Virtual happy hours fill the social gap in stay-at-home era

Virtual happy hours fill the social gap in stay-at-home era
COVID-19 may have closed bars and sent workers home, but some are still enjoying their happy hours virtually. (Getty Images)

Christopher Bulka and his sister in Birmingham usually have short and functional video calls. These days, it’s more likely an occasion to chat over a drink.

With bars from London to Los Angeles falling silent because of the coronavirus pandemic, happy hour as we know it is canceled. Forget the drink specials and the cocktail charges to bosses’ credits cards – friends and colleagues anxious to keep in touch are inventing virtual replacements.

Social media posts show video chats from a select few to dozens, with fancy cocktails or just an unassuming can. Bars and restaurants, hard-hit by enforced closures and quarantined customers, are jumping on the bandwagon by offering cocktail packs for delivery to ease drinkers into the weekend.

Liquor home deliveries still aren’t legal in Alabama but an emergency order form the Alabama ABC Board is allowing for curbside sales of alcohol, with some limits. The ABC Board has closed many of its ABC Stores during the COVID-19 shutdown.

Bulka, 50, a Washington-based real estate agent, picked up vermouth at a liquor store, keeping people at a distance and washing his hands afterward, to set up a stay-at-home happy hour with his husband and sister. Their quarantini – the generic moniker for any drink thrown together while in isolation – was a very dirty Tito’s martini.

“Fortunately, there haven’t been any orders to close liquor stores,” Bulka said by phone. “I think people will continue to buy that provision.”

Startup consultant Justin Welsh, 38, has bigger ambitions. Organizing less of a drink with friends than a giant networking occasion, he and fellow consultant Scott Leese gathered 100 of their LinkedIn followers for a Zoom meet-up March 19.

Welsh, self-isolated at home in Los Angeles for 10 days, said he’s already looking ahead.

“Years from now, some of the folks on this call will grow into the next stage of really successful founders,” he said. “I’m a karma guy and I hope, in a few years from now, they’ll think of my name, that in a hard time, I’m someone who helped them out.”

Welsh said he used alcohol home delivery service Drizly Inc. to order his drink of choice, an unfiltered hazy IPA.

The Massachusetts company’s sales this week are almost four times the expected baseline growth, suggesting there’s a “stock-up mentality” among customers, Liz Paquette, Drizly’s head of consumer insights, said in an email.

Customers are still buying the same items, with red wine the top choice, but are spending an average of 50% more, she said.

At the Royal bar and restaurant in Washington, owner Paul Carlson, 39, had to come up with quick ideas to avoid closing. His premixed take-home cocktails, ready to pour over ice, caught on and almost sold out during the first two days available.

“The scary thing is not knowing where the light at the end of the tunnel is,” Carlson said by phone. “But one of the best ways to help our staff is to have employment when this turns around. We’re trying to stay alive instead of just shutter.”

For Julie Deustua, a marketing manager at Carlsbad, California-based nutrition company Compound Solutions, a virtual happy hour with her team March 18 helped blow off some steam. The company, brick-and-mortar for 21 years, just went entirely online because of the virus impact.

“This is completely new for us,” she said. “We became a virtual company in a week. We just laughed about our circumstances. It was a really fun connection moment; we needed it.”

(Contact the reporter at [email protected].)

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