Bars, pubs and music venues have been among the businesses hit the hardest during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Irene’s Pub, which has been operating in the same location on Bank Street for more than 35 years, has always prided itself on being a gathering place for people to come together while enjoying live music, said owner Mike Estabrooks.
However, as both a live-music venue and a pub, Irene’s was definitely a victim of the trying events of the past two years.
“It’s extremely hard to do business when your business is serving customers and you don’t have any customers to serve,” said Estabrooks.
For Estabrooks and Irene’s, the hardest part of the pandemic was access to current information and short-notice closures. Between the province and the city, it was a challenge to understand which restrictions to enforce.
“It was very difficult to find out what exactly we were and what exactly we were not allowed to do,” he said.
Especially disheartening was being forced to close on short notice because food that was already purchased went to waste at great expense.
“There’s all kinds of people without access to food. So, for us to just be throwing it out, it just, kills me.”
The live music component to Irene’s didn’t make things easier. The pub books events about three months ahead, so constant lockdowns and changing restrictions left Irene’s in a cycle of booking, cancelling and rebooking.
Still, Irene’s staff was determined to keep the pub a place of community.
“We, like all other businesses, started coming up with creative ideas to generate revenue,” he said.
To combat lockdowns, Irene’s offered virtual livestreaming of the music. They combined this with their Friday night “Food Club,” where the pub offered a three-course takeout dinner with a free ticket to join the livestream, allowing patrons to enjoy great food along with entertaining music from the comfort of their own homes.
“The first ones were a bit rocky, I won’t lie,” Estabrooks said, noting the challenges of livestreaming bands and singers, “but we got it down to a science where we had, at some points, 150 to 200 people joining our live chats.”
Estabrooks spoke about how at the beginning of the pandemic, the livestreams were a great way of reuniting the community with local music, despite having to stay at home.
“There was a sense of community and comradery, we all had a little bit of longing for socialization. So, we were happy to be able to provide that,” he said.
Estabrooks said Irene’s was able to survive the pandemic because of two incredibly important factors: the staff and the community.
While many pubs and restaurants had to let some of their staff go during lockdowns, Irene’s was able to retain all its staff, some of whom have been working at the pub for more than a decade.
Although the decision to keep all staff on board resulted in financial losses, Estabrooks is happy he was able to keep staff “family” on board throughout the openings and closures.
Giving a heartfelt thanks to the community for its support, Estabrooks said loyal customers were definitely what kept the pub going during the pandemic.
“It was super warming, sometimes emotionally,” he said.
Even though Irene’s serves traditional, comfort pub food – not necessarily what you’d crave too many days in a row – he saw customers coming in to eat seven days a week. Estabrooks mentioned that throughout closures, customers even came in to buy takeout beer, though it cost more than at The Beer Store or LCBO.
“They gave any sort of excuse to fork over a bit of money during the hard times; it was very warming.”
Estabrooks said now that mandates and restrictions seem to be loosening for a while, he’s extremely excited for the summer. He has been working at the pub for more than 13 years and will celebrate his one-year anniversary as its owner in July.
It’s certainly not the only thing he’s looking forward to. Hidden away in a little courtyard, on the other end of the building, is a “secret” patio that customers rarely notice.
“We’ve just done a whole bunch of renovations, we’ve got all kinds of beautiful live plants coming in and brand new furniture. We’re really, really thrilled for our summer outside,” he said.
Along with the renovated patio and promise of more amazing live music to come, Estabrooks ended our chat by again thanking the community for its endless support, especially during the last couple of years.
“We look forward to serving the community in any way we can for the next 35 years.”
Rachel Fiset is a fourth-year journalism student at Carleton University.