We Will Recover Spotlight: Fireside Bar
Fireside Bar owner, Lisa Merrall, set down roots in the Inner Sunset two decades ago. And those roots have, over time, run deep into the community keeping her and the bar connected with the neighborhood. No doubt, that is part of the secret sauce which continues to keep her business alive and well. It’s clear that she is equally dedicated to the health and well-being of her staff and the community. We chatted about her experience as a San Francisco business owner during the pandemic.
How would you describe Fireside Bar?
Fireside Bar sits in one of San Francisco's distinct neighborhoods. The Inner Sunset is a tight-knit neighborhood and Fireside acts as one of the social hubs. We’ve been around for 20 years. Recently, we built a parklet. While it was being built, lots of neighborhood folks and merchants came out and cheered us on. The merchants in the neighborhood have come together during the pandemic. This has led to supportive business relationships. So now we food partner with Pasquale's Pizzeria. They’ve been family-run since the 1950s. In fact, a lot of the businesses nearby have been around for many years.
How have you adapted your business during the COVID-19 pandemic?
We’ve made several changes. One big change is that we moved to outdoor service only. We discovered that to serve alcohol outside, we also need to serve food. In particular, pizza. We don’t make any money from serving the pizzas we order from Pasquale's. We provide this service to customers so that we can stay open to the community.
Another change is more stringent safety protocols. We developed these protocols based on the safety guidelines from the City. We created a cleaning schedule for the outdoor serving areas and the bathroom. And we take customers' temperatures before they come inside to use the bathroom. The down-side is that it can be so cold outside that some peoples’ temperatures have been 89 degrees (laughs).
Of course, we wash our hands after making drinks. And we wear gloves to ensure everybody’s safety. There are four hand sanitizing stations. They are everywhere! And everybody’s wearing masks.
It’s been a challenge getting people to wear their masks consistently. Staff takes it as a sign of respect when customers wear their masks. Fortunately, our clientele is, for the most part, respectful with about 90% wearing them. We appreciate that customers support us and our well-being by wearing masks. And we wear masks to help keep them safe and healthy.
As diligent as we are about reminding people to put their masks on, that doesn’t mean they always will. You can’t make someone do something.
We find that in general though, San Franciscans are responsible and wear masks. They understand science. At the same time, people are tired and long for that social connection. Still we have to keep up the boundaries of distancing and masks until it’s safe to remove them.
What steps have you taken to make your business safe for customers?
We wipe down all the chairs and tables every turnover (between customers). And sanitize every high-touch surface.
We utilized a lot of safety information when we reopened the first time in October. We emailed staff what we gathered, then had a Zoom meeting where we went over all the information. The entire staff participated in making a plan to stay safe.
In the pre-COVID days, there was one bartender on at a time, serving inside only. Now we have two bartenders during open hours. One making drinks, the other doing table service. And both are responsible for cleaning and sanitizing the bar.
Since it’s still safer for everyone to be outside, we built a parklet. It holds four 6-tops and two 2-tops, plus a couple of seats at the rail overlooking the street.
What steps have you taken to make your business safe for staff?
Staff takes safety measures very seriously. They take each other’s temperatures when they arrive at work. They wear masks, most double mask. They stay six feet apart from others at all times, behind the bar, and on the floor. And they are constantly washing their hands and using hand sanitizer. Gloves and masks are always available. Staff safety is a priority and is part of the reason we have outdoor service only right now. Our staff is diligent about everyone’s safety.
What can customers do to stay safe and keep your staff safe?
Keep their masks on, and no hugging us (laughs). People sometimes forget about needing to keep their distance. But they do remember to give each other an elbow instead. My friendly motto is “Stay over there. I love you, distance please.”
Customers can help everyone by keeping their masks on when not eating and between sips. And put their masks on when we approach their table. This is a hard-won habit. We’re getting there, but it’s not quite second nature to put a mask on. For the safety of yourself, those around you, and staff, have your mask available to put on at all times. It’s really a privilege to go out and socialize. Be safe, if not for yourself, for everyone else. It’s worth it to keep your community safe.
Have you been able to retain your staff throughout the pandemic?
Yes, some. Some staff have moved away. Some staff have health issues and have chosen not to return. Several staff that left had worked at Fireside for a long time. So it’s been a lot of changes, some difficult. Fortunately, we do have a new bartender. We are still open limited hours, so we don’t have enough hours for everyone to come back right now.
It has been tough for staff financially. Luckily, some staff were fortified with a bit of savings. Even though they all applied for EDD, that department had its challenges. Some staff had to wait a while to get unemployment, so a GoFundMe was set up. It mainly supported those staff members whose pockets weren’t as deep. For now, everyone is staying in touch and hanging in there. Some are planning on returning when it’s safe to be indoors. One bartender, for example, has type 2 diabetes and won’t return until vaccinated.
