Little Bar, Big Challenge: An Insider’s Look

by Publisher CoachellaValley | February 6, 2021 8:45 pm

By Kate Spates / Courtesy MarraIntel.com

The Coachella Valley tourism season was all set to boom. The American Express PGA Tour golf tournament had been the buzz of January 2020. Polo matches and weekend tailgating were well underway.

Little Bar in Palm Desert on their Big Deck

In early March, locals filled JW Marriott Desert Springs’ ballroom for two nights of live music by rock-n-roll and country legends at The Warburton (which raised $3 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital). Next up, the world-famous BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament was ready to kick off. But it didn’t. The night before one of the desert’s largest economic drivers was to begin, it was cancelled. The world was beginning to hear the phrase “cancelled due to the threat of Coronavirus or COVID-19.”

The Big Deck at the Little Bar in Palm Desert, CALIFORNIA by Craige Campbell/ Coachellavalley.com

As the marketing professional for Little Bar, a small restaurant in Palm Desert, I want to share the experience of assisting a business through the toughest socio-economic period of time in recent history.

Located in Palm Desert, near San Pablo & 111, little bar[1] is an inviting bar & grill, serving lunch, dinner, late night bites and weekend breakfast. We have unique craft cocktails and a full bar with all of your favorite brands. When you take a seat at the bar in little bar, you can’t help but make friends. With our perfect weather, you can enjoy our cozy outdoor patio and big deck with cocktail and food service.

Small businesses in the Coachella Valley suffer through the summer months knowing the busy season will reap the rewards. Cancelling the large-scale events was a devastating blow. For really small businesses, like Little Bar, it was crushing.

Little Bar opened in September 2019 with a buildup unlike any the region had seen in a while. Skip Paige, the retired COO of Goldenvoice, the producer of Coachella and Stagecoach festivals, took over the small space formerly occupied by Randy’s Cafe in Palm Desert. The place was so small, it only had room for 18 seats and a total inside occupancy of 31 with a small, enclosed patio to seat an additional 16.

CURRENT HOURS AS OF FEBRUARY 2, 2021

Hours of Operation:

Tuesday & Wednesday – 11:30 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Thursday – 11:30 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Friday – 11:30 a.m. – 12 a.m.
Breakfast –> Saturday – 9 a.m. – 12 a.m.
Breakfast –> Sunday – 9 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Monday – Closed

With the pandemic upon us, and faced with uncertainty, unprecedented governmental control and confusion with ever-changing rules, most businesses attempted to “pivot” to make the best of a challenging “new normal” – along with other annoying overused words when everyone began cancelling everything on March 13, 2020.

Social media marketing messages from Little Bar started off silly with jokes about Corona beer specials and social distancing by adding a small space in between the barstools. By March 17, 2020 the jokes stopped as a stay-at-home order forced the tiny restaurant to ask their loyal customers to order take-out to help clear out the food inventory so they could temporarily close in an effort to “slow the spread.”

Because Little Bar uses Square Register for their point-of-sale software, the transition to online ordering for takeout was fairly easy with a platform built into the system. By late March, Little Bar was able to reopen four days a week, operating with a creative new website: bestcheeseburgerever.com[2], giving customers the opportunity to get their cheeseburger fix.

Takeout cocktails became a new concept, made possible by the ever-changing rules of Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) and local government. Little Bar leveraged this new rule by offering double craft cocktails for the same price as a typical craft cocktail but sealed in mason jars. It seemed like all the rules of “normal times” were backwards. You can’t sit on the patio and enjoy your takeout craft cocktail, but you can sit in your car and drink it. You can “tailgate” with friends in the parking lot, but you can’t sit and eat outside on the patio. “Masks don’t work”, “masks save lives”, “just wear your damn mask and don’t be selfish” people lamented.

Coming to pick up your order with Little Bar’s curbside service gave customers an opportunity to be light-hearted, leaving silly comments in their online order note describing the car and the people inside. It became our source of entertainment and we often shared the notes on social media channels.

Little Bar owner Skip Paige is a natural promoter. After 25 years in the music business, he understands human behavior, supply and demand, and he is the consummate host. While he has many friends and loyal supporters, he also has a target on his back for anyone who is critical of his successes. As some people turned into vigilantes, attempting to “do their part” to help expose or shame anyone they felt weren’t following the rules, soon videos and photos of customers not wearing masks were posted on Facebook groups like “Boycott Businesses That Do Not Enforce Wearing Face Masks” prompting Little Bar to close yet again, not because of any infraction, but in pure frustration from the pressure and inconsistencies.

Open. Close. Open. Close. What some may not realize is it’s not just as simple as closing the doors. There is food that will perish. There will be employees going on and off of unemployment. Other things to consider like marketing – changing the hours on the website, Yelp, Google, social media, to mark the business temporarily closed. Communication is so important. You never want anyone to come to your restaurant thinking it’s open, only to find it closed.

Another challenge with many restaurants is when the employees make more money on unemployment than they do working. However, it also becomes an opportunity to run leaner. With a skeleton crew working only four days a week it was just long enough for Little Bar regulars to satisfy their cravings and for the staff and the owner to learn how to be leaner and work smarter.

Continual communication on Instagram, Facebook, Yelp and Google became vital to let fans know when they might get an opportunity to enjoy their favorite foods and drinks. With teasing #secretmenu items and new menu items, Little Bar continued to build their audience and engagement. But by July 4th, after stocking up for a potentially big weekend, another lockdown was announced. Little Bar’s social media message was “closed… until it makes sense to open” with a girl in a pool waving an American flag.

Summer is a tough time for all businesses in the Coachella Valley. It seemed crazy to double down and build a deck in the parking lot to extend capacity, but the risk paid off. On September 15, 2020, Little Bar opened its big deck to rave reviews. Sales soared and the bet paid off. Little Bar was one of the first to take advantage of the new permit available to restaurants to increase their outdoor capacity. By November, most restaurants had created expanded outdoor seating, just in time for another stay-at-home order to squash all hopes to recover lost sales.

Again, Little Bar was forced to temporarily close on December 12, 2020 and would remain closed through the holidays. Seven weeks later, three days after the stay-at-home order was lifted, Skip rallied his team to get back to work, stocked up on food and alcohol and opened the deck back up on January 27, 2021 to excited loyal customers.

While trying to remain optimistic that the world has learned that lockdowns didn’t work to slow the spread, it’s always in the back of the mind of a business owner that another forced shutdown may happen. Our government has flexed its muscles and demonstrated its power over small businesses, crushing many.

But for little guys, the guys who have been patient, followed the rules, avoided conflict and temptation to defy the rules, they are going for it.

You’ll see Skip Paige smiling while talking to customers, hearing stories of who has been sick and who hasn’t yet, who is getting the vaccine and who isn’t. And in a quiet moment, you’ll see him sitting with me, enjoying a cheeseburger and craft cocktail, planning our next moves on social media.

Little Bar’s Craft Cocktails: Paradise Mule
tito’s vodka, pineapple, top hat ginger beer, lime & house-made butterfly blossom tincture

Kate Spates is a business strategist, marketer, filmmaker and community leader. She can be reached at kate@katespates.com

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Endnotes:
  1. little bar: http://Little-bar.com
  2. bestcheeseburgerever.com: http://bestcheeseburgerever.com
  3. : https://www.instagram.com/CoachellaValley

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