Pandemic restrictions have meant that most gay bars, which are often classified as nightclubs, have been unable to open even as other sectors of the economy open around them. That has led some of these bars, often important hubs for the LGBTQ+ community, to get creative in order to survive.
Twisted Element has been a late-night staple in Calgary since opening in 2004. On March 15, it, along with most other restaurants and bars, closed temporarily because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Nightclubs are still not permitted to be open. So, concerned for the future, Twisted’s General Manager, Keon Brawn, took matters into his own hands.
Before Alberta restaurants and bars were permitted to reopen in May, Mr. Brawn says he inquired to Alberta Health Service about adding tables and adjusting the concept of the nightclub to a pub. The answer was a swift and firm no.
Not enjoying “no” for an answer, and once the citywide reopening began, Mr. Brawn visited a variety of bars around Calgary to see how they were set up and how they were implementing health and safety measures. He went back to Twisted Element, brought in tables, chairs and did an initial layout, complete with sanitizer on each table.
Mr. Brawn reached out to AHS again for approval. This time, it worked and by early June he was able to reopen.
“Without the help from our landlord and being able to transform, we would have likely shut down. People come here because in other places outside they still don’t feel safe being themselves. Within these walls, we want to encourage people to be whoever they want to be.”
Now known as Twisted Pride Pub, the bar concept operates in about one third of its two-floor space with a capacity of 70 people (as opposed to its regular 350). Mr. Brawn says they broke even in their first month, which was a relief and a good sign that things will gain momentum.
“When we reopened there was no dancing, no drag shows, no food ... there was initial excitement that we had reopened, but it still wasn’t a huge draw for people,” he says. “So we came up with a cocktail menu and decided to open a kitchen to offer food, too.”
Mr. Brawn explains that, coincidentally, Twisted always had a fairly sizable kitchen tucked away behind the back bar. When the bar opened in 2004, food service didn’t prove popular within the first year so it sat vacant for years and eventually became a dressing room for the many drag performers who take the stage weekly. It wasn’t until a drag queen suggested he fire the kitchen back up that he considered it might be possible.
“One of our drag performers – who also happens to be a culinary-arts graduate from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology – expressed the value of us having a fully working kitchen. Tony Penton is now our pub chef and having someone with that knowledge of food costing and menu prepping is invaluable.”
With the food menu launching this weekend, Mr. Brawn is hoping people embrace it. One of the ways he’s hoping to do that is by offering a Friday night drag dinner show where a $50 ticket will get a patron a three-course meal and a show. It’s a clever way to adapt in times of physical distancing.
“We are a dance club and we always will be, but I would love to be both [if things go back to normal],” he says. “A restaurant seven days a week, with food service until our drag show starts and then have the atmosphere change a bit.”
Winnipeg’s Club 200 opened in 1988 and has been a fixture of the LGBTQ2+ community since. Although weekend nights there can feel like a nightclub, Mr. Morrison’s venue is actually licensed as a cabaret and, as such, it was able to open along with most other businesses on June 1. Its owner, Allen Morrison, says the reopening was fairly smooth, but it challenged them to think how to engage with patrons when mingling or dancing is not possible.
“It’s a different business now,” Mr. Morrison says. “You need to make sure everyone remains seated at the table, so how do you keep people entertained that way in a bar? We’ve explored distantly interactive events like drag queen bingos and are having a lot of success.”
With the shift from packed dance floors and lively crowds for drag shows, Mr. Morrison says their food sales have increased notably. The club also operates a catering company and did offer food prepandemic, so the transition to the world of physical-distancing restrictions has been smooth. He adds they are also considering launching drag dinner shows, among other unique entertainment that will keep people in their seats.
“We felt it was our responsibility to open up again because we see ourselves as a community bar and a resource for all types of groups,” Mr. Morrison says. “In Winnipeg, there are very limited options for gay and queer folks to go to. For a lot of people in the community, this is the only social outlet, especially for our older patrons.”
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