SF clubs mix things up to avoid a last call

Proprietors get creative with money-raising efforts during pandemic

It’s been tumbleweeds inside once hopping Cat Club since The City’s shelter-in-place orders took effect in March and bars, clubs and entertainment venues were ordered to close before being allowed to reopen in limited capacities.

So the SoMa club, once home to such popular nights as New Wave City, Bondage-a-Go-Go and Strange Love, has had to find new ways to thrive in order to survive the post-COVID downturn.

Just days after its final indoor club night on March 13, general manager Randy Maupin and bartender Rachel Swedish started a GoFundMe page to help support the furloughed staff, which has since raised close to $30,000.

But with patronage down exponentially, Maupin and venue operators like him had to develop more creative strategies to keep their businesses afloat.

Cat Club started by selling upwards of 200 sponsorship plaques to longtime clientele for $75 a pop. Each purchased plate was then engraved with the donor’s name and hung up at the venue.

Cat Club has put up sponsor plaques marking donations from patrons. (Kevin N. Hume/ S.F. Examiner)

Cat Club has put up sponsor plaques marking donations from patrons. (Kevin N. Hume/ S.F. Examiner)

“We’re just trying anything and everything to survive,” says Maupin.

Cat Club has since reopened outdoors on the first and third Friday nights of the month for the Soul’d Out event and every Saturday and Sunday afternoon for Meow’d Up Weekends.

In line with the new Alcohol Beverage Control and San Francisco Department of Public Health regulations, masked customers can buy to-go cocktails at the door and enjoy DJ music from outdoor tables as long as they also purchase dim sum prepared at the club or Mexican fare from the adjacent El Capitan Taqueria.

But drinkers and diners shouldn’t expect any dancing to follow.

“We’re living in the ‘Footloose’ movie right now,” says Maupin. “This is so weird because we’re known for our parties and as a destination for people to come to dance.”

Flyers at Cat Club advertise some of its new outdoor programs. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Flyers at Cat Club advertise some of its new outdoor programs. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Jamie Zawinski, owner of nearby SoMa club and performance venue DNA Lounge, is also feeling the financial crunch since his venue was closed. His adjacent DNA Pizza restaurant has reopened with outdoor seating. But without much foot traffic on 11th Street, it is far less frequented.

So Zawinski started a Patreon page and weekly webcasts featuring DJs from popular DNA parties like Death Guild and Bootie to help raise money to offset his immense operating expenses.

“None of this is even remotely sustainable,” says Zawinski. “So, like every other nightlife-related business, we’re all just sitting here watching the clock tick and waiting for the money to run out.”

Just a couple blocks away, at drag club Oasis, owner and impresario D’arcy Drollinger also has had to modify his business model in order to stay open.

In the past five months, he’s created the Oasis TV YouTube channel to showcase archival footage from past productions; turned the main room of the club into a sound stage for filming his new original show “Hot Trash”; launched “Meals on Heels,” a weekly drinks, dinner and drag delivery service; and requested donations.

Oasis has launched a drinks, dinner and drag delivery service as one of its revenue-generating efforts. (Courtesy Gooch)

Oasis has launched a drinks, dinner and drag delivery service as one of its revenue-generating efforts. (Courtesy Gooch)

Most recently, he partnered with neighboring restaurants Don Ramon’s and Eat Sushi in order to be able to reopen Oasis’ roof and parklet as a dinner theater on Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons and evenings.

“I’m not going to lose Oasis to the pandemic,” says Drollinger. “I’ll do whatever we can to be here when this is over. But like all small businesses, who make a living by bringing people together, it’s incredibly hard.”

The Chapel, an independent music venue in the Mission, has gone from record-breaking business to next to none, with minimal revenue from merchandise sales and fundraisers since temporarily shuttering its doors, says club manager Fred Barnes.

Its Aug. 15 outdoor dinner show, featuring a prix fixe menu from adjacent restaurant Curio and a performance from Red Room Orchestra to benefit local music clubs — billed as The City’s first post-COVID concert — was a huge success. But after paying for all the set-up, The Chapel was only able to break even, says Barnes.

Still, he hopes to organize more shows at the venue.

“We’re trying to think outside the box and keep independent music venues alive by whatever means we can,” he says. “Hopefully we’ll come out the other side.”

Other Mission entertainment venues are also thinking outside the parameters of their indoor spaces.

Patricia West, the owner of Slate Bar, reopened in July for sidewalk dining Fridays from 6 to 9 p.m. in partnership with neighborhood restaurants Chile Lindo Empanadas and Maruya. Many of these dinners are accompanied by live entertainment from local DJs and bands.

West, whose business used to be open almost 40 hours a week, hopes to resume service on Thursdays and Saturdays as well, once she has built out a parklet in two front parking spaces.

But she admits that these days it’s hard to actually plan for anything.

“Everything is always up in the air and changing,” she says. “We don’t know how long this pandemic will last… I am worried about the cold/rainy season. Obviously, this is much needed due to our fire season, but it is going to make outdoor dining hard or even unsustainable.”

David Quinby, owner of Amado’s in the Mission and co-owner of The Riptide in the Parkside district, has been doing to-go service a few days a week along with outdoor music performances since reopening his establishments. But he says that it’s getting harder and harder to make ends meet this way.

“We are barely hanging in there, but we are hopeful that this model can provide some relief,” says Quinby. “It’s hard to predict what the future will look like, but we’ll do anything it takes to get these places up and running again.”

Just under a mile away from Amado’s, El Rio, which has remained temporarily closed for months, has been relying on a staff GoFundMe and online merchandise sales to help the venue and its laid-off employees through.

“We will continue with this for as long as we can,” says general manager Lynne Angel. “It is hard to gauge exactly when we can operate as a venue again as there is still a good amount of uncertainty present, but we are committed to doing everything we can to reopen for our community.”

For supplemental income, some of the venues applied for the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, a tightly regulated loan designed to incentivize small businesses to maintain staff, which will only be forgiven if employee retention criteria are followed and funds are used appropriately. They’ve also asked for various city, state and federal grants to no avail.

Club owners and managers all hang varying degrees of hope on the local Independent Venue Alliance, which represents and educates a group of over 20 mostly closed nightlife venues on state and federal funding initiatives. The organization, which is overseen by The Chapel’s Barnes, also works with the City and Entertainment Commission to address issues that have resulted from the closures as well as what the future holds for local nightlife venues.

Another organization, the National Independent Venue Association, is currently pushing Congress to pass the Save Our Stages and RESTART acts so venues can receive much-needed funds to survive.

But with little financial assistance from the government thus far or any clear-cut timeline as to when bars and clubs will be allowed to fully reopen, many remain forced to rely on limited patronage and donations from longtime customers.

Thinking about the Cat Club’s eventual reopening is what continues to sustain Maupin, its general manager.

“The best part about a nightclub is that people come here to forget their problems,” says Maupin. “A lot of people use dancing as therapy and with everyone’s mental state going to [pot], in the future, I want people to be able to hit the dance floor — and obviously wash their hands.”

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