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Detroit Bartenders Get Creative With Side Gigs During Coronavirus Slowdown

The economic downturn in the metro Detroit service industry is forcing some bartenders to lean on second jobs for income

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A man with a ring on his hand cradles a tumbler of whiskey next to a tea light at Willis Show Bar.
Bartenders across metro Detroit are leaning on side gigs to get through the service industry’s new coronavirus-induced economic downturn.
Stock Detroit

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has caused uncertainty among businesses and legislators regarding the best policies for public places. With increasing frequency, bars are making the difficult decision to cut capacity, shorten hours, or, in some cases, to shut down completely. This leaves many employees without income for an undetermined amount of time. But the service industry is also celebrated for its resourcefulness. As restrictions on public gatherings and recommendations for “social distancing” mount, Detroit’s bar and restaurant workers are using their creative sides to generate income.

Jason Portier, who plays guitar in several local bands and works at Ferndale’s Cork Wine Pub, feels the hit from the new coronavirus outbreak especially hard. “All gigs on the books are now either canceled or tentative,” he says. “It’s unsettling to say the least. Most of the service workers I know are either not working or [their] hours are drastically cut.” Like many other musicians in Detroit, Portier is putting extra effort to promote his most recent album — Ryan Dillaha and the Miracle Men’s Closer to Better —via streaming and and for purchase.

Michelle Birawer works at Trixie’s Bar in Hamtramck. She also owns Jean’s Vintage Store just up the road, where she’s dedicating the spare down time from the bar to the shipping side of Jean’s. Birawer says she’s seen foot traffic decrease by “40 to 60 percent per day” at the shop, since news of the new coronavirus broke locally. She hopes that updating her Etsy shop, Orange Sun, and offering free shipping on some orders will get her through the national slowdown.

Cori Duff lost both of her bartending gigs when the Detroit City FC Fieldhouse closed through March 22 and Hamtramck’s Moose Lodge suspended service on nights she works. She derives an equal part of her income from her handmade jewelry business. And although she’s worried about the upcoming arts festival season, she expects an uptick in sales on her Etsy store, Script C Designs, as well. With Easter and Mother’s Day “on the horizon” and many big box stores closing, Duff is counting on homebound shoppers.

At least one area bartender cautions against the impression that the restaurant industry is full of people who see their work as temporary or secondary. “We’ve done a lot to make people change their minds on the views on bartending and the fact that it can be a career path,” says David Miles-Cole Martinez, head bartender at Willis Show Bar. For him and many other professionals in the industry, restaurant work is a full-time career. “We are all taking a hit,” he says.

It remains to be seen what measures federal and local government take to provide financial assistance to the restaurant and bar employees who’ve found themselves suddenly without income for an unknown length of time. Filling in the gap is crucial to restaurant workers’ well-being, whether that’s via a creative side hustle or some other work, such as food delivery or child care.

The U.S. Bartenders Guild, a professional organization with local chapters, is working now on contingency plans to help struggling service employees. Detroit chapter president Rahsaan Grissom says plans are coming together, but not yet finalized, “to limit some of this impact as best as possible by highlighting mitigation strategies and establishing resources for those in emergency situations.”

During the slow time, Rahsaan says the organization may begin offering programs for education and development. He encourages USBG members and the wider community to reach out by email at with ideas or contributions.

Correction: This article misstated the length of time that Detroit City FC Fieldhouse would be closed.

Metro Detroit Restaurants and Bars Temporarily Close Amid Novel Coronavirus Outbreak [ED]
Oakland County Mandates That Restaurants and Bars Must Reduce Capacity by 50 Percent [ED]
Detroit Restaurants, Caterers Hit With a Flurry of Cancellations Due to Coronavirus [ED]
All Coronavirus Coverage [ED]

Willis Show Bar

4156 3rd Avenue, , MI 48201 (313) 788-7469 Visit Website

Cork Wine Pub

23810 Woodward Ave, Pleasant Ridge, MI 48069 (248) 544-2675