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How the pandemic is affecting liquor stores, according to one shop owner

From bottom-shelf handles to fancy cocktail shakers, liquor stores have had a front-row seat to the phases of the coronavirus response.

Bottles of liquor on store shelves.
Liquor stores were deemed essential in nearly every state, early in the pandemic.
Getty Images/EyeEm

The Austin Shaker is a specialty liquor store. At its two locations around the Texas capital, customers can expect to find copper jiggers, jammy grenadine, and perfumy, highly limited liqueurs. But Kiki Litchfield, 41, who owns the store with her partner David Maguire, 42, says that in March and April, the thick glass jugs of Smirnoff and Jack Daniels were their biggest sellers. At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, when Texans weren’t sure how much longer their favorite booze emporiums would be open during a stay-at-home order, they regressed back to their old college favorites. There is no use for the top shelf in the age of Covid-19.

So Litchfield was relieved when the state of Texas deemed its liquor stores to be essential operations, and the Austin Shaker was allowed to serve customers — through curbside pickup and heavily masked store visits — throughout 2020. Instead of one big catastrophe, the store has navigated smaller hurdles common to the small businesses that remained open during the pandemic. For instance, Litchfield’s wholesale service has been decimated, simply because bars weren’t open to buy their product. Only now, she says, are things getting back to normal.

Litchfield and Maguire both worked as bartenders long before they managed liquor stores, and because of that, they are each still reeling from the sheer number of friends and former coworkers who’ve been laid off, furloughed, or simply haven’t been able to pick up a shift. Even as America gets back on its feet, the country has yet to fully calculate the magnitude of the economic carnage that Covid-19 has left behind. We talked about that, as well as the instructions they passed down to their employees to enforce social distancing measures, and what it was like to be caught between dueling policies from the Texas governor and the Austin mayor.

When did the pandemic start affecting your business?

It was when they canceled South by Southwest [on March 6,] and then it was on St. Patrick’s Day when they closed the bars. We didn’t know if they were going to deem us an essential business. We were looking at each other thinking, “We’re going to have to sleep in our stores to protect our business because if you take away the liquor stores and the bars there’s gonna be riots.” But the state gave us essential status, so the security of our business wasn’t as much of an issue.

Then the question became, “How do we make our employees feel comfortable? How are we going to be able to deal with Covid deniers who don’t want to wear a mask?” Every one of our employees has ups and downs, from feeling totally fine to being really worried because they’re in front of the public. Once the financial stability was determined, all of our questions became really emotional and personal.

What was it like to suddenly have to enforce some fairly stringent public health measures?

The people who came into the shops were understanding enough and wanted to follow the guidelines. For us it was like, “Okay, we need to have hand sanitizer everywhere. We need to have bleach wipes and do the counters all day. And the handles to all the coolers.” It was a lot more about us cleaning, and not as much about enforcing the rules, because everyone who came in has been really good about it. The city as a whole wanted to do the right thing.

Our biggest challenge was pivoting to curbside delivery, because it’s not secure to take a credit card over the phone. We don’t have an online store set up where people could do that. That’s not something we could build quickly.

What were the questions your staff was asking you at the beginning of all this?

Right when it first started, there was so much [conflicting] information about how Covid spread. “It’s airborne,” “You can get it from a surface,” all that stuff. The internet was telling you a thousand different things about the virus. So our staff was like, “Can I get it from touching a bottle after someone else touched a bottle?”

We were trying to figure out the facts from the fiction. And also, are we able to tell people, “No, sorry, you can’t come in because you don’t have a mask on”? We were like, “Of course we can.” This is a liquor store, we have the right of refusal. In non-Covid times, we’re still able to tell people, “You don’t have an ID, or you’ve already been drinking, you can’t buy this booze.” If you’re coming into a liquor store, you already understand that. [Currently, the scientific consensus is that Covid-19 is seldom spread through surfaces.]

Texas famously opened up long before other states did. Austin, though, is known for being a more progressive city in the state. Was there any tension between the two governments? Was the city of Austin and the state of Texas telling you contradictory things about how to deal with the coronavirus?

It was just confusing. It’s disheartening to look at the mayor of Austin and the governor of Texas and see the animosity between the two. It was like, “Well, the mayor is saying this, the governor is saying this, so what exactly are we supposed to do?” You’d want them to come together and make a plan and be very clear and concise, but that absolutely didn’t happen, and it still isn’t happening. We were trying to be, “Let’s just try to do what’s best for society” — regardless of the bickering going on in the government.

How did your clientele change while bars were closed?

The couple weeks before liquor stores were deemed essential, it was a mad rush. We’re a specialty liquor store, and we saw people drop off from the fancy stuff. People were like, “I like Maker’s Mark, and I’m going to buy a half gallon. Because I know I’m going to be in my house for at least the next month.”

But once everyone knew that liquor stores were going to stay open, then it went back to almost normal. Also, our bar tool sales were substantially higher than usual. Customers were like, “If I’m going to be home, I’ll need a jigger to pour a balanced cocktail.”

You also supply bars with a wholesale service, how did that change when bars closed?

We made the decision to sell everything we had for wholesale because nobody was buying wholesale when everything was closed. But now, it’s getting weird financially. All the bars are reopened in some capacity, and we’ve sold all of their supply. Now it’s like, “Oh shit, we need to get all of these liters back.” We’re getting these huge wholesale orders, and we need to get that back up to speed.

You and your partner are both former bartenders. When everything was shut down, do you think that gave you an added sympathy for the Austin bartending community?

David and I both worked at bars for a lot longer than we owned liquor stores. I still consider the service industry as my industry. To see all of my friends lose their jobs, and seeing bars being villainized as the place where Covid is spread, it’s heartbreaking. And to see elected officials make the case that service workers didn’t deserve any help, you couldn’t print any of the words I want to say about it.