When Kendra Anderson opened Bar Helix in Denver in October 2017, it was “just a fun, sexy little bar,” she says. It had an intimate ambiance, served Negroni variations and Champagne alongside small plates, and received immediate love from the community and local press.
Sadly, the cozy intimacy that turned Bar Helix into an early favorite has made 2020 all the more difficult, Anderson says. “The concept being what it was just didn’t vibe with Covid.”
On March 17, Denver bars were ordered to close to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Three days later, Colorado legalized to-go drinks, and Bar Helix, like bars across the country, shifted focus.
Anderson compares reconfiguring Bar Helix in the first few months of the pandemic to making decisions in purgatory. Takeout kept the bar open, and Anderson busy as ever, in April and May; but the menu was different, and takeout only brought in 10-20% of the bar’s typical monthly revenue.
“When you’re in that scenario, there’s not as much of an emphasis on what you’d like to do,” says Anderson. “It’s more like what you have to do to keep things going.”
So, when bars were allowed to reopen with limited capacity in June, she pivoted. Though a better term would be a “panic-pivot,” Anderson says, because pivot suggests the luxury of time for contemplation.
On June 17, Anderson announced Cabana X at Bar Helix, a tropical pop-up on a nearby outdoor patio. The summer-long concept featured regularly changing food and drink menus with tropical themes like Tulum, Phuket and Rio de Janeiro.
“It took us two weeks to get this thing open, from ideation to operation,” Anderson says. “That’s insane. Not normal. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.”
She created Cabana X almost entirely from scratch in that condensed time period, complete with a new reservation and POS system plus furniture and menus. Anderson hired seven people in addition to the two staff members who helped with takeout early in the pandemic, Samuel Barraza and Christine LeMieux. The constantly-changing Covid guidelines made their already difficult task even more draining, she says.
“There’s real fatigue. There’s mask fatigue, there’s protocol fatigue. I think that needs to be acknowledged” —Kendra Anderson, Bar Helix
Still, in many ways, the panic-pivot to Cabana X worked. Early positive press from a media-and-influencer night helped, and Anderson believes the rotating themes kept people coming back. She estimates that only around 25% of Cabana X guests were Bar Helix regulars — an outdoor, tropical-themed patio is far from a cozy lounge with a DJ — but Anderson was able to find a new audience.
“I think it just spoke to people,” Anderson says. “They wanted a vacation and we gave it to them.”
Alexis Khemili had originally interviewed for a position with Bar Helix before the pandemic, after moving to Denver from New York. Bars were forced to close before she got to work at Bar Helix, and she was still looking for work when Cabana X opened and Anderson brought her on.
“It was pouring rain the first week,” Khemili says. “I kept thinking they would call me off, but they didn’t. It was so busy I couldn’t even see straight.”
Khemili adds that tips could sometimes be discouraging, and many people don’t understand the risks for people in the industry. Still, some would put on masks when she approached their table, and she felt lucky to be primarily located behind the bar.
Barraza, who worked in the kitchen, has noticed some people seem more appreciative of bar and restaurant staff.
“Before, they thought of restaurants as entry-level jobs,” Barraza says. “Now, people start noticing. There’s more praise, more thanks. Sometimes, a 15-minute wait doesn’t seem so bad.”
Cabana X was originally planned for around eight weeks, and was extended for another six. The patio pop-up closed on October 10.
“I think part of the pivot-slash-panic was achievable because it didn’t feel like a commitment,” says Anderson. “Now, it feels like whatever we’re doing is for the foreseeable future. It’s much harder to wrap your head around that — especially now that we know what it takes.”
While Cabana X was successful, staying open these past months took a toll.
“There’s real fatigue. There’s mask fatigue, there’s protocol fatigue. I think that needs to be acknowledged in a way that I haven’t seen happen very much,” Anderson says.
She is taking some time to determine what will come next for Bar Helix. Options are limited, she says, but she has financial and legal obligations to do something with the business this winter.
“We’ll get through it, the world keeps spinning,” says Anderson. “But instead of feeling like it’s getting easier after six months, it just feels like it’s getting harder. So, we shall see.”
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.