Local bars hit hard by loss of St. Patty’s Day business

Local operators weigh in on impact of COVID-19

Milwaukee bars that normally do major business on St. Patrick's Day were quiet Tuesday.

Last updated on March 18th, 2020 at 03:54 pm

As preventative measures ramp up against COVID-19, local bars and restaurants sat empty on what’s typically one of the industry’s busiest and most lucrative days of the year.

Known for green beer, live music and large crowds, St. Patrick’s Day on Tuesday came this year at a most inopportune time for businesses that benefit most from the holiday.

On Monday and early Tuesday morning, 11 communities including Milwaukee issued an emergency order restricting food and beverage sales to carry-out and delivery service, shutting down bars and restaurants to the public (if they hadn’t already) and putting many service-industry jobs in jeopardy.

In announcing the order, Milwaukee County executive Chris Abele’s office noted it was put in place ahead of St. Patrick’s Day, which usually attracts large groups to bars and restaurants.

“For some bars, St. Patrick’s Day can be 10 percent of their annual income and in many cases it’s more than that,” said Sharon Ward, secretary and treasurer of the Milwaukee County Tavern League and a former bar owner herself.

She said St. Patrick’s Day is up there with Halloween and New Year’s Eve as the local industry’s biggest days.

“We plan for months, this is not something we thought of last week,” Ward said. “It’s purchase of products, scheduling extra employees, all of that. It’s huge.”

For County Clare Irish Inn & Pub on Milwaukee’s East Side, the restriction meant losing $50,000 the pub would typically make in food and beverage sales during St. Patrick’s Day.

“It covers all of our expenses for the first quarter, which is a typically slow quarter for hotels and bars and restaurants in Milwaukee,” said Dennis Radtke, CEO of Harp and Eagle Limited, the bar’s operator. 

“It’s a devastating closure and it couldn’t have happened at a worse time.”

Harp and Eagle operates four other Irish bars, in Waukesha, Kenosha, Green Bay and De Pere. As of Tuesday, those communities had not ordered bars and restaurants to close, but were under state order to limit capacity to no more than 50 people.  

Although only one of its bars was closed to the public on Tuesday, sales across the board were expected to be “tiny” compared to any other St. Patrick’s Day, said Radtke. As a result, the company on Tuesday morning laid off 35 of County Clare’s 40 employees. 

“We’re trying to keep the business viable until this passes, but we can’t keep people on the payroll if we have no income,” he said.

In the meantime, the business plans to serve up free meals to laid-off employees and their families, and customers have donated gift cards for necessities.

Moran’s Pub in South Milwaukee was faced with similar challenges as the business this year celebrated its 24th St. Patrick’s Day– its first without customers.

The holiday typically brings hundreds of patrons into the bar and generates a month or two months worth of sales in one day, said owner James Moran, who took over the business from his stepmom and dad about four or five years ago. The pub had recently hit its stride thanks to efforts to attract a younger clientele.

“It’s a big hit…” Moran said. “But at the end of the day, it could be a lot worse for me, if I have to shut down for a few weeks to a month.”

His employees are a larger concern. Most of them have full-time professional jobs, but others are depending heavily on their hours at the bar. Moran said he’ll continue supporting those employees with odd jobs around the bar, such as painting or minor improvements.

Moran’s did well over the weekend while it was open for St. Patrick’s Day celebrations and was able sell a portion of the thousands of dollars worth of alcohol that was purchased for the holiday.

And customers could still order food for curbside pickup. The bar partnered with local food truck Rose Mob Grill, which prepared a full menu of Irish fare using family recipes. James’ parents made the food in-house for the past 23 years. The food truck parks at the pub on Fridays and will continue to do so despite the closure.

The fact that St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Tuesday and during many college’s spring break this year may have softened the blow for some bars, said Mike Vitucci, who owns Uncle Bucks on Old World Third Street, Izzy Hops Swig & Nosh on the East Side, and Murphy’s and Caffrey’s on Marquette University’s campus.

“The impact is not as great as it would be if it felt on a Friday or Saturday, so there’s a blessing behind that,” he said.

But he said restaurants are still missing out on business brought by patrons that would have gone out anyway for lunch or dinner to enjoy Irish fare.

Vitucci said he’s grateful the annual Shamrock Shuffle bar crawl earlier this month was a huge success for Uncle Bucks and a number of other downtown bars.

“The weather was amazing and people came out in good spirits, and it was a weekend,” he said. “I’m happy for those that did well during it because it’s going to help them pay their bills.”

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Maredithe Meyer covers restaurants, retail, tourism, and sports and entertainment. She joined BizTimes in 2015, previously as an intern reporter. She earned a degree in journalism from Marquette University in 2017. When she's not on the job, Maredithe coaches field hockey and loves exploring her favorite city on earth, Milwaukee.

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