On a given Friday night last year, students packed the Collegetown bar Loco Cantina, chatting and dancing until 1 a.m. This year, the crowds of dancing students are gone. But Loco is very much alive.
The bar turned to table service — Loco invested in five high-backed booths with extra dividers to serve customers five days a week. Now, groups of up to 10 can reserve a booth for an hour-and-a-half timeslot, giving the bar contact information in case the night ends with contact-tracing.
When a group enters the bar, Loco employees check their temperatures and seat them at their booth, where they remain for the evening. Customers can order drinks and, with Luna Street Food moved to a new Collegetown location, its old spot next door to the bar is fired up to serve sliders, wings, tacos and more.
“It’s all very low-key. It’s a very different atmosphere,” said Kevin Sullivan, owner of Loco Cantina, Luna Street Food, Jack’s Grill and Pronto Pizza. “But I think that’s what people are after.”
He added that with the virus, if students are going to “go out and socialize, they want to know that they’re safe.”
Sullivan said he waited three weeks into the semester before opening to gauge the risk of coronavirus transmission at Cornell. He said his staff didn’t want to risk dining customers indoors unless the virus proved to be more under control.
Ultimately, Sullivan wanted to know: “Are the students well-behaved enough to keep this thing under control locally? Are we going to have a localized outbreak?”
But as the semester progressed and the coronavirus on campus proved largely contained, Sullivan said it became clear that whatever students are doing, it’s working.
“Overwhelmingly, people are following the rules,” Sullivan said, “the important ones at least.”
For Sullivan, Loco’s dining model is working in part because “a lot of people live in little families on campus.” Students often dine with their roommates, and Loco provides a place for them to go out while distancing from other groups.
“As much as the living room or the front porch is an OK place to socialize,” he continued, “it’s nice to go out and get served drinks from a bartender and order food.”
When Cornell shut down in March, Loco and Sullivan’s other restaurants took a hit — business dropped as much as 50 percent during the quarter after students evacuated. Sullivan estimated that 75 percent of Loco’s business came from students, as well as 75 percent of business at Jack’s Grill and 50 percent at Luna.
The week Cornell closed, Sullivan said he and his team debated whether to order their typical cases of green beer for St. Patrick’s Day: “We can’t not order alcohol — what if we’re still open, what if none of this comes to fruition?” he asked.
But the bar ended up delivering the green beer and giving it to employees, as students scrambled to return home on the holiday. This change was just the first Sullivan and his team made, later redirecting his business ventures to find ways to compensate for the losses. The team launched a grocery delivery service and a drive-in movie theater over the summer.
“We were able to keep everybody busy,” Sullivan said about moving his employees around. Some bartenders, for example, relocated to Sullivan’s lakefront food and beverage service.
Running a line of Ithaca restaurants during a pandemic comes with enormous obstacles, but Sullivan said he’s finding ways to engage the different communities they normally serve, keep Ithaca residents feeling safe and recreate the lost jobs.
“Being hit hard, like everybody was in this country, I think the whole team stepped up to the plate,” Sullivan said. “We found cool things like [at] Loco, which has been wildly successful.”