Farewell, Cheers: Long Island’s shrinking population of neighborhood bars is getting remixed as proprietors use exotic cocktails, rotating craft beers and retro formats to pursue a new generation of drinkers.
Bar owners are re-imagining their businesses in a bid to capture Generation X and millennial drinkers who want something different. They are opening “speakeasies” — modeled after the secret bars of Prohibition — with false entryways, offering board and video games and riding a wave of interest in craft beers and unusual cocktails, some dating to the 1800s (absinthe, anyone?).
Bobby Gulinello, owner of bars in Bay Shore and West Sayville, is determined to connect to a new generation of patrons. He sets up snow makers on the roofs to simulate blizzards in the run-up to Christmas, holds rock, paper, scissors tournaments and douses the lights and TVs on “power failure” nights to get patrons mingling.
“Every single bar and restaurant sells Bud Light in a bottle,” he said. “Why do they come to me? It’s how you make them feel when they come.”
From 2000 to 2016, Long Island lost almost 40 percent of its “drinking places” — such as bars, taverns, lounges and other establishments focused on serving beverages — according to the state Department of Labor.
Factors squeezing Long Island bar owners have included an aging population, shifting consumer tastes and the Great Recession, which cut into patrons’ disposable income, analysts and bar owners said.
“Local pubs are dying out,” said Doug Brickel, co-owner of two Long Island speakeasies, who sold his stake in a neighborhood bar in Floral Park several years ago.
Jason Magnifico, owner of Lizard Lounge, a 15-year-old Bohemia bar and lounge, acknowledged that the business climate has gotten tougher.
“The bar business is not like it was 10 years ago,” he said. “It’s a lot more difficult.” To attract customers, Magnifico has staged board game nights, video game tournaments and cosplay contests, where customers dress up as fictional characters from movies or video games.
“It takes a lot more work to get people to come to a bar,” he said.
The decline in the number of bars and other drinking establishments makes clear that reaching out to a new generation of drinkers is a matter of survival. The state Labor Department put the number of Long Island drinking establishments at 336 in 2016 compared with 546 in 2000, a 38.5 percent decline.
Those numbers include bars, taverns, lounges, nightclubs, discothèques and tap rooms where alcoholic beverages are served for immediate consumption. Breweries and wineries, where making the beverage is the primary business, aren’t included on the list.
The decline in the number of bars has been steep in more recent years as well. From 2008 to 2016, Long Island registered a loss of 18.2 percent of its bars, more than double the 8.7 percent decrease in establishments nationwide registered by data from IBISWorld, an industry research firm based in Los Angeles.
Long Island Association chief economist John A. Rizzo said part of that decrease can be attributed to the Great Recession.
That economic slide from December 2007 to June 2009 and its aftermath cut into discretionary spending, he said. “In a downturn, when you’re a small mom-and-pop place, it’s hard to get a loan. They’re the most vulnerable.”
Long Island has 10.5 percent of the bars and other drinking establishments in New York State, slightly less than its share of the population. Upstate areas tend to have more bars per capita.
A report by IBISWorld said that bars nationwide also face a competitive threat from home consumption of alcohol.
Though per capita spending on alcohol has been rising at a rate of about 0.4 percent in recent years, consumers are “more selective” about spending their disposable incomes and “increasingly” are drinking alcoholic beverages at home rather than at drinking establishments, the report said.
Unlike the restaurant business, where giant chains such as McDonald’s, Olive Garden and Panera Bread operate, bars remain small and decentralized. The average annual revenue for each U.S. bar, tavern, lounge and night club business is estimated at $376,033 in 2017, according to IBISWorld.
A demographic headwind hitting Long Island bars particularly hard is the graying of the population. Alcohol consumption “tends to decline substantially” once a person reaches 65 years of age, according to a 2017 IBISWorld research report, and Long Island’s population is graying.
In Nassau County the percentage of people aged 65 and older increased 1.7 percentage points from April 2010 to July 2016, to 17 percent of the population, according to the Census Bureau. Suffolk saw an even sharper 2.5 percentage point increase, to 16 percent.
In 2013, the median ages for Nassau and Suffolk counties were 41.6 and 40.9, compared with the 38.2 median age for New Yorkers and 37.6 for Americans.
As the baby boomers’ presence in bars wanes, Gen Xers and millennials come to the fore.
“It’s generational,” said Chris Corbett, co-owner of two Cork & Kerry bars, in Floral Park and Rockville Centre. “Now you see the whole millennial thing coming into the craft cocktail scene.”
