McClellan's Pub adapts again and again amid the pandemic

Joel Oliphint
joliphint@columbusalive.com

In January and February of 2020, McClellan’s Pub had its best two months since the northwest Columbus bar opened on Sawmill Road in 2014. Then, in early March, co-owners Amy Schirtzinger and Brent McClellan looked to build on that success by gearing up for one of the biggest days of the year.

For McClellan’s, an “American pub with Irish inspiration” that prides itself on its whiskey selection, St. Patrick’s Day is a huge annual event. In advance of the March 17 celebration, Schirtzinger said the bar purchased a ton of food and alcohol. Then, on March 15, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced a statewide stay-at-home order.

Instead of the usual St. Patty's party, Schirtzinger cooked a bunch of food for the pub’s staff and brought in the restaurant's accountant to sit down with the bar’s 10 employees and answer questions. “We didn’t know how long we'd be shut down. ... So we went over what bills they needed to pay first and how they needed to plan financially,” Schirtzinger said. “We passed around a computer and had everybody sign up for unemployment immediately.”

“Six [staffers] had a full-time job somewhere else, but they count on this extra income to help them out. It was a big blow to those people because they couldn’t file for unemployment for a second job,” McClellan said. “Amy packed up some food in a cooler so they could take it home and save some money that way.”

The owners also set up a GoFundMe account for staff, raising nearly $7,000. After that, McClellan’s sat empty. “The first month, I still didn't know what to do, so I just kept showing up to work. I would go in and just sit there and kind of panic and stare at the wall,” Schirtzinger said. “But I heard from every single staff member every single day. They were checking on me … to see if I was OK.”

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McClellan’s applied for and received a PPP loan, and the owners said they initially got a little bit of help from their landlord, but not much. Leading up to the bar’s reopening in early July, they had a hard time navigating the various restrictions placed on bars and restaurants. “They were changing the regulations so rapidly,” Schirtzinger said. “[The Health Department] would have a paper with rules on it, and then they’d tell you something totally different. … No one was really on the same page.”

Plus, sometimes the recommended safety measures were at odds with other regulations. “You could put something up, and the fire department would come in and say, ‘That's a fire hazard. You can't do it that way,’” McClellan said.

Eventually, Schirtzinger and McClellan purchased new beer and food and retrained their staff, though most of the sanitation protocols weren’t much different from what had already been in place. “We've been trained since we started in the industry that you have to be safe and clean,” Schirtzinger said.

The tougher part, the owners said, was the layout of the small pub, which, once social distancing measures were put in place, only enabled the bar to reach about one third of its previous capacity. Not only that, but when customers did come back to drink and dine, their patterns had changed.

“It's a constant trial and error. People are eating different things. People are drinking different things. Our best-sellers before aren't selling at all right now. You're watching trends of people wanting much more comfort-style foods,” Schirtzinger said. “It's very strange. Our salads are down. Our hummus is down. They kind of want to stick with what they know — and that goes with drinks, too.”

The supply chain was also a problem. McClellan’s, which is a fan hub for Liverpool F.C. English Premier League soccer matches, is normally a huge seller of Carlsberg beer, but for weeks Schirtzinger said she couldn’t get Carlsberg in stock. Fluctuating food prices didn't help, either.

“The prices for meat, especially, have been all over the board. To price a menu off of ever-changing prices is very difficult,” she said. “When we first went back, we had a ton of seafood on our menu, because at that point seafood was cheaper than beef and chicken.”

McClellan and Schirtzinger kept an eye on other bars and restaurants and noticed that two types of places seemed to be weathering the pandemic better than others: upscale eateries and dive bars. Given McClellan’s already extensive whiskey and bourbon selection, the owners decided to nudge the pub in the nicer direction. “You have to transform yourself in order to survive the ups and downs,” Schirtzinger said.

These days, McClellan’s continues to adapt. When the 10 p.m. curfew went into effect, the owners noticed the pub was getting fewer patrons at earlier hours, as well. They estimate revenue has dropped 30 percent since the curfew was put in place. Schirtzinger, for one, has trouble making sense of the time-related restrictions. “We're not a late-night spot, so it's not that I want to stay up and party and get crazy. That's not our thing. … But if we can manage [the pub] at 3 in the afternoon, I would hope you would also trust us to manage it at midnight,” she said.

Plus, most people are still working from home, which means customers don’t stop by on their way home from the office anymore. If Ohioans continue to work from home throughout 2021, McClellan said, it will change the entire industry.

Looking ahead, the future looks uncertain, the owners said. But at least they’re now used to the uncertainty. “I think that we know how to adapt a little bit better,” Schirtzinger said. “If nothing else, this has taught us that we need to be creative, and that we need to take some of the things about the business and really use them to our advantage. And that if we can get through this past year, I feel like we can probably get through any of it.”

McClellan's Pub co-owners Brent McClellan and Amy Schirtzinger