Every year, Inlander readers vote for their favorite people and places in our annual Best Of readers poll, a chance for everyone to celebrate local excellence in the Inland Northwest. Of course, current events had different plans, forcing the local restaurants, bars and eateries that were crowned in our 2020 poll to change course and revamp their business models starting the very same week results were published in mid-March.
For the Scoop, this year's winner for Best Ice Cream, 2020 was going to be a year of new beginnings. Owner Jennifer Davis had planned to open a second location in Kendall Yards back in March, replacing a storefront that had once housed Brain Freeze Creamery. It was an ideal situation, she says: Most of the necessary equipment was already in place, and she expected revenue to be double what it typically is in the Scoop's South Hill location.
Summertime is obviously when ice cream sales skyrocket, but this isn't a normal summer.
"Of course, it was too good to be true," Davis says now, because the global pandemic threw a wrench into the works. "But it's been as good as can be expected."
The Kendall Yards location actually opened at the end of April, but without tables and chairs for dine-in customers. Masks are required to enter, and markers have been laid out on the floor so customers can stay 6 feet apart from one another. At the South Hill location, the counter has been pushed up to the front door so that it's closer to an outdoor walk-up window.
At the end of March, just as we put the finishing touches on this year's Best Of edition, officials issued mandatory stay-home orders and businesses shut their doors. Inlander readers still picked up tens of thousands of copies of the paper that week, but now, in honor of our winners — many of whom are still facing uncertainty — we wanted to release extra copies of our Best Of issue this week. Find them on numerous newsstands across the Inland Northwest.
For a period in the spring, the Scoop pivoted to merely selling pints of ice cream online, which customers could order and then pick up the following day. Davis estimates she was selling between 150 and 200 pints a day in that first month of closure, and now the Scoop has perfected its online ordering process to be ready for fall when sales of pints typically increase.
"I keep hearing it's going to be the winter of our discontent," Davis says. "Ice cream sells more in pints in the winter. People want to watch Netflix on their couch and eat a pint of ice cream, and I want to make it as easy as possible for them to do that."
For Baby Bar owner Patty Tully, meanwhile, business is entirely dependent on customers walking in and sidling up to the counter. The downtown mainstay, named Best Tiny Bar by Inlander readers, has been closed since March, as has the attached fast-casual eatery Neato Burrito.
Tully and her co-owner and partner Tim Lannigan took advantage of the downtime: They gave the bar a fresh coat of paint and did some deep cleaning, waiting it out until they could safely reopen again. That bit of respite has turned into a monthslong period of waiting that's still ongoing.
"We kind of expected things to get better within six weeks, and as everyone knows, it's just longer and longer," Tully says. "Now we're trying to enjoy this time for what it is and not be frustrated about things we can't change."
Tully says she regularly checks in on their seven employees and says they're all doing well. She and Lannigan had briefly considered reopening Baby Bar and selling cocktail kits, as well as reopening Neato Burrito for to-go orders. But they knew it'd have to remain a two-person operation, and that it likely wouldn't turn a profit since alcohol sales is where they see their highest margins.
So until they get the all-clear, the neon "open" sign in the window will stay off.
This is something that all bars, especially those with cramped quarters, will eventually have to reckon with: How do you invite people back into a small space following a pandemic that spreads via close contact?
"We're kind of in a holding pattern," Tully says. "We wouldn't want to open now if we could, because we'd just end up having to close again. We want what's best for the business and our coworkers and our customers.
"That was all of our social life," she continues. "Seventeen years behind that bar is a long time to see a lot of the same people on a daily basis, and to have that cut off is very strange." ♦