The LIA’s Rizzo said those millennials “may not drink as much as previous generations” and when they do drink, it may be wine and cocktails instead of beer.
Andrew Alvarez, an analyst at IBISWorld and a former Farmingdale resident, said economics sometimes dictates fewer nights out for young cocktail devotees.
“When you start to tag on the other responsibilities in your life, things like going out to a bar every weekend are not possible,” he said. Cocktail bars, where drinks may start at $10 and spiral upward, can drain a credit card.
To thrive, bars need to create an identity that attracts young patrons, said Kevin Gregory, creative director at AllDay Industry, a Manhattan hospitality consultancy.
“Trends like speakeasies with secret codes or difficult-to-find entrances is a perfect example,” he said. “They provide an experience that goes beyond the cocktail.”
In addition, the “complete experiences” help bars justify hefty cocktail prices, Gregory said.
Cork & Kerry co-owner Brickel said speakeasies tap the sensibilities of younger patrons. “We have done as well as we have in the current climate because people are looking for quality over quantity,” Brickel said.
Corbett said he sees the shift as part of a continuum that began with attention toward the sourcing of food.
That trend extended to beer and coffee and now has reached cocktails, he said.
Still, Corbett acknowledged, it takes effort to make a bar stand out.
“It’s harder for a bar to distinguish itself,” he said. “People are going out looking for more of an experience.”
At Cork & Kerry in Floral Park, that experience starts with a speakeasy entrance. Patrons looking for the bar, which opened in 2015, will initially find themselves inside The Roast coffee shop, which operates only during the day.
Push open a false wall in the back, however, and you’re inside a bar whose cocktail menu veers from a $12 Moscow mule (vodka, ginger beer and lime juice) to a Lucky #9 (milk-washed gin, acid-adjusted orange juice, orange blossom and sea salt, also $12) to “bespoke” cocktails created to order. Some drink recipes require a centrifuge.
Corbett and Brickel’s second Cork & Kerry location, in Rockville Centre, has no secret speakeasy entrance but is based in an 1860s-era house. A third location, with a false entryway through a “doorknob store” — a front that doesn’t actually sell anything — is planned for Farmingdale.
Vincent Minutella placed a big bet on the microbrewery culture when he opened the Black Sheep Ale House in 2011.
In 2010, he bought O’Donnell’s Pub, an Irish pub in Mineola “that was doing very well.” To put his stamp on the business, he did extensive renovations and increased the number of taps from five to 25.
“I said, ‘I’m going to take this thing I bought and throw it in the trash and basically start over with a totally new concept,’” Minutella recounted.
The Black Sheep, with a customer base consisting largely of 25- to 35-year-olds, rotates its beers daily, runs a weekly trivia night and stages vinyl Mondays, where customers are invited to play vinyl records on turntables supplied by the bar.
“We get a wide variety of people here and there’s a lot of music buffs,” said Ian O’Connor, a bartender who, according to Minutella, came up with the vinyl idea.
Brix & Rye, a Greenport bar, takes an old-school approach to cocktails. “This time of year we make a lot of hot toddies,” said co-owner Evan Bucholz. “A few years ago, that was a grandma drink. Now you have millennials drinking hot toddies.” (Hot toddies have many variations; they are often made with whiskey, rum or brandy, hot water or tea, and honey.)
The Brix & Rye menu describes the historic background of drinks such as the $10 Sazerac (New Orleans, 1850), a drink made from rye, bitters and absinthe.
“You see people from a younger demographic drinking drinks from the 1700s,” he said.
Gulinello, owner of The Cortland in Bay Shore and the South Shore Dive Pub and Kitchen in West Sayville, said his pursuit of young drinkers has led him to offer a spiked hot cocoa bar ($10) on Sundays in December, and milkshakes with alcohol (also $10).
He said the snow machine on the roofs of his bars have a remote control that lets him time the flakes to when the musician starts singing “Let it snow . . . ”
Promotional campaigns are conducted strictly through social media, he said. “Any other advertising . . . is useless. I don’t think it does anything, especially when you’re trying to market to younger people.”
Though some bars compete for expert bartenders, Gulinello takes a different tack, choosing personality over mixology.
“We’ll hire people who have great personalities and have zero experience,” he said. “You can easily train people to pour liquid into cups . . . At the end of the day, you don’t need a PhD. People come . . . to interact with people.” With Victor Ocasio