When the world goes mad, what are business owners at the heart of the Edgewood party district to do? Make changes that are fun and responsible and hope their passion translates into survival, of course.
Like every business, gay-owned or otherwise, Georgia Beer Garden and its sister venue Joystick Gamebar struggled with the wrench the coronavirus pandemic threw into their path. That’s true even now as they regain footing.
“The good news is nobody on staff has been sick,” said Brandon Ley, co-owner of the two venues with Johnny Martinez. “The bad news is the businesses only pull in about 15% of what they were doing this same time last year. It’s been hard.”
In 2014, Martinez and Ley (top photo, l-r) added their Southern twist to the classic beer garden to the already thriving Joystick across the street in 2014. They welcome inclusive crowds for beers exclusively from Georgia, regional spirits, and a balanced menu with something for everyone.
Always gay-owned but never gay-narrow, Georgia Beer Garden’s inclusive schedule was peppered with queer events. Regulars flocked to Chug drag shows (second photo), watch parties for the gay pro-soccer fans of All Stripes and more.
Then came coronavirus, and a winning formula needed tweaking — fast.
Outdoor Korean fusion & ‘boozy slushies’
Two federal rescue loans aimed at the pandemic economy bolstered the men’s resolve and resources. A great relationship with a neighboring Korean Fusion restaurant also helped a new business model take shape.
“Both Joystick Gamebar and DaeChowChow are quarantining in one spot, Georgia Beer Garden,” Martinez said. “Together, all three offer to-go, and we built out a website to allow folks to order online.”
They even redesigned the popular Georgia Beer Garden patio.
“We made it easier to access the backyard without having to step foot inside,” Martinez and Ley said. “Our backyard is the largest in Downtown Atlanta, so it allows for plenty of social distancing.”
Frozen cocktails called “Boozy slushies” are ready for takeout, and the menu expands with new offerings from DaeChowChow. To expand horizons further, new hours of operation host house-made breakfast sandwiches and coffee on tap. The to-go window starts slinging both at 8 a.m.
“We try to keep our spirits up by being excited for the changes we’re making,” Martinez said. “We hope that our joy and passion for what we’re doing translates to our guests’ experiences.”
Winter is coming
As they expressed in a recent Q Conversations about gay-owned bars surviving the pandemic, Martinez and Ley take coronavirus seriously. Staff is temperature-checked, masked and pulling double duty on sanitizing. Reduced occupancy and outside-only service are the new normal.
“Guests can enjoy Georgia Beer Garden’s spacious backyard, but inside is off limits,” Ley said.
“Joystick hosts only small, private parties with guests in one room and staff in another with different air circulators,” Martinez added. “We value the health of our guests and staff more than money.”
And those popular events (third photo)? They get 2020 makeovers. The backyard fills with pitchers and pretzels for Oktoberfest, and Halloween hosts an outside “Nightmare Bar.”
For the most part, the changes work, but “funds are drying up, and winter is coming,” the owners said with only a half-kidding ominous tone. Still, they’re determined to get through the tough times.
Parties, politics and people
Ley and Martinez view the whole pandemic year as a challenge, and their events as something they can do to keep business flowing and people happy.
“We will continue to be a home to Atlanta’s politically active, with outdoor, limited capacity debate watch parties,” they said. “Gathering for sports isn’t prudent, so we’ve created our Weekend Tailgate @ Home packages.”
The guys are no strangers to community advocacy and progressive politics, from a soccer clinic for kids with All Stripes and Atlanta United (bottom photo) to Atlanta’s Downtown Façade Improvement Program. In June, they pushed the legislature and governor for legalized marijuana as good for Georgia.
When it comes to the future, Ley and Martinez said that making it better lies in the present, with LGBTQ people taking the lead.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, we’re at 100 on being ready to put this all behind us,” they said, predicting that “back to normal” could be any time from spring to Christmas in 2021.
“Please stop engaging in risky behaviors, because you’re not just putting yourself in harm’s way,” the men asserted. “All of our lives and livelihoods are on the line.”