WRIGLEYVILLE — After two years of masks, mandates, limits and closures, Chicago bar owners are banking on this weekend’s St. Patrick’s Day excess to boost their sagging businesses with an influx of pent-up enthusiasm.
Bar owners and employees down Clark Street in Wrigleyville said they expect this weekend’s crowds could return to their raucous pre-pandemic levels. Capacity limits are gone, mask and vaccine card mandates are lifted and parades are back on after a two-year hiatus. That could mean more green for bars that rely on the festivities to create their biggest business days of the year.
David Strauss, co-owner and operator of Sluggers at 3540 N. Clark St., said he’s “fired up” for this weekend, when many will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
“The truth is, on St. Paddy’s weekend in Chicago, it’s an ‘everything goes’ situation,” Strauss said. “For sure I’m excited. Because we’re going to feel back at full strength again.”
Seth Gamino, general manager of The Irish Oak at 3511 N. Clark St., said he ordered an extra truckload of Jameson “just to be safe.”
“I anticipate over-excitement from people — bottled up and ready to go,” Gamino said. “For an Irish tavern, St. Patrick’s weekend is easily one of our most important.”
Green lights, four-leaf clovers and signs for discounted Guinness were hung up around Clark Street this week.
At Sluggers, Strauss put up just a few green streamers, saying, “People are going to come here anyway.” Strauss has worked on St. Patrick’s for more than two decades and said the weekend is its own “micro-economy” for bars across the city.
Sluggers on St. Patrick’s Day weekend can make “double, triple what a crazy Saturday Cubs game would be,” Strauss said. People come in from out of town on Thursday, drink on Friday night and ramp it up all day Saturday, passing through Sluggers in the thousands, Strauss said.
“Everybody counts on days like St. Patrick’s Day, whether it’s the bar owners, the servers, busboys and barbacks. Everyone banks on these monster days,” Strauss said.
That’s particularly important after the rough few years for bars, Strauss said.
“It’s been a long two years of just grinding it out and working hard,” Strauss said. “You hope it goes smooth.”
Strauss said the pandemic has led to staff shortages at Sluggers, but he has a lineup of St. Paddy’s vets ready to hold down the fort. Staffers will have to work all-day shifts, Strauss said.
And wrangling in young revelers can be hard work, bar owners said.
“There’s always something where some kid does something stupid like get up on the table and the bar, and then you yell at them like their parents have never before, and then they start crying and get all embarrassed and you got to throw them out,” Strauss said. “People have to use their brain … .”
Mike Pawlowski, a bartender at Roadhouse 66 Gas N’ Grill at 3748 N. Clark St., said the bar typically does around $25,000 in business on the Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day. On Clark Street, lines form down the block and drinking starts at 9 a.m.
“It’s a shitshow the entire day,” Pawlowski said. “People puking by 10 a.m., a lot of stupid kids. Just balls-to-the-wall from morning to midnight. There’s no stop. There’s no breaks. We try to run everything properly.”
Gamino said he has plenty of St. Patrick’s Day stories at Irish Oak that “might not make the newspaper.”
The bagpipers Gamino hired one year drank so much Guinness they didn’t make it to their performances at other bars on the street, Gamino said. He’s trying to have them back Saturday for The Irish Oak’s “Leprechaunukkah,” an eight-day run of special events leading up to St. Patrick’s Day on March 17. He hopes it can drive business.
“For two years now, we haven’t had a proper St. Paddy’s Day. This year, it’s kind of back to the way it was,” Gamino said. “My door guys will be dressing up like leprechauns. I have two outfits downstairs. They get so excited to put it on.”
And the boost to business is important for another reason: Bars are hurting from the Major League Baseball lockout.
The season is already canceled through mid-April, which is “devastating” for businesses still recovering from the pandemic on Clark Street right by Wrigley Field, Strauss said.
“If they don’t play, St. Paddy’s becomes the winner of the day. That pays a lot of the bills,” Strauss said. “Everyone is gearing up and ready for it, because with the uncertainty with baseball, with rent and all that, you need those monster days.”
At Roadhouse, Pawlowski said he expects the first bar crawl to stumble inside just after sunrise Saturday. He’s glad that this year the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce will have warming tents — with beer and a DJ — on Eddy Street and Cornelia Avenue to alleviate some of the rowdy lines at Clark Street business.
Pawlowski prays for no puke.
“It’s just a great day for business,” Pawlowski said. “Hopefully nothing too stupid happens.”
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