How to Stop Being a Bar Owner

By Kendra Anderson, owner of the now-closed Bar Helix, Denver

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Bright red Negroni cocktail with piece of orange in glass on black background
Bar Helix, Denver's only Negroni bar, is one of many victims of the pandemic. / David Cabrera Navarro © 123RF.com
Smiling Black woman wearing black blazer and jeans.
Kendra Anderson shuttered Bar Helix in November 2020. / Courtesy Kendra Anderson

Hi. My name is Kendra. And I’m a recovering bar owner.

It’s been more than 60 unintentional days since our last service at Cabana X @ Bar Helix, the unplanned restaurant I created in response to an unexpected global pandemic. Every one of those 60 days has been unimaginably challenging because I have been forced to navigate the process of reorienting my entire world, which just 60-some days ago, revolved 99 percent around being a bar owner. 

I don’t mean challenging in an I can’t get out of bed or take a shower kind of way. Most of the time, it’s more like when people ask me what I do for a living, do I refer to myself as a bar owner, or a former bar owner? One day it was what am I going to do with all of these barspoons? challenging. This week it was an all I want to do is talk to people about Negronis but there’s no one to talk to challenge.

As you might imagine, there are a plethora of tools that will help you figure out how to open a bar. When I was working on the business plan for Bar Helix in 2012, a quick Google search netted dozens of results: article after article chock-full of the specific steps required. But when I tried to find resources to help me navigate taking apart the elaborate infrastructure I spent more than three years working my ass off to hold together, there was almost no helpful guidance to be found. 

And that’s just in reference to the business side of things.

How to stop being a bar owner involves much more than just trying to help everyone on your team find a new job or cancelling deliveries from each of the vendors you’ve grown accustomed to seeing every week. 

Figuring out how to stop being a bar owner emotionally has been one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do.

I’ve spent a lot of time answering questions like, “Who am I without Bar Helix…with no guests to serve? With no staff to lead?” “What do I do with all the new cocktail ideas I have?” or “This song would be perfect for a Bar Helix playlist; should I still save it?” 

“Do I keep or throw away the 250 business cards delivered two days before my landlord threw down an untenable ultimatum?” “Am I still OK to hang out with my restaurant owner friends when I no longer share their same daily worries or joys?” “Do I still bother to read articles about a new whiskey distillery if I’m not sure if or when I’ll have a venue in which to serve it?” Without exaggeration, these sorts of questions fill my days. Not having my bar to run feels like having a phantom limb.

A month or so ago I heard the phrase, “Grief is love with nowhere to go.”

Then there has been the often painful re-entry into what I semi-jokingly refer to as “normal” life, which is the life I imagine people who don’t work 80-hour weeks in the hospitality industry live. Being a bar owner meant that I hadn’t spent more than a handful of hours asleep per week in my home in over three years. Now, I’ve realized that I never got around to changing lightbulbs that burned out two years ago. My closets are in desperate need of purging. I found a bag of shoes meant to be taken for repair a year ago. There was a pantry full of expired canned goods (did you know canned goods expire?). 

And as if all of this wasn’t enough, figuring out how to stop being a bar owner has involved so much crying. I find it happening unexpectedly in front of many different people, including near strangers. I burst into tears while standing in the shower, sob underneath my sweaty paper mask in hot yoga, praying no one thinks I have COVID. Some of these crying jags turn into dizzy spells that legit remind me of the time I had vertigo in college, when I couldn’t move without feeling like I had to throw up. 

What do I say when people ask me what’s next…when all I want to do is be back at my bar? 

How do I express my gratitude for everyone who reached out to me with gestures of incredible kindness…when every time I start writing a thank-you note, I break down?

What’s the appropriate response to being offered an incredible job working with people I respect…when every fiber of my being says that I was born to be an entrepreneur, running my own business?

The short answer to all of these questions is this: I have zero fucking clue but I’m trying to figure it out. 

Right now, not being a bar owner looks like this: 

  1. Reading again—things with pages, not just POS reports or invoices.
  2. Filling my formerly always-empty refrigerator with more groceries than I can possibly eat and cooking—just for myself.
  3. Trying to make up for months upon months of very little sleep (this is really hard).
  4. Taking long walks. Soooo many walks. 
  5. Making a playlist and sharing it with a dear friend instead of my guests.
  6. Leaning in and asking for help from the remarkable circle of friends and family who love me.

A month or so ago I heard the phrase, “Grief is love with nowhere to go.” So, for now, I’m going to keep working hard to find as many places as I can to send all of the love I had for Bar Helix. And—maybe—allowing myself to dream of opening a new bar that I can love as wholly and desperately as I did my first one.

Read the full collection of op-eds about bar culture in “Pouring It Out.

Talk to us! Email your experiences (and thoughts, opinions, and questions—anything, really) to askus@diningout.com

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