As some office workers return, Happy Hour sees a wobbly comeback

With the shaky return of the workers to the office comes the shaky return of happy hour.

The second-floor bar at the Beer Authority in Times Square was almost full when Peter Torres and Jimmy Pazan, both 29, walked in on a Wednesday night last month, only to find two open stools in the corner facing a television. . Broadcasting sports highlights.

The two, who were hired by a Midtown bank during the pandemic and began returning in person over the past year, had just finished their workday.

“After a particularly tough day at the branch, we went out,” said Pazan, whose drink of choice is a whiskey and ginger ale.

“It’s not planned; it just happens,” said Mr. Torres, who prefers a Stella.

With more than 40 people at the bar, general manager Aoife Canny said it was slower than it had been in weeks.

Even as companies struggle to coax workers back to the office, some bars are reporting that the weekday happy hour, an institution that has been around since the 1930s, is reaching a semblance of pre-pandemic times. With office occupancy nationwide averaging 41 percent, less than half the pre-pandemic level of 99 percent, according to workplace safety firm Kastle Systems, central business districts are emptier than in 2019.

Still, those who are back in the office return to the bar after work.

Melisa Rodriguez, 24, and Samaya Mayes, 22, employees of an events company in Midtown, joined about 10 colleagues for an impromptu happy hour at Beer Authority on a recent Wednesday. Your company returns to the office twice a week.

“It’s a nice break from concentrating on work,” Ms. Rodríguez said, adding that it offers a break between the workday and her commute home.

Ms. Mayes, who was recently hired, enjoys the company of her co-workers outside of the office. “It’s a time to be ourselves and not be uptight,” she said.

The pandemic closed some 90,000 bars and restaurants across the country in the past two years, according to the National Restaurant Association; establishments that survived or have since opened face fewer customers and inconsistent business as coronavirus cases in the United States hover around 110,000 a day, according to a New York Times database. And skyrocketing prices for gasoline, groceries and other goods have been “kind of a double whammy for happy hours, particularly where consumers may feel uncomfortable spending,” said Emily Moquin, food and beverage analyst at Morning Consult. .

At Jimmy’s Corner in Times Square, Adam Glenn, the owner, said that before the pandemic forced his bar to close for 18 months, the happy hour crowd would trickle in before most of the bars closed. Offices.

“If he wasn’t there at 5 o’clock, he probably wouldn’t get a seat,” Mr. Glenn said. “You would be standing and we would be full.” The bar has been in his family for 50 years.

But even as more offices reopen or require workers to return on some days, happy hour at Jimmy’s Corner still isn’t what it was before the pandemic.

“I would say that we are much closer than we were before and we are very happy with the number of things that have grown since we reopened in October,” said Mr. Glenn. “But it’s still not the same after-work, pre-theater audience that we used to have.”

Emptier offices have had a ripple effect in central business districts, Ms. Moquin said.

“These changing work schedules absolutely mean less business for bars and restaurants, less traffic to come through the door,” he said. “Those hybrid work schedules and those work-at-home schedules are having an impact.” Average monthly visits to a bar have faltered, at 1.5 in February and 1.2 in March, according to the latest data from Morning Consult.

Jimmy’s Corner has also faced what Mr. Glenn called “little bumps” in recent months, including Omicron’s winter surge and a wave of Broadway closings. Two musicals, “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Tina,” recently announced that they would end their runs this summer. Mr. Glenn said his happy hour didn’t have the same “consistency and predictability” as before.

Happy hours at 2Twenty2 Tavern in Chicago’s central business district have been closer to pre-pandemic normalcy in recent months, said Chris Mannos, owner. But unlike the Beer Authority and Jimmy’s Corner, “there are still people wearing masks inside and they still seem to be concerned about whatever’s going on with Covid,” he said.

In Cook County, which includes Chicago, at least one in five residents has been infected with the coronavirus (more than 1.2 million cases) since the pandemic began.

While some bars in the area shortened their hours or closed on certain days, 2Twenty2 Tavern did not, Mannos said.

“We’re a family business, so if we go under, it’s our entire livelihood,” he said. “We just polished this up, and I think it paid off.”

At Everson Royce Bar in Los Angeles, general manager Jason Moore said large groups had begun to return for happy hour, including a 50-person outing from Spotify.

“You can definitely tell the difference from the beginning of the year, when everyone was still a little scared about the newer variant,” said Mr. Moore, who books large groups for the bar.

Happy hours at the bar have ranged in size, from a few co-workers showing up for drinks to large groups calling to reserve tables, Moore said.

He added that this summer, Everson Royce Bar was expecting even larger groups of people for after-work drinks.

“This summer is going to take off,” he said. “We are going to see pre-pandemic numbers, if not greater than pre-pandemic numbers, just because more and more people are holding back.”

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