How to Stop Being a Bar Owner, Part Two

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Serious Black woman sitting on a couch against a mustard colored wall with three large, multicored framed art prints.
For Kendra Anderson, saying goodbye to Bar Helix is an ongoing heartbreak. / Dave Ingraham

When I first shared my experience of attempting to re-route my life (aka stop being a bar owner) in the February/March 2021 issue, I remember feeling hopeful that telling my story would expedite, if not ease, what I thought was the process of figuring out my next career move.

I couldn’t have been more mistaken. I severely underestimated the gravity of my situation—and I was far from being in any position to begin contemplating how to take the first step towards finding long-term employment. As the months stretched on, I felt no more prepared to answer the questions I’d posed than I had been on the day I wrote them. In fact, it took me until June to realize that when I first penned that piece, I was still in shock. And that sense of shock was only the first bud of what would bloom into an extended season of full-blown grief.

How can I be so sure? Because the real pain—the kind that alternately sears and aches, the kind that you remember for the rest of your life—hadn’t yet kicked in.

I realize now that at the beginning of 2021, I was numb, and very much on autopilot: responding to emails, navigating legal filings, and planning to host an après ski-themed pop-up based on Cabana X, the successful summertime restaurant concept we’d created at the height of the pandemic.

The pace of those busy-making activities started slowing down right around the time that capacity restrictions began lifting this spring. By then, Bar Helix had been closed for many months. I watched many of my industry friends and colleagues return to their “normal” operations, and while I felt genuinely happy for every one of them, I was crushed that I was never going to return to normal.

I desperately wish that I could wear some kind of sign around my neck outlining a brief response to this inevitable question. Maybe, just maybe, the sign would spare me from having to endure another unbearably polite and awkward exchange.

Even now, the stark reality of my situation is constantly drilled into my consciousness. The combination of my wide-open evenings and weekends plus the full reopening of my favorite bars and restaurants create a reminder—and a monster. Literally every outing involves an exchange with someone I haven’t seen or spoken to in months, if not longer. And every one of those people has the same exact question:

“What’s happening with Bar Helix?”

Each encounter feels like my barely scabbed-over wound is being ripped open again. I feel a bizarre mix of gratitude—for their well-intentioned curiosity about my situation—and fresh heartbreak. I desperately wish that I could wear some kind of sign around my neck outlining a brief response to this inevitable question. Maybe, just maybe, the sign would spare me from having to endure another unbearably polite and awkward exchange. I’ve lost track of the times I’ve cried myself to sleep after coming home from an evening that was more torturous than fun.

The words of comfort I hear sometimes trigger me the most. “Everything happens for a reason,” many friends will say. To that, I find myself thinking, “Does it really? What’s the explanation for investing every penny I ever earned into a project that took me more than five years to realize only to lose it in a pandemic?” Another version goes like this: “Things will work out in the long run.” My internal response? “How so? Exactly how am I going to come out a winner after everything I’ve lost?” I rack my brain daily to make sense of what happened, to find the silver lining or the grandiose message the universe must surely have for me.

As spring turned into summer, a series of anniversaries slowly and steadily turned my sadness into unrelenting anguish. Social media can be incredible for growing a business. But Facebook is now my nemesis thanks to its cheerful reminders of successes from previous years: the day we recorded our clapback to Stanley Tucci’s viral Negroni-making video; our first afternoon serving what would grow into hundreds of Aperol spritz shaved-ices; and the night we excitedly launched a tropical destination-themed pop-up within just weeks of dreaming it up. Without a business to promote at Aspen Food & Wine, I realize I no longer have a reason to host my beloved Yacht Rock + Rosé party. If there’s no more aperitivo-themed bar to take part in Negroni Week, do I still need to keep in touch with my contacts at Campari?

Serious Black woman wearing a black long sleeved shirt and standing against an interior wall between a bar car with many liquor bottles and a piece of art with the words, "I can't breathe."
Kendra Anderson in her Denver home. / Dave Ingraham

It took me a handful of months and multiple sessions with a therapist to learn that the waterfall of grief that washed over me upon awakening each day was not just tied to losing the bar—it was the utter devastation of losing my identity. The lifestyle and the world I had worked tirelessly to build and happily existed in for more than seven years evaporated in less than four weeks.

Everything I am was connected to Bar Helix. The decimation of my daily work routine and my sole source of income were only the first in a series of earth-shattering losses. I slowly came to realize that my bar was so much more than just my job—it was the connective tissue interweaving my closest relationships; the foundation of my entire professional and social network; the legal business entity associated with my volunteer work and board memberships; and my motivation to pursue ongoing education in the wine and spirits industry. When Bar Helix died, so did part of me—right along with the sense of purpose I had carefully cultivated and centered my life around.

What happens when your entire focus in life is to keep one thing going, and that thing goes away? Losing my bar hurt more than my divorce, and to my surprise, more than losing my father at the age of 18. In my single-minded pursuit of a dream, I forgot to hold space for anything else. Now, every day feels like an excruciating drill of retraining my brain to focus on something else—to stop thinking about the thing I loved more dearly than I loved myself.

Lately, the questions friends are asking revolve mostly around whether I plan to open another bar or restaurant. I’ve come to realize the the question is much different, and much bigger, than whether I want to remain an owner/operator.

Sure, there are days I’m relieved I don’t have to navigate the reopening conundrum I see my friends struggling with. There are also obvious perks that come with not working 80-plus hour weeks. So knowing what I know now—and being 10 years older than I was when I started this journey—an increasingly important question for me is, “What do I want to do with my life?”

Lately, the questions friends are asking revolve mostly around whether I plan to open another bar or restaurant. I’ve come to realize the question is much different, and much bigger, than whether I want to remain an owner/operator. I don’t have to tell you that the whole world has shifted over the past 18 months—and that the hospitality industry has been ravaged in a way none of us could ever have imagined. The pandemic continues to throw curve balls, and none of us can possibly guess what lies ahead.

Another painful anniversary looms large: On October 3, my team and I should be celebrating the fourth anniversary of the night we swung open the doors and served Bar Helix’s very first Negroni. I have no idea what I’ll be doing that night, but I know what I’ll be thinking about: a powerful breakthrough I had on a rainy spring morning. I was in a session with my therapist, and she asked me to conjure up an image of the most joyful time in my life. I thought for a second, then pictured the glittering, candlelit opening party I threw at Bar Helix in the fall of 2017. But as quickly as it came to me, that vision evaporated and was replaced by another: a flashback to a particularly exhilarating bike ride on a sunny afternoon in 2003. I was pedaling furiously from my loft on Champa Street to the culinary school on Market Street that I’d begun attending weeks earlier. Thinking back, I realized that while I hadn’t the faintest idea what my future would hold, my heart was full to bursting with hope for whatever I would discover on the road ahead.

That memory is a powerful inspiration for the question I’m working harder than ever to answer: How do I find my way to another unknown, thrilling road that will inspire similar hope? It’s too soon to say, but there is one thing I’m certain of. Just thinking about creating experiences that inspire, surprise, and delight people from all walks of life—not to mention, rejoining my beloved comrades in the hospitality community—makes my pulse race and my spirit soar. Hopefully, the next time I run into one of those comrades, I’ll have a different answer because I’ll be well on my way.

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

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