Reopening Diary II: Occidental Gets Back to Business

Sean Kenyon
Occidental added plexiglass barriers atop its bar.
This is the second installment in Sean Kenyon's "Reopening Diary," on the return of Occidental. Read the first installment here.

Monday, June 8: Two Days to Reopening

I woke up feeling equally excited and nervous. Excited that we were going to be able to take care of people again, and nervous about how to keep everyone, including our staff, safe. The first order of the day was our Occidental manager meeting; we did it via Zoom, as we have for the past twelve weeks. Our GM, Saydee Hopkins, went through a checklist of things to get done before opening the doors on Wednesday, June 10, at 5 p.m.: equipment checks (we had already done most of that); more cleaning; small repairs; menu fine-tuning; signage; tightening up our table sanitization protocols, guest safety and seating policies; and staff-safety procedures. Tasks were laid out and assigned. I was on the signs, table tents, getting the menu online, building the "sneeze guards" on the bar and also managing a large catering order/online bartending class that we had that week. We discussed some of the challenges that colleagues who had already opened were having in their establishments — difficult guests, reduced hours, turning tables, etc. — and how we would face them. I promised that I would be on site at all times and would deal directly with any guests refusing to wear masks and therefore willing to endanger our staff or other guests.

After the meeting, I met with our contractor who would be pouring the new outdoor patio. We (fortunately) sold our food truck in early March and pivoted to doing all of the food for Occidental and Williams & Graham out of our main kitchen. That left us a 25-by-20-foot space to create a new patio. The patio was going to be dredged and poured by Friday so that we could have guests on it by June 17. We will need this extra space, as our capacity is limited by safety standards and distancing rules. After the meeting, I went to the hardware store to pick up wood and plexiglass to build the barriers for the bar.

Tuesday, June 9: One Day to Reopening

Woke up early, created some of the signage that we needed to open: signs about mask-wearing, moving tables, etc. We want to have signage and information everywhere, because a confused guest easily becomes an angry guest. But we wanted to present them in a way that the new rules didn’t seem overwhelming. So we decided to be a bit cheeky.

After I created the signs, I sent them off to the printer, grabbed my brother Jim, who is a bartender at W&G, and headed to the workshop of Justin Anthony (my friend and business partner at American Bonded) to cut the wood to six-inch slotted blocks to support the plexiglas (see photos). Then we headed to Occidental to install the barriers/sneeze guards. Our management staff was all there cleaning and organizing. Carlos, our contractor, had already broken ground on the new lower patio. He’s been a godsend, and his work will allow us to survive the summer. After the install, we assembled to catch up on remaining tasks for the next day. We were feeling pretty prepared and everyone was excited to make this reopening happen. We planned to meet at 3 p.m. the next day to talk through the guest procedures.

click to enlarge Signs let Occidental guests know the rules. - SEAN KENYON
Signs let Occidental guests know the rules.
Sean Kenyon
Wednesday, June 10: Reopening Day

The plan for the day was to put together our catering order with our chefs, batch and bottle the cocktails early in the morning, deliver the order, pick up the signage at the printer, get our menu online, have a pre-shift meeting and open the doors. Well, you know what Robert Burns said about the best-laid plans…

It started with our catering order. We got our final numbers a week ago and ordered the containers. The company assured me that the order would arrive two days earlier. Well, I received notification that the package was delivered and went to go pick it up at my house. My wife told me that an envelope had arrived for me, but I was expecting three boxes. It turns out that the company I ordered from had sent me only seventeen of the 1,100 two-ounce bottles that I had ordered (but they did include a religious tract in the woefully short envelope). So along with Brandon and Grant, our chefs, we researched and found compostable containers that we could use, and then ordered them for pick-up.

By the time I was back from the warehouse, we were two hours behind. While I batched the cocktails, Brandon, Grant and Jim (with some help from Saydee and Todd, our co-owner) packed up 170 boxes with seven containers inside each one. Once packed, I went to deliver the boxes — but there was an “active shooter” by our destination, and the police turned us around. Eventually, the situation was handled and we were able to deliver. Suffice it to say, at this point things weren’t exactly going as planned. It was 3:30 and I still had to get the menu online, pick up the signs and be on site for pre-shift. So I raced around (I may have ignored a few traffic laws) and made it back by 4:40; our opening was at 5. We got the signage posted, and Saydee, who had handled everything else up to that point, had us covered. Our plan was that Todd would work the door (check IDs and do temporal scans) and I would work the floor, taking everyone to their seats and explaining the mask policy (can be off while at their table, but needs to be on when a server approaches or when they leave the table for any reason). Typically at Occidental, we allow people to seat themselves, but now we would be seating everyone much like we do at Williams & Graham. One bartender (Kelli) and one barback (my brother Jim) would handle the drinks (fairly easy with fourteen tables), and we'd have two servers (Saydee and Kenny) and a sanitization float (Audrey). Audrey would be in charge of clearing, sanitizing and resetting every table.

click to enlarge Big Brother is watching you drink. - SEAN KENYON
Big Brother is watching you drink.
Sean Kenyon
At 5 p.m., we had a line around the building. It was amazing to see so many familiar faces counting the minutes until we re-opened. We were at capacity within the first thirty minutes. As we were seating, I realized that I hadn't put the menu online in time; in all of the rushing around, I had dropped that ball. And although our menu was up on chalkboards, we didn’t have a printed menu designed and ready. So once we had sat the room, I had to step off of the floor and quickly design and print our menu on paper. With me off of the floor, Audrey had to pull double duty and seat and flip tables. It was a bit too much for one person to handle, but she was getting the job done. When I came back onto the floor, I just jumped in and didn’t properly communicate with either the door or Audrey, and I caused some confusion and more stress. I swear, with only three months off, I felt like I had never done this before. The rust was showing.

I realized where we were heading and coordinated with Audrey and Todd, and we got on track; at this point, it was 6:30. Throughout this hectic first hour and a half, they never lost their excitement and great attitudes. To us, it felt clusterfucky™, but our guests were all happy. We paused for a team-building moment (aka a round of shots), and our night continued to improve.
click to enlarge Fast Times at Occidental. - SEAN KENYON
Fast Times at Occidental.
Sean Kenyon
Every hour was better than the one before. I nearly derailed our night, but our crew was too strong to let it happen. They lifted me up that day, and I am proud to work alongside them all. We had a few guests who were “mask deniers,” but we were clear and firm on our policy: If they wanted to come in, they had to wear a mask and keep it on when required. We closed at 11 p.m. and regrouped; we made notes and adjustments so that we could improve for the next day’s service. We were all exhausted but elated.

We couldn’t wait to be back the next day.

Sean Kenyon, owner of Williams & Graham, at 3160 Tejon Street; Occidental, at 1950 West 32nd Avenue; and American Bonded, at 2706 Larimer Street, is a longtime Westword contributor and the author of our Behind the Bar series.