This year, Tiffany Unger was excited to see her business, the Wandering Sidecar Bar Company (www.thewanderingsidecarbarco.com)
, finally achieve its full potential. Though she was happy with the response she'd received during the past five years she'd been operating the roving bar, this was the first year she had a liquor license, and she was looking forward to doing big, public events. That all changed when COVID-19 hit.
"When everything blew up, and it was clear [the city was] shutting down, we had about twenty events that were canceled," Unger says. "Because this was our first year with our liquor licenses — before, guests had to provide alcohol — we were looking forward to events like Mardi Gras, St. Patrick's Day, Opening Day, Pridefest. Luckily, we do a lot of private events, but 35 of those have been postponed. We're not charging anyone for moving or anything. We're trying to be as accommodating as possible because we know it's a stressful time for everyone."
Unger's accommodating spirit has been forged by a 25-year-long career in the service industry. She got her start as a counter server at Steak 'n Shake at the age of sixteen and then moved on to a family-owned restaurant a year later. Though she loved the business, she always considered it a "meantime" sort of job — something she would do until she got her "real career." However, when that came in the form of a mortgage industry job, she quickly realized how much she hated being away from the hospitality industry.
Fate intervened when she lost her job during the financial crisis of 2008. Laid off, she went back to the service industry as a bartender at Tony's on Main in Alton, Illinois. There, she had a revelation.
"At some point, my thought process went from thinking about this as a meantime job to, 'This is my career,'" Unger says. "It happened once I realized not just how much money you can make in this industry, but how you can leave your work there. I was making great money, spending time with my friends and not bringing stress home. Once I was able to let go of the apprehension and the feeling that I had to get an office job, I was really able to blossom in this industry."
Bartending at Tony's on Main suited Unger well until five years ago. A new mother of twin boys, Unger felt the pressure of working late nights, then coming home to newborns who needed their mom. She knew she needed to adapt to fit the needs of her family, but she wanted to find a way to do that while continuing to work in a career she loved.
That chance came when she was flipping through a magazine and saw an article about a mobile bar company in Australia. It was as if a light switch flipped on. Two weeks later, she had bought a camper and set out to execute her vision for the Wandering Sidecar. Immediately, she received an outpouring of support and enthusiasm for her business — something that continues during adaptations forced by the storm that is COVID-19.
"We've certainly had periods of time where it wasn't as bad as COVID and we've had to reevaluate what we were doing and learn to do things better," Unger says. "It feels like we have a good handle on it, but even after five years, we keep on learning."
Unger took a break from the Wandering Sidecar to share what it's like to be in her position during these unprecedented times and what gives her hope for the future.
As a hospitality professional, what do people need to know about what you are going through?
Just the uncertainty of it all. We were gearing up for our busiest season yet and feeling so good about the direction that business was heading. I was really blindsided by the shut down, but I knew it was the right move. The first two weeks were filled with emotion. I really thought we were destined to throw in the towel. That feeling quickly lifted and we found a way to pivot. However, the familiarity of what we once were has dissipated. We are only about a third of what we used to be in regard to how we are functioning and making money. That's a little exciting and scary. This is our livelihood. I have a mortgage, two sons, insurance ... all of those adulty things. I'm typically a risk-taker, but generally on my own terms. The pandemic definitely took the wind out of our sails in 2020, but we are hustlers.
What do you miss most about your job?
Oh man, PEOPLE!! I have 25 years in the industry this year, and much of that was spent behind the same bar. I always loved it because I'm a social butterfly at heart. The people that I've worked with for years are my family. There's such a special camaraderie amongst restaurant/bar folks. I would love to tell you it's the good stuff that brings you together, but the bonds are really built on the bullshit you put up with on a long Saturday double. There's nothing like sitting down with your buds after twelve hours on your feet, cracking a beer and just having a bitch session. My crew now is made up of friends and old industry buds. I miss cutting up with them. I'm super lucky to have them and can't wait to have that back.
What do you miss the least?
Did you know that Saturdays off are super rad? I've been sleeping in, making breakfast and taking my kids swimming. I miss out on a lot of that, normally. It's been pretty nice, and I'm reveling in it and looking at it as a silver lining to this mess.
What is one thing you do every day to maintain normalcy?
The day to day on the admin side of the business is the same. People are still inquiring and booking. We are keeping busy and finding new ways to reinvent what we do.
Have you been stress eating/drinking?
Oh yeah, quarantine has not been kind to this bod. At first it kind of felt similar to my twin pregnancy in 2014. I was on bedrest with nothing to do except eat. Except this time, I was stuck at home and could drink, too. My girlfriends and I sit in the front yard and drink wine and chat a couple of times a week. I've chilled out a bit on the snacking, but I definitely could get this butt moving more.
What are three things you made sure that you don't run out of?
Wine, beer, tacos.
You have to be quarantined with three people, who do you choose?
As a mom, I'd feel like such a jerk if I didn't say my sons, Sam & Otis and my husband. I also can't live without my girlfriends though — Sarah, Kim and Jackie. Now, if I were to choose for real people that I don't know — Brandi Carlile so I could listen to her sing all day, Lizzo to party with and Natalie Maines to chat with.
Once you feel comfortable going out and about again, what's the first thing you'll do?
Go to Mexico with my girlfriends. Our yearly trip has been delayed twice. We're going to make that shit happen ASAP.
What do you think the biggest challenge to the hospitality industry will be once things go back to normal?
It's so hard to say. I think the recovery will be tough. For small business, you are often playing catch-up, and this was a big setback. I've put my heart, soul and any extra money into this little dream for five years. I know so many are in the same boat. I don't know if normalcy will ever be what it was. I really hate the phrase, "the new normal," but I don't know another way to say it. I think the industry will be altered in the way we go about day-to-day operations forever. There's no more willy-nilly when it comes to procedure. I think everyone will be moving forward in a different way. I just really hope that we can all survive this.
What's one thing that gives you hope during all of this?
Hope is hard to come by these days. Often, it feels like the entire world is crumbling to the ground. Each day you hear something more heinous than the last. I feel the weight of all of that and often have to check out mentally. On the other hand, I know some amazing people that want to see real change in the world. That inspires me daily, and I hold on tight to that.
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