By Earl Geer
When I opened Hi-Life Bar & Grill, on the corner of Amsterdam and 83rd Street, in 1991, the Upper West Side was just beginning its retail and restaurant renaissance. Hi-Life was across the street from the venerable Raccoon Lodge and up the block from the trendy Amsterdam Rotisserie and Grill — both long gone now. My primary inspiration for Hi-Life was the genre of restaurants I hoped to both celebrate and give my own personal spin: restaurants and lounges that flourished in the 1930s and 40s, whose art deco designs featured channel letters, stainless steel and neon signs, dark mahogany bars, upholstered booth and banquet seating, the “perfect” martini, and a great meal at a smart price. I fell in love with been-there-forever joints like McCale’s Bar & Grill in Midtown and the art-deco gem Lenox Lounge, built in 1937 and a regular venue for Billie Holiday and other jazz and blues luminaries. When New York Magazine featured the 1991 opening of Hi-Life Bar & Grill with the headline “Downtown Goes Uptown” — the new kid on the block was off to a fast start. Now, almost 30 years later, my joint feels like it has been there forever.
We have always done a brisk delivery business, but to stay open at this time I credit an incredible effort by my chef of 28 years, Nazario Pinzon, as well as a loyal kitchen team and cleaning crew, and close family members. My sister-in-law Elsa is the general manager, my wife Sara, who did bookkeeping before the crisis, is now doing double-time, and even our 16-year-old daughter, Lucy, a Trinity School sophomore, has jumped in on weekends to help out, answering phones and entering orders from the relative safety of the restaurant’s basement office.
My mind-set to stay open and never stop serving my customers is nothing new. Hi-Life has never closed, including on occasions when someone a little less crazy would certainly have taken the night off: 9/11, the blackout of 2003, Hurricane Sandy, half a dozen crippling blizzards, not to mention the last financial crisis, skyrocketing rent costs, staff turnover, scaffolding, competition from other restaurants, and fending off any and all the daily pressures that come with the territory for every small business owner. But the Covid-19 pandemic is different from all the other disasters and crises we’ve faced in the past, and I do fear for my business’s future and what a new normal may look like for my daughter and all of us going forward.
My Dream has always included an entrepreneurial creation that is working. The Dream has never been about popping expensive champagne corks or Puff Daddy-esque extravagance, and the Dream doesn’t prescribe a certain size house, include salary requirements or stock options. My dream is and has always been to achieve entrepreneurial success.
These days, many small business owners have no choice but to put their entrepreneurial dreams on hold; they are in the fight of their lives. How that fight ends will have a huge impact on our city and the nation’s recovery. Our entrepreneurial dreams can’t die or, I would argue, the economic life and vitality of our cities and small towns, as we know them, will die, too.
If I had a nickel for all the times I’ve heard pundits, politicians and prognosticators (the original PPPs) say that small business is the backbone of our economy, the engine of a growing economy and the like, I wouldn’t be a small business entrepreneur anymore. And if these statements are true, and I believe they are, then one of the big questions of the day has to be: Can small business entrepreneurs (independent restaurants, retailers, the mom and pops) survive this crisis and make a comeback?
I am an Everyperson Entrepreneur who knows firsthand that small business owners too often endure losses equaling their hard-won gains. After all these years in the entrepreneurial front lines, despite growing up with and buying into the macho Vince Lombardi credo that “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” I was forced to redefine winning a long time ago, and question if anything is the “only thing.” If I can see a little votive table candle at the end of this nightmarishly dark Covid-19 tunnel, it is because I know that the Everyperson Entrepreneur’s collective, never-ending battle for small-business success may actually be the key to our survival and comeback from the covid-19 crisis.
Many small business warriors that are still standing have found ways to be resilient during their toughest times and learned hard lessons about accepting disappointment as a part of life. Even when things were good, for most of us, there was always struggle. My hope now is that the lessons learned and survival skills acquired by all Everyperson Entrepreneurs can be called upon to help us navigate these very rough waters. Just as Covid-19 has evolved to be highly lethal and disruptive, each small business warrior has also evolved in their own personal brew of chaos, toughness, charisma, uncertainty, chutzpah, screw-ups, miscalculations, improbable wins, and lucky guesses to be collectively qualified to emerge as the necessary heroes of an economic comeback. As Aretha Franklin sang, many of us may “pay too much for what we got” in our comeback bids, but entrepreneurs know their story is not only about the end result and whether the time and money required to save their businesses will be “worth it,” but that they fought till the end to keep their dreams alive.
These days, even as I brace myself for whatever the future holds, I can still look outside and see my neon orange-and-white Hi-Life sign reflected on the dark windows of a passing bus — vivid proof of my entrepreneurial existence — and believe in the possibility of a comeback.
This essay was adapted from a longer article by Earl Geer.