North Beach bar Specs’, known for its quirky decor and colorful history, was originally opened over 50 years ago by Richard “Specs” Simmons, in 1968.
The bar is now co-owned by Simmons’ granddaughter, Maralisa Simmons-Cook, and his daughter, Elly Simmons. Simmons-Cook said there are still regular customers at the bar who she has known since she was born in 1993. She has missed them during the pandemic shutdown.
“They’re there almost every night normally, so it’s been kind of a mystery during COVID,” Simmons-Cook said. “When I’m walking around North Beach, sometimes I’ll run into them, and they’ve been at other bars or just kind of sheltering in place.”
Specs’ has been closed for a majority of the past year due to COVID-19 restrictions, other than a brief opening for to-go bottles in summer 2020. But the bar has made it through the pandemic and now plans to reopen in May.
“We’re kind of just shooting in the dark and …hoping for the best that we’re gonna have our regular customers back; people are going to be wanting to go out and spend money, people are going to be vaccinated, feeling safe being indoors,” Simmons-Cook said.
“I’m really excited to see the regulars again, because it is a living room for people and my whole life growing up [Specs’] was a gathering place and a watering hole,” she said. “It’s been a really big loss for us to not be able to have interactions with our regulars for over a year.”
As San Francisco prepares to enter the yellow tier, the least restrictive COVID-19 tier next week, many North Beach businesses are preparing to reopen more fully and welcome back tourists and locals alike.
For Specs’, the reopening will include both outdoor and indoor dining, as the bar has applied for a permit to participate in The City’s Shared Spaces program. One of the reasons it remained closed over the past year was due to a lack of outdoor seating space, Simmons-Cook said.
“I think that that is the case for a lot of businesses in The City and North Beach especially; it’s sort of a tricky layout,” Simmons-Cook said, noting that the bar is tucked into an alley that serves as the entrance to an apartment building.
“So basically, the only thing that we would have had access to was our one parklet space in front of our alleyway which fit 12 people,” she said. “We were really waiting until we could do both indoor and outdoor, even though indoor will also be limited.”
Simmons-Cook said she’s especially excited for the parklet and outdoor seating.
“I think that’s going to be like a pretty cool extension of our space that we’ve never had before,” Simmons-Cook said. “People have always kind of flooded out into the alleyway that we have, for anniversary parties and things like that. But we’ve never had a designated sort of deck area. So I’m excited to have that extension of the bar, especially in the summertime.”
Survival was no easy feat for Specs’. Simmons-Cook and her mom applied for and received a Paycheck Protection Program loan, though they weren’t able to “properly spend it all” since they were not open. They also applied for many grants – but only received one.
What has really kept them going, Simmons-Cook said, is crowdfunding. A GoFundMe set up by Simmons-Cook has raised over $50,000 since it was created in March 2020.
“That’s been difficult in itself, because … to crowd fund for over a year is insane,” Simmons-Cook said. “And it’s kind of come in waves of us feeling like we’re secure, paying rent for a few months, and then having to reach out to people again. And so that’s been a challenge.”
The bar isn’t completely out of the woods yet. Simmons-Cook and Simmons have been paying partial rent on the bar for most of the pandemic, meaning they are potentially looking at owing a lot of rent money. But Simmons-Cook hopes to have a conversation about rent forgiveness with their landlord.
“I’m excited to just reopen and be there for the community, because we’ve definitely been closed longer than a lot of other businesses in the neighborhood,” Simmons-Cook said. “I’m definitely feeling the urge to connect again with the community and feel like we’re a part of all these other businesses just going through it and adjusting to the changes and making it work. I feel like now we’re finally in a place where we can do that and sustain ourselves.”