Many aspects of the bar and restaurant world have taken time to recover after the beating they took during the time of COVID-19 shutdowns. From supply-chain issues to inflated prices for raw materials, there has been a constant barrage of struggles for business owners and bartenders to deal with every day.
Now some owners and employees have something else to worry about: Toward the end of the summer, many local bars started seeing an unexpected rise in violence and bad late-night behavior. These incidents went beyond the average bar fight or drunken misunderstanding, with some escalating to gunfire and street brawls that blocked busy downtown intersections.
You’re likely unaware of these sorts of things if, like me, you’re sung in your bed well before midnight—but a whole industry remains up late to keep the party going, and this group of hard-working bartenders is doing everything in their power to keep their patrons safe and provide fun, vibrant environments for people to enjoy themselves.
Josh Callen, the owner of Blind Dog Tavern in downtown Reno, has worked hard to create a dynamic gathering place in the city’s center. Blind Dog offers a large selection of curated spirits, with some of the best staff in Reno making thoughtful cocktails.
“An incident has happened every week without fail for five weeks in a row,” Callen said, describing brawls, with 15 to 30 people, taking place on the corner of Sierra and First streets. “Right after COVID, we felt that the bar was doing its thing and getting its groove back—and all of that slowed down.”
These fights are out of Blind Dog’s control, as they happen outside on the street, where all the staff can do is watch in horror. “We have lost a third of our weekend business, because when the cops show up, we are done for the night,” Callen said.
He said he’s done everything he can to communicate with local police and city code enforcement, but feels left twisting in the wind. “I feel crazy sometimes when I tell people about this, and they have no idea it’s even going on. It’s just my staff and me. I wish people knew the city did not do anything about this as it got worse.”
Callen is not alone in feeling frustrated. Other bartenders and bar owners, who preferred to remain unidentified due to fear of repercussions, told me they felt a lack of support when they reached out for help, and that the city remains understaffed for late-night enforcement. All most bars can do is push the violence outside and hope for the best. While Callen and his team have procedures and protocols to deal with violence, not everyone is as proactive as the crew at Blind Dog Tavern.
Many late-night bartenders hired after the pandemic are new to bartending and do not always have the necessary experience to defuse uncomfortable situations. This lack of experienced bartenders and, in some cases, professional management can lead to guests being overserved, and staff being overwhelmed. A busy bar late at night can quickly escalate without the proper training and resources. The fusion of a crowded bar, alcohol and incivility can make for an unsafe work environment—which, in turn, makes it even more challenging to hire the right people. Who wants to pour drinks while being screamed at for minimum wage? Who wants to own a bar when you know the city won’t help you when a situation gets out of hand?
So what can be done? The best bar operators around town are being assertive about these issues by hiring more security, supporting their staff with trained management, charging covers, and changing their programming to create a more positive and fun environment for people to enjoy.
I am not telling you to stay in or go home early; late nights can be some of the most fun you can have in Reno. Callen said it best: “We should be focusing on making this area as good as it can be.”
We need to support the bars making these positive changes by asking our city to have the backs of our late-night economy—and to ensure our friends go home safely when they have too much to drink. We, as patrons, need to support the places that provide safe environments where we can dance the night away. So grab your friends; stay out late; and look out for each other—and the community pouring your drinks.