Longtime downtown Irish bar B.D. Riley’s has permanently closed. After 20 years of business, co-owners founder John Erwin and managing partner Steve Basile decided in August to not renew the lease of the 204 East Sixth Street bar. B.D.’s second location in Mueller remains open.
“We’re a business district that relies on foot traffic,” Basile tells Eater, from tourism to conventions to bar hoppers to bachelor and bachelorette parties, and “all of those reasons are gone, and none of those reasons are coming back fast” due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Tourism and hotel occupancy rates have been down in the city, there are no events due to the general social gathering ban, and there’s a lack of office workers since many companies implemented work-from-home policies.
Even if things were to change and everything reopened tomorrow, they still wouldn’t necessarily renew the lease. “None of that is coming back fast,” Basile says. “There’s no way we could project anything but a sustained loss for a long, slow, gradual climb out of this pandemic hole, and that just doesn’t make any financial sense.”
“The first rules of holes if you’re in one, stop digging,” Basile continues, “I think that’s more or less how we got to our decision not to renew.”
As ordered by the city and the state to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, B.D.’s closed in March. The bar reopened in mid-May when it was allowed to by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, while following required safety mandates such as operating at diminished indoor capacities. “We saw gradual business growth in those first three weeks,” Basile says.
B.D. Riley closely followed those regulations at both locations. Guests had to sit at socially distanced tables, masks were required when not seated, staffers underwent health and temperature checks, and there was a designated health captain. People who violated the rules were first given a warning. Those who continued to violate the rule were then asked to lease.
Soon after bars reopened, the protests in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement happened in late May and Early June. In response, many downtown businesses closed and/or boarded up windows to prevent damage. B.D.’s decided to close the bar temporarily on June 15. “Downtown in those first seven days of protest was just not a safe place to be,” Basile says. Eleven days later, Gov. Abbott ordered the reshuttering of bars in response to the surge of COVID-19 cases in the state at the time.
Throughout this, B.D.’s Mueller bar, which opened in 2017, stayed open for dine-in business because it is designated as a restaurant. The vibe of this location is different from its downtown counterpart. “The Mueller pub has everything that downtown doesn’t,” Basile explains: foot traffic, easy parking, local businesses that are open, residents. “It has local traffic with a reason to be there. And that’s something that just doesn’t exist downtown and won’t for the foreseeable future.”
“We’re doing about two-thirds of our normal business volume or a little bit more than that,” says Basile of Mueller, while adhering to mitigation measures. The bar is also offering to-go food, with a limited delivery service area, since “our food doesn’t travel particularly well,” he explains, like the fish and chips. To come are to-go cocktails, Guinness pints, and whiskey soon.
Basile balked at how other bars in the city blatantly did not adhere to any coronavirus measures. “It was disappointing that some bars got greedy and some bars got crowded and some bars just tried to grab as much money and as much crowd as they possibly could,” he expresses.
Following the rules and regulations made sense to Basile: “We want to do it for the simplest reason: to maintain our license, but for the bigger reason is because there’s a public health issue.”
He continues: “I manage our social media and marketing, and I love publicity, but the last thing you want is a video of your pub jam-packed like it’s Mardi Gras when you’re supposed to be maintaining some sort of social distance.”
Opening another location of B.D.’s isn’t necessarily being ruled out at this point: “If absolutely the right location presented itself, we’d consider it,” says Basile. But, “it’ll be awhile before we would consider that downtown. We just don’t see downtown bouncing back really soon.”
Closing the downtown bar is an unfortunate decision for Basile and Erwin, who hosted numerous musical performances, weddings, wakes, funerals, marriage renewals, and New England sports watch parties during its two-decade history.
“It’s very sad to close the business, but I’m very proud of our run,” says Basile.”We look back with nostalgia but not regret on the 20-year run.”