. We did $50,000 in business in November and December. For context, that’s below our break-even point for one month.

Unfortunately, that was a regular theme for us in 2020. All said and done, we did just a fraction of what we normally do in a year. And it’s not just us.

Two doors down, the local pizza place is gone. Across the street, the cafe has closed indefinitely. Around the corner, a local favorite hasn’t opened since March. And other restaurants just aren’t renewing their leases. Closures aren’t just affecting new establishments; they’re shuttering community staples.

If we hadn’t received loans from the Small Business Administration or the state, we would have already been out of business, too. We’ve had to cut staff, reduce hours, and my partner and I, who are owners and operators of the bar, have been working for free since March. That’s one of the only reasons why we’re able to pay the bills each month.

We understand that the situation with COVID-19 is constantly changing. We’ve done our best to work with the rollercoaster ride of restrictions, but like any business, it’s hard — if not impossible — to make a plan when we don’t know what next month will look like.

We’ve tried it all: takeout alcohol, carryout food, outdoor seating, indoor seating with 25% or 50% capacity. We’re willing to adapt, we’re extremely diligent and we have maintained strict protocol with regards to COVID precautions. But the reality is that there is a large segment of the population that was going out before that is not going out now and won’t be doing so until the pandemic is over.

We know people want to help us stay in business, but their budgets are tight, too.

That’s especially true in Bethesda. We cannot sell alcohol, takeout or otherwise, cheaper than the county, which is in the alcohol business itself. Because we have to buy our alcohol from Montgomery County Alcohol Beverage Services rather than from a distributor, we’re already paying a premium on every bottle, every keg and every case. We can’t get hit by higher taxes, too.

Let’s be clear, a tax increase in Montgomery County would just cause more people to take a trip to the District or Virginia to avoid them. We’ve had a decline in business for nearly a year due to the virus; we can’t have another caused by the General Assembly.

The Barking Dog’s 2020 story is not unique. The same scenario is unfolding at bars and restaurants in communities across Maryland, which is why now is the worst possible time to threaten business owners with an increased tax on alcohol. We just won’t recover. It’s going to take us years to recover as it is.

So no, my wish last year did not come true, but now I have a new one.

In order to celebrate together in 2021, we need policymakers to find common-sense solutions that bolster our economy while accounting for the challenges businesses like ours are facing.

If you’re reading this and a certain bar or restaurant comes to mind — a place where they know your name, know your drink and know your community — I urge you to contact your state representatives. Tell them to stand up for Maryland’s small bars and restaurants and, hopefully, we’ll be back celebrating together soon.

— JOHN MCMANUS

The writer is the owner of The Barking Dog in Bethesda.