Progressing through the Pandemic: The Gin Mill by Evan Shirreffs
Updated: Aug 17, 2020
Situated in the heart of South End on South Tryon Street lies a bar that has built a lively, electrifying reputation for itself. Established in 1927, The Gin Mill has been at its current location in Charlotte for over two decades and has become a must-visit for late night emphatics seeking a buzzing social scene and one of the best dance floors in the area. Despite its strong historical performance, the current pandemic has thrown a lot of uncertainty at the bar, leaving The Gin Mill owners wondering the best ways to mitigate the recent challenges presented to preserve the bar’s identity. I spoke with majority owner, John Ellison, to get a deeper look at current issues and expectations for the coming months.
As with most others in the hospitality industry, The Gin Mill reopened on May 23rd, the first possible day to open back up. The reason was clear: you need to be open to make money. With this reopening, however, came a myriad of challenges.
Fake News: The first weekend it reopened, pictures of a long line outside of The Gin Mill surfaced. People were not socially distancing in the line, and due to its location on one of the most prominent streets in South End, The Gin Mill had more eyes on it than the common bar. Despite following social distancing and capacity restrictions within the bar itself, The Gin Mill was painted out to be breaking regulations. Upon further investigation, this actually had nothing to do with the bar itself. The sidewalk is public property, so although the line was technically for the bar and appears to be under its jurisdiction, the bar has no power to enforce social distancing rules until people set foot inside.
Surrounding Bar Closures: Although The Gin Mill decided to open back up its doors, some neighboring spots like Brickyard and Slate have yet to resume operations. This has had a clear effect on the sheer number of people flocking to this block in South End. Furthermore, Amos’ South End, a music venue attached to The Gin Mill, still does not have the ability to host any live concerts. A lot of walk-ins would come to the bar looking for a bite to eat before shows or a late night spot following performances.
Table-Only Service: Although this may not be the biggest revenue hit, table-only service has caused a bit of an identity crisis for The Gin Mill. It is known for its social atmosphere, dance floor, and live performances that bring strangers together to form new friendships. We can all agree that opening a dance floor is a terrible idea during a pandemic, so trying to preserve the reputation of The Gin Mill has been greatly affected by table-only service that does not allow mingling between separate parties.
Marketing: A big question that has been raised is whether to create promotional deals or post anything on social media. With the constantly changing state of regulations pertaining to capacity, curfew, at-bar service, etc., The Gin Mill feels like the only real marketing it can do is let people know that it’s still open.
Despite these clear challenges, The Gin Mill has kept churning with the help of a few ideas that have attempted to offset ill effects of the pandemic.
Low Overhead: A huge advantage that comes with being in the same location for over two decades is a lower leasing cost. Owners are thankful that these costs have been lesser in comparison to some of the surrounding businesses who recently took root in a booming South End.
Food Service: Personally, the first time I actually got food at The Gin Mill was during this pandemic. Surprisingly, food service has stayed about the same as tables are still filling up and to-go orders are being placed. Although profit margins tend to be higher for alcohol sales compared to food sales, there has not been a huge hit to revenue as customers are still ordering drinks with meals.
Extension of Premises: Possibly the biggest saving grace for The Gin Mill has been its rooftop bar combined with an extension of service into an adjacent parking lot. The rooftop allows those looking for a not so apocalyptic night out to still have a semi-normal bar experience. Added park benches in the parking lot has been a luxury that most bars don’t have, enabling additional food and beverage service that partly offsets capacity limitations.
With the extension of Phase 2 of COVID-19 protocol until the second week of September, The Gin Mill simply has to keep weathering the storm. The bar was turning a profit for most of the summer, but with PPP loans (which have mostly covered payroll and rent) set to run out in October, another extension of Phase 2 will only raise more concerns for the business. For now though, they are taking it day-by-day, as most in the industry are, waiting for the days to come back when the dance floor is popping, drinks are flowing, and lively spirits are back for an inevitably great night in South End.
Evan Shirreffs, MBA is a Business Analyst with WIMS Consulting a full-service marketing and sales agency operating primarily in Charlotte, NC and Miami, FL. WIMS has a service line dedicated to assisting restaurants, breweries, and bars with growing and scaling called LDR BRD.