LEISURE

A bar owner’s thoughts on the future of the nightlife industry

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Today x Future and Futur:st's co-owner reflects on the current state of the nightlife industry in the Philippines, sharing that these “non-essential services” are in fact an “essential part of life.” Photo from TODAY X FUTURE/FACEBOOK

UPDATE: On June 18, TodayXFuture announced that they are closing. 

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Since the pandemic, running a bar has entailed a daily struggle to hold on to anything.

Today x Future and Futur:st are businesses deemed as "non-essential." Bars aren't the most ideal of places to practice social distancing, and with a decent consumption of alcohol, caution isn't top of mind.

Bodies pressed closer, drinks continuously poured over the counter, and strangers whispering to each other in just a matter of five minutes — back in the Old World, this is what we would call a good night.

The last decade had been shaped by what we fondly called our Future. Drenched in red light and loud sound, it was the kind of place where one would have to squeeze their way through endless handshakes and besos before they find their friends, where the dance floor is wet with sweat and beer spills but no one cares. It was where everyone wore their hearts on their sleeves.

Almost 12 years, a displacement somewhere in between, and a recently-opened second branch later, we thought we were settling in okay.

A family displaced

It's been 59 days since we stopped operations to observe the lockdown. Just recently, my wife Leah told the staff they are free to accept other jobs and even freer to come back to us when the time comes. That is, if there's anything to come back to.

"Nalulungkot kasi kami, ma'am. Ayaw pa namin na iwan kayo," our cheeky bartender JP quipped.

"Makahanap man po kami ng trabaho, pansamantala lang po 'yun, pero pag nag-open na po ulit 'yung bar, ma’am, papasok po ulit ako sa inyo," said MJ, our ever coy and jolly waiter.

Our tiny family is being torn apart. The fact was a punch in the face: we are now part of the two million displaced workers who are left to pick up the pieces.

With the labor department announcing that they are giving one-time aid of ₱5,000 to employees of micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs), then very quickly announced that they are suspending it because "[the ₱2B] funds are close to being depleted," we were on our own. Their promises to "give additional financial aid" weren't going to put food on the table.

We've exhausted our savings to ensure the staff gets as much, have made arrangements for them to get government aid, and have even called for donations from our generous, lovingly loyal community. It's one of those things we are always grateful for: the people our non-essential business got together. We were there at their times of need. Now they’re here for ours. We were lucky our landlords granted us rent forgiveness. The 50 percent discount paved the way for a bit of money to keep the bank open, but for how long? It felt like our Future was only half-awake, gently stumbling across a dimly-lit hallway.

They say bad things come in threes, but this pandemic doesn't care for small numbers. Like relentless waves, we could barely keep our heads above water.

Most of the time, our work — our bread and butter — is reduced to "Bisyo lang yan." The affection we have towards what we all built, what we all worked blood, sweat, and tears for shrunk into such.

Then came a phone call. It started with, "I love Futurist; I am a big fan of the place and music you play there," which quickly shifted to "We are interested in buying 51 to 100 percent of your business." He stated everything with a matter-of-fact confidence that I envied. The rest of the formalities ensued:

"Let us know what your partners think! We want to lock in our investors before the extended ECQ ends on May 15."

"Sure, I'll update you because this is a big decision to make," I said.

"If you are ready, just send us over your contract of lease so we can start reviewing."

"Okay! Thanks for the call. I'll get back to you!"

I put the phone down and wondered if he heard my voice crack. I filed the thought of losing everything away into the farthest corner of my mind.

"Non-essential"

Back in 2013, Today x Future — our first bar — had to move out of Cubao X. Our other partner Sharon, Leah, and I were going on these long car rides hunting for a new space to call our own. We went to farther areas only to find ourselves two blocks away from our original location.

It used to be a parlor called Princess, whose metal signage we kept and displayed by the DJ booth when we moved in, came with a barber's chair we allowed customers to sit in. Both relics survived for quite some time, but the longest that lingered was the smell of old wood. The walls were blue, the DJ booth made a loud metal clap each time someone stepped up to play the next set and the place, which could only house 50 people inside at most, roared like a stadium.

Just another Saturday night at Today x Future in Cubao. Photo by APA AGBAYANI

We didn't have any neighbors back then, save for the two pawnshops we were nestled in between. No condos, no streetlights, only people finding comfort in sitting curbside and endless singalongs to Ladyhawke or Friendly Fires.

Eventually, more buildings were erected and more businesses opened but we kept on — the place that stayed the same despite all the changes around us.

Our entry to Poblacion wasn't nearly as pioneering but just as equally exciting. The streets are already dotted with bars and restaurants; revelers are hopping from one spot to the next with barangay officials patrolling not too far behind.

There's something at every corner: OTO for bespoke cocktails and a stern rule on opening your mouth for free shots; The Apartment for when you miss the feeling of being in a house party; Element Boutique Hotel to enjoy the best bread to beat all bread; Min Sok for you to drunkenly gorge on the tastiest sundubu-jjigae (that's if you can make it through the greasy floor in one piece); LIMBO for those heavy and hazy nights that you either want to experience seated or leaning on a wall; NOKAL for three floors of mood and a splendid McDo cheeseburger alternative. And then there was Futur:st: that tiny black bar with the warm yellow signage where you're invited to stay close to one another, whether or not you arrived together.

I mull over the term: “non-essential.” Most of the time, our work — our bread and butter — is reduced to "Bisyo lang yan." The affection we have towards what we all built, what we all worked blood, sweat, and tears for shrunk into such. "We painted a medium where people are happy; we make our friends happy. It's profitable not just in the financial sense, but in a fulfillment sense," my friend Niccolo, who used to work as a marketing manager for two successful nightspots in the neighborhood, told me. Used to, because he had just been laid off, and I don't even know if it's right to refer to anything as successful now.

Bars are an essential part of life. We cultivate spaces of celebration, community, and growth. These arduous times are challenging this truth, but it's also reminded us to step back and reevaluate.

Futur:st at Poblacion, Makati. Photo from FUTUR:ST/INSTAGRAM

Stumbling for solutions

"We should do deliveries and pick-ups soon," Sharon said. I'm sure many are missing the tofu sisig and the legendary three-cheese garlic pizza. Maybe we can even start selling a DIY My Shirota or Coffee Nipple kit once the liquor ban is lifted. "We could do a weekend drive-by BBQ too," my dear Leah suggested. I've learned just about everything I know from her, from replacing the Coca-Cola with Sprite when having your rum (for less acidity and sweetness) to finding the balance between grit and warmth in this industry.

Would the number of orders be enough to cover our rent? For how long would our landlords be forgiving? Will we become a mere cautionary tale, a lesson for future nightlife venturers?

With some enterprises making the digital shift, we who thrive on physicality are left with Band-Aid solutions to very deep, open wounds that have very little chance to heal.

It's all coming in waves and between that moment of sinking and gasping for air, I'm reminded of what I wanted to do before this clusterfuck unfolded: to spend more time behind the bar and finesse my shaking skills, hang around the kitchen more and watch how our cook dices everything in seconds, have more nights welcoming our patrons with a handshake and a complimentary Coffee Nipple shot on the other.

It's a tiresome job. Many mornings are made of cursing profusely as you make your way towards the nearest Ibuprofen. But you know what? I can't wait to do it all over again.

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Today x Future and Futur:st are currently accepting advanced purchases and staff donations. Visit their Facebook pages for more information.