The Afterlife of Restuarants

I hadn’t seen the windows of the bar papered up since before they opened. The vinyl logos and graphics had been up back then, but little else indicating that The Nerd Out would be a bar and not a comic book or collectibles shop. Standing outside now, the giant neon logo had since been joined by menus, flyers for events, comic-book inspired graphics for the typical restaurant notices (“Kids welcome everywhere but the bar,” “we welcome everyone,” etc.) and a host of stickers on the door. Delivery services, local clubs, reviewers that wrote about them… and one with a black top hat on it.

I gently knocked on the door. The owner, Mitch, greeted me and ushered me into the Nerd Out for the last time.

The Nerd Out, shortly after opening.

Restaurants and bars are more than places to eat or get sloshed. They are ongoing projects, a reflection of their creators lives, community hubs, meeting places, sanctuaries, and refuges.

Mitch Gillan had built up the Nerd Out to be all of these things at once. A bright, fun place dedicated to the frantically mutating nerd culture he loved- where people could debate the merits of the latest Marvel movies, collaborate on projects, make new friends at random, or just quietly sit in the corner and read comics with a cocktail in their hand- a continuation into adulthood of childhood comforts. The cocktails were the imaginings of Josh Hackey, Mitch’s head bartender.

There were times I’d come by and try to get some writing done, only to wind up chatting with friends and strangers, leaving later with my head swimming from Josh’s cocktails and pages empty. Just as often, I’d show up to relax, a few words would get passed at the big blue bar, and I’d be having my manuscript workshopped by a woman in a Deadpool hoodie who worked with executives, had to keep up with their suggested reading lists, and was fascinated to learn what “mentorship” and “leadership” meant from the perspective of the kitchen. Sometimes, I’d just walk in off the street, find Josh behind the bar, and ask him to fix me something new. Josh was responsible for the Nerd Outs kaleidoscope of a cocktail menu, but he had a few “off-menu” ideas he didn’t mind trying on a willing taste-tester. I’d knock back a George Romero, or a Spider -Manhattan, and kill the heart of an afternoon getting opinions from Josh and the staff on who has the best burritos in the city, or the best music.

The place just seemed built to get people talking and seeing what each other were working on.

Enjoying a beer under the screen on Movie Night

Indeed, it was this same design for encouraging community that kneecapped its recovery. In the recent lull of COVID-19 cases in Portland, health and safety guidelines were presented for businesses that wanted to reopen. Sneeze guards were encouraged, and seating people no less than 6 feet from each other was mandatory.

That alone makes bar service nearly impossible, and for a place like the Nerd Out- not only built with community in mind, but requiring the occasional packed house in order to function- even table service would have been a losing proposition. After a month of no income, with the lease coming due, and no realistic way to restart business, Mitch made the decision to shut down the Nerd Out for good. It freed his staff to find new work, cut his losses, and would grant him time to lick the financial wounds caused by the pandemic.

Unless you’ve worked in the service industry or are an investor, you probably don’t realize that a restaurant closing isn’t always as simple as just locking doors and walking away.
Any food that can be sold is sold- anything else is likely given away to staff or trashed. Equipment, flatware, glasses, plates, even furniture might be sold off to mitigate the lost funds from the closure, as well as any expenses involved in the closing- filing paperwork and final taxes with the state, lingering unemployment, remaining benefits for staff if any.

As I walked in to The Nerd Out for the last time, Mitch handed me a beer. I had brought a bottle of whiskey to share with him- after years of looking after me, I wanted to pour HIM a drink. Mitch, however, kindly declined- having given up drinking some time ago.

The walls had been picked clean, and some of the tables were set up to be the comics/ collectibles shop I wondered if the Nerd Out would be long ago. The figures and toys that decorated the bar were spread out across a few tables, with more pristine and rare pieces separate from the heavily-handled tchotchkes. On the bar sat row after row of cocktail glasses, beer pints, plates, flatware- cleaned and wrapped in paper or boxed for easier transport. The beloved chandeliers made of Stormtrooper helmets were all tagged “sold.”

Mitch and I caught up as I nursed the beer. Closing a business is rough enough- but doing it in a pandemic is a whole other level. We reflected on the good times around the bar, and I tried to avoid asking the cliche questions regarding “what’s next” while he broke off occasionally to quote prices on memorabilia and comic books. Far toward the back, near the bathroom, was a pile of comics and statuettes that were marked “Not for sale.” “That’s my stuff,” Mitch corrects a curious buyer. “Shit I can’t bear to part with- too valuable or personal.” I’m no grand collector of anything, but I can see that selling any of it would create a very nice financial cushion. Money won’t fix a broken heart though, and there’s little point in breaking it further if you don’t have to.

“What’s next” for Mitch, right now, is enjoying time with his family that he couldn’t when he was running the bar. He’s got a scratch pad full of ideas he’d like to mock up when the pandemic passes. One of which- “REAL Jewish deli”- he is interested in picking my brain on. For now, it stays on the scratch pad though. The pandemic would only make opening a new restaurant now harder, and there’s more than enough keeping him busy at home, being both father and teacher to his two kids. He floats the idea of a possible “Nerd Out” podcast, inspired by the events and conversations that happened around the bar.

As we chat, three bikers come strolling in with a small bag. As an older woman pulls out a camera, the three men produce a plaque and a Mandalorian helmet. They are the “Mando Mercs”- a biker club joined by their love of Star Wars. Mitch had hosted events with them, including book drives and charity nights, and they were there to name him an honorary member. After buying up some particular collectibles and a little kibbitzing (namely, how the local Tesla and Vespa clubs that they’d interacted with were pompous and ill-mannered douchebags), the Mercs reminded Mitch that, if he decides to open a new place, he should call them first. They’ll show up with an army of volunteers to help him paint and build.

Mitch created the Nerd Out to build a community inspired by fandom. It worked beyond his wildest dreams- he has a fandom of his own that will come when he calls. I take a couple games, some beer glasses, and a Lo Pan Funkopop off his hands, and remind him to get in touch with me about new projects- including the podcast. I want to be first in line.

Good things end, just like bad things. They don’t necessarily die, though- because we keep remembering how amazing they were and all the good they did.

Stay Classy,

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