For many of us, it’s difficult to reinvent your skill set. You know, I started bartending during college and now own a bar. My husband is a photographer. We both have only worked in those roles. Both industries shut down for months, so it’s been a tough time.
Have you had to pause or cease certain services?
Yes, we closed from March to the end of October. We made the best use of that time for minor improvements inside. We expanded shelving, cleaned stuff out, and reorganized the space. But that only took two of the 10 months that we were shut down. We came back to a lot of dust. So we took the opportunity to do a deep cleaning.
Have you created new services during this time to support customers and your business?
Yes, we provide food and outdoor service in the newly built parklet. Customers are grateful to have a place to sit outside. They’re not comfortable sitting indoors yet. Before reopening Feb 11, 25% indoor capacity was allowed. But staff was not comfortable serving indoors, so we kept service to outdoors. We all made the decision together to stick with outdoor service for the time being. We weren’t mentally prepared to have people indoors yet.
What advice do you have for other shops trying to keep their business healthy and everyone safe?
I feel like we’re all just winging it. For me, I make sure that my staff and customers are comfortable. And do what I can to ensure that everybody stays as safe as possible. Different businesses have different protocols. I think we’re all just doing our best to stay in business, do right by staff and customers, stay safe, and encourage each other’s businesses. For now, we can all continue to support local, small businesses.
Have you or your staff received any support from the City, State, or other government agency? (grants, loans, advice/consultation, PPE, etc.)
We received one grant, the Shared Spaces program, to offset the cost of building the parklet. We applied for all the grants, but only received that one.
We also took a small PPE loan, but we’ve barely been open enough to make use of it. We haven’t had a lot of financial help from outside resources. Except for our landlord, he has been very understanding.
Any interactions with customers (or others) during the pandemic that are particularly meaningful to you or other members of the team?
We all hear people saying the same thing. They are so grateful to have a familiar place to come back to. A place to safely gather outside, masked and distanced, to see friends. They are all so grateful for it. And we’re grateful to see them too. It’s been a drought of socializing. So, to have some normalcy, even an hour out of their day, it’s been a great boon for them and for us.
I would go so far to say that many of us have a sense of purpose again. It’s been so clear during this time that the bar is a social hub, especially for people who live alone. This is their social circle. Seeing an old friend that they haven’t seen in a long time, you can tell that it warms their heart. I know it’s just a bar, but it serves an important function. We’ve developed a bond for these people and count on hearing from them, and they count on you to be a social outlet. It’s a tiny place in the world, but for them it’s a slice of life where the bar and our staff are greatly valued.
What do you miss most and look forward to doing/offering when we are out of the pandemic?
Life simply going back to normal. That old life when we were so busy. I long for it. I’m looking forward to the kids going back to school and learning stuff. Going to work, and just resuming a normal life. It’s hard to imagine when normal will return, but I’m confident we’ll get there.
Since we began our conversation, San Francisco is moving into the orange tier and some capacity restrictions lifted on March 25. How are things going?
As of April 15, we reopened indoor service. We could have done so sooner, but waited until we had some new safety measures in place and that all of our staff were fully vaccinated and comfortable with the return to indoor service. We no longer serve pizza outside, but it was so popular with our customers, and the collaboration with Pasquale's Pizzeria so rewarding, that we now offer pizza inside. We continue to adapt to provide a safe and inviting environment for our community.
We thank Lisa and the entire staff at Fireside Bar for their dedication to keep our community safe and their spirits up. Find out more about Fireside Bar by calling 415.731.6433. Fireside Bar is located at 603 Irving Street at 7th Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94122.
Our ongoing collective efforts against the spread of COVID-19, including our effective and equitable vaccination campaign, are safely reopening San Francisco. Go ahead and visit our vital retail businesses. Whether you are fully vaccinated or not, continue to follow safety protocols: wear a mask fully covering nose and mouth and snug at the sides, maintain safe social distance, keep interactions short, wash/sanitize your hands frequently, and don’t share food or other items. Many businesses and services reopened or expanded service (with appropriate health and safety protocols). Go ahead and finally get that haircut, manicure, tattoo, or gym/fitness session that you crave. You can even sit indoors (although outdoors is the safest choice) and be served delicious food from diverse cultures. If you order take-out, do so directly through the restaurant. You will save delivery costs and the restaurant won’t be charged multiple fees from online delivery services. Our unique local businesses are eager to share their services with you. Give them a visit. Stay local, shop local, and give local. Support the City you love. Together, we are recovering from COVID-19. sf.gov/WeWillRecover, shopdine49.com