‘How Can We Control Something We Can’t Control?’ A Baltimore Bar’s Quest for Survival

The Bluebird Bar Exterior
Photo by Justin Tsucalas

Prior to the pandemic, The Bluebird Cocktail Room & Pub in Baltimore was the furthest thing imaginable from the milkshake-and-cheeseburger popup joint patrons will find today.

Back then, the three-year-old bar carved its own ice and made its own bitters, shrubs and sodas to use in botanical cocktails inspired by Erasmus Darwin’s poem “The Loves of the Plants.” On busy weekend nights, drinkers patiently waited outside the Hampden row house where a neon sign lit the way to a cerulean hall with vaulted ceilings and glass chandeliers.

In spite of the rarefied atmosphere, the staff always made guests feel welcome, says Baltimore resident Ashlee Tuck, founder of Will Drink For Travel. She used to bring out-of-town guests to Bluebird because “I know I’m going to get a good drink.”

Now, however, the Bluebird staff prepares a selection of the bar’s most popular cocktails plus burgers, hot dogs and fries for dine-in or takeaway. It’s the third iteration the business has taken in the last seven months.

The Bluebird Bar burger
Photo by Justin Tsucalas

When Maryland legislators shut down dining in bars and restaurants due to the novel coronavirus pandemic on March 16, Bluebird owner Paul Benkert quickly started bottling many of their signature cocktails. These include the Daedalian, made with dandelion-infused tequila, Suze, dandelion and burdock bitters, and the vodka-based Vain Desires, with cucumber, elderflower, Persian lime and edible flowers sourced from a local farm.

The food menu consisted of small plates, salads and sandwiches like yellow lentil hummus and a short rib sandwich preserved from the less-formal downstairs pub the business had annexed last year.

In late June, the city allowed restaurants to reopen indoor dining at 50% capacity, and Bluebird welcomed customers back inside. Unfortunately, labor costs shot up while the bar took in less revenue with fewer seats, Benkert says. He and the staff had to focus much of their attention on the 25-seat patio, which didn’t have the same literary vibe or romantic appeal as the indoor bar.

When the city suspended indoor dining once again in July, Benkert knew it was time to pivot. “We were drowning,” he says. He remembers thinking, “This has been out of our control. How can we control something we can’t control?”

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Late summer, Benkert decided to create a menu with fewer variables and a streamlined cocktail list. He repositioned Bluebird as a burger-and-milkshake popup, cheekily titled Until Conditions Improve.

Checkered gingham print appears on the logo, serving tissue and the outdoor tablecloths, giving the venue a cohesive look. The menu features half a dozen burgers and hot dogs, including a beef burger made with dry-aged Roseda ribeye with Tuscan black truffle aioli and a lentil burger reminiscent of the once-popular yellow lentil hummus served in the bar months ago. Milkshakes come in boozy and non-alcoholic varieties, while the 10 cocktails include Bluebird’s greatest hits, including a twist on an old fashioned with house-made bitters and vanilla.

Indoor dining, which resumed in August, is available in the casual pub located on the lower level, but not in Bluebird’s 100-seat bar, where labor costs are tough to manage because of its size.

The Bluebird Bar Cocktails
Photo by Justin Tsucalas

While Until Conditions Improve is a departure from the old Bluebird, Benkert aims to retain some of the bar’s hallmarks, like the upscale gastropub menu and a cohesive look.

“We wanted it to feel like something that was fun and approachable, as opposed to just like, Oh the Bluebird has a few tables outside… We didn’t think that was good enough,” says Benkert. “We saw other restaurants doing pop ups and I just really thought that it was time for us to pivot in a new direction.”

The concept also feeds into the nostalgia some people crave during this exceedingly uncertain era. Benkert can relate to this. He loved trips to Johnny Rockets as a kid, he says. And he’d always wanted to run a burger spot similar to Shake Shack, though he never imagined Bluebird would transform into one.

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Tuck welcomes the new look at Bluebird. “I think they’ve done a great job with this pivot. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the menu,” she says.

Still, some staff members hope to return to the old Bluebird someday. “I’m looking forward to having people upstairs again,” says bar manager Ben Poole. “It’s such a special feeling to me. I can’t wait to have that again and share that with people.”

Wine Enthusiast is spotlighting the bars, bottle shops and individuals affected by the coronavirus pandemic, and what they’re doing to weather the crisis. Find more at Business of Bars.

Published on October 16, 2020
Topics: Latest News