- Luke Awtry
- Matt Walters
The phone rang twice in a matter of minutes last Friday at the Archives, a Burlington bar and arcade. Both times, co-owner Matt Walters delivered the bad news.
"We don't have games on, mate, if that's what you're interested in," Walters told one of the callers before encouraging him to come by for a drink. "Just bring masks, though, OK?"
After hanging up, Walters, an Australian who's lived in Vermont for the better part of two decades, shook his head in frustration. "I feel like I'm selling all the time now," he said.
Along with a pandemic, Walters is dealing with an existential crisis: What, exactly, is a bar-arcade without its arcade? State-imposed conditions have changed how people can gather in bars. And, in a bid to keep college kids from spreading the coronavirus, the Burlington City Council last week passed rules that prohibit alcohol sales after 11 p.m., forcing watering holes to lose normally lucrative hours.
"I feel like it's political," Walters said of the city changes, which are in effect until at least September 14. "Their reasoning for doing this is completely wrong."
For the Archives, the hits keep coming during a year that started with promise. Business boomed during the usually quiet months of January and February, and, in early March, Walters was prepared to open a second location in Winooski. But the pandemic scuttled that plan and has imperiled the flagship College Street location, which opened in 2016.
"I'm watching the pennies every week to see where we're going and whether it's worth it," Walters said. Since March, "we haven't been positive yet."
That's when the coronavirus arrived in Vermont and Gov. Phil Scott ordered all bars and restaurants to close except for takeout. The Archives, which offers a cheese plate but no other food, created a to-go cocktail menu that Walters said was fairly successful.
With business halted, he laid off all 18 employees, including himself. He applied for a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan and received about $130,000. The money, plus a business grant from the State of Vermont, has allowed the Archives to partially staff up and reopen five days a week, as the governor eased restrictions on indoor and outdoor seating for bars and restaurants.
Walters made the decision to shut off the 38 arcade games, driven by the possibility that COVID-19 can be transmitted via surfaces. The idea of patrons trading off turns at Pac-Man or the Addams Family pinball machine was anxiety inducing.
Walters checked with Spare Time, a Colchester bowling alley, to see how it was handling cleaning and sanitizing, but he ultimately decided that continuing games was too risky.
"You don't think we'd make any money off quarter arcade games or 50-cent pinball machines, but we do," he said. "It's a big part of our revenue. We knew that by cutting that off, it was going to hurt. But it was the right decision."
Walters is unsure when he'll turn the games back on, though there's a silver lining to having them off: saving about $500 a month on his electric bill.
With half of its business model off-line, the Archives has turned full time to the drink-serving side. The pandemic hasn't made that easy.
With fewer customers, the bar offers 12 beers on tap — half the pre-pandemic offerings. Many of the Archives' creative cocktails use fresh fruit and vegetables, and stocking the right amounts has been challenging with shifting rules for operation, Walters said.
Inside, hand sanitizer dispensers dot the walls, and signs warn customers against standing at the long, concrete-topped bar; instead, servers bring drinks to the tables. Patrons must wear masks except when seated, and they're not allowed to visit other tables or mingle standing up. Staff sanitize tables and chairs between groups.
The city has closed College Street to vehicles on most Saturdays this summer, giving outdoor space to the local businesses. The Archives has been able to seat nearly 20 people outside, and the bar has partnered with Bento, a nearby sushi shop, that delivers right to the tables.
"We've got a lot of regulars, a lot of supporters that are trying to help us out," Walters said.
What keeps them coming back, he explained, is the quality service. While the environment is much lower-key than the business he had set out to run, Walters said he's proud of the way his staff has enforced the rules and kept everyone safe.
That's why he's especially upset by the city's early curfew for alcohol sales. Pre-pandemic, the Archives closed at 2 a.m.; in recent weeks, it's closed at 1 a.m. to give staff more time to clean.
Walters said the Archives draws mostly tourists and downtown workers who come by for a drink after a shift elsewhere. The city's decision penalizes businesses such as his that have complied with the governor's orders, he said.
Archives beverage director Sean McKenzie agreed, calling the measure "a really tone-deaf response.
"It seemed like the human impact wasn't really considered fully," he continued. "It seemed like they wanted a token public display of their concern, when I don't think this addresses the actual issue."
During the city council's virtual emergency meeting to consider the measure last Thursday, other bar owners and employees Zoomed in to lambaste the move. Some noted that the decision will push college kids to house parties that could quickly spread the disease in an unregulated environment. Liquor stores aren't subject to the early sales cutoff.
"College kids are going to party either way," Zach Ward, manager of Main Street bar Ruben James, told the council. "Bars provide a safe environment that's controlled, sanitized and has worked throughout the whole summer. So I don't see why we should be punished for ... following the regulations in keeping this thing at bay."
Mayor Miro Weinberger initially proposed cutting off booze sales at 10 p.m. through at least September 30, when the council would reconsider the restrictions. In a memo announcing the proposal, Weinberger noted, "Drinking alcohol in group settings such as at bars and student parties has contributed substantially to the spread of the virus in other cities."
Councilors ultimately allowed for an extra hour and promised to revisit the regulation on September 14.
Walters worries that the shrunken hours and loss of revenue will again force the Archives to lay off staffers. Last Friday, he hinted at abandoning Burlington altogether and setting up just one location, in Winooski. The games and bar are ready to go inside the Archives' rented space on the traffic circle.
Whatever the future holds, Walters said, he takes solace in the bar's loyal following and the sense of community among downtown businesses "who work damn hard."
"It's certainly brought me closer to a lot of restaurant and bar owners, because we're all feeling it," Walters said. "We all don't know what the outcome's gonna be of this."