The Big Stick Reopens Today After More Than Seven Months of Closure. Why Are Many Not Happy?

The Big Stick (Oct 2017 photo)

[Author’s Note: One of the owners of The Big Stick reached out and we had a 15 minute conversation Wednesday addressing some factual issues in this article. I had drafted a summary of that conversation that I was going to add to the end and sent it to them to make sure it was accurate and didn’t reveal off-the-record info (the latter at their request). After review, they decided they no longer wanted to make a statement, though they once again indicated that this article contained false information re the bar. Since the first conversation was still on the record, I decided that, instead of adding the two paragraphs, to revise/edit throughout to incorporate information from the on-the record conversation. ] 

The Big Stick, the low(ish)-key Navy Yard neighborhood favorite since it opened in December 2014, reopens for business Tuesday, November 3rd. The spot has been closed for all service, even takeout, since March 15th, with near radio silence on social media since. However, instead of joy, the news has met with anger in my DMs and on social media from several staff members and regulars.

I tried to get some clarity about what is going on. This is based on discussions with some of of The Big Stick’s staff as well as statements made by The Big Stick (including an on-record conversation with one of the owners):

  • Few of the front of house staffers were rehired for reopening. There are only a handful of tables at the reopened Big Stick
  • There are approximately 7-8 staffers on the payroll now. There is a new GM, but many (the Big Stick says the “majority”) of the staff working now came from the pre-pandemic staff. Note this does not mean that a majority of the previous staff was re-hired.
  • All the staffers who weren’t hired for reopening learned of the reopening the same way the public did, from the social media post on Monday. One of the owners told me that they had been focusing on communicating with those they were able to bring back.
  • The staff were informed in early June that The Big Stick applied for and received a CARES Act Small Business Administration (SBA) Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loan and they would be reopening soon, but have not heard anything since. One of the owners said they are in compliance with the PPP requirements.
  • The impression the staffers had gotten when the announcement was made was that they all had been replaced by the new GM. One of the owners denies this was the case.
  • The Big Stick’s former bar manager was asked by The Big Stick  management/ownership to help prepare the bar for re-opening by helping purchase liquor and supplies. There is an allegation from at least one former staffer that essentially this was a bait and switch-that he was induced to leave one job to help them when they in fact did not hire him to be bar manager for reopening. From ownership’s perspective, they emphatically deny they “blindsinded” him into quitting his new job to come back. They understood that he already had another job and thought there were no hard feelings.

Here are some more details to flesh this out:

The Big Stick indeed, according to SBA data, received a PPP loan of somewhere between $150,000-$350,000. The loan was approved on May 12th, and according to SBA data (which has reportedly had some accuracy issues), the bar noted that it had 28 employees before the pandemic.

On June 5th, one of the owners sent an email to the “Big Stick Team” that read in part (bold is mine):

We wanted to provide a positive update that we have applied for and received a [SBA PPP loan] that will help us re-open.

The current plan is to re-open over the next month or so, with a special focus on outdoor sales …The initial operation will be smaller but we will hopefully expand operations to where they were before COVID-19 as soon as it is possible to so, both financially and according to the DC regulations.,,,

We will keep you all posted on a weekly or bi-weekly basis as we progress towards a re-opning, or sooner if there is major news. To ensure that we are all prepared, please reply to or directly call any of the ownership/management team if you have any questions or to indicate your availability to work as we re-open.

….

On Monday, following the announcement of reopening a staff member posted this on a neighborhood Facebook group

…I want you to all know that you won’t be seeing any of the faces behind the bar that you’re used to. The owners decided that bringing back the legacy bar staff wasn’t a good idea after hiring a new GM. Despite emailing the staff months ago telling us they were opening soon and leading us to believe we’d be working there again soon; and going so far as to have [the former bar manager] help set everything  … up for the current “Grand Re-Opening” they decided a new GM and a new staff was better for them.

Do with this inormation what you will, but know that many of us still don’t have jobs because we were waiting for our owners/management to bring us back with the PPP loan they received.

Soon after this was posted to Facebook, the bar finally sent an email to their staff:

As many of you have seen on social media, we are opening the big stick tomorrow with limited operations and staff. We sincerely apologize for not communicating to everyone earlier. We should have done a better job of keeping everyone informed. …

We will reach out to folks if the business can support more positions or please feel free to stop by when we are open to talk to us.

Alternatively, please keep in mind there is a real possibility that we are forced to close our doors again in a month or two (or less) depending on the ongoing public health situation. One thing we wanted to avoid was hiring and then having to cut a bunch of staff which would impact folks’ income / access to unemployment benefits.

Again, we regret not informing you all earlier. ….

Another staffer told me:

…Them posting on social media that they’re reopening is the only communication I have heard from them in months. This is apparently how I am finding out that I do not have a job anymore….

Tuesday morning, The BIg Stick posted this statement on social media channels:

We are excited to reopen The BIg Stick today. The last 7 months have been extremely challenging and we’ve been navigating the process as best as we can. We want to reopen to serve our neighborhood which we have loved being a part of for the last 5 years. While the majority of our team includes our former staff, we are unfortunatey unable to bring back our full team given capacity restrictions and slower consumer traffic in the neighborhood We hope to bring back more staff down the road and we understand some disappointment that we’re unable to do so at this time. With so many places closing their doors for good, it’s our goal to endure and get through this to serve our community welll into the future. For now, we’ve excited to open our doors and welcome our customers once again.

Here’s the upshot of everything from my perspective: The lack of communication with the staff, after giving them an impression in June that they could be rehired soon, was devastating to the staffers who saw that social media post yesterday, and their apology was certainly warranted. I don’t think it’s unreasonable at all for The Big Stick to only have a skeleton staff, particularly during the winter, but the fact that they took a PPP loan unfortunately gave the staff the impression that would help them get their jobs back. The allegation about the former bar manager being blindsided seems to be more murky and lack a lot of details.

It should be noted, PPP loans could be used for payroll, benefits, mortgage, rent, utility, and some other interest payments. To obtain full loan foregiveness, the business must use at least 60% of it for payroll costs in either an 2 or 6 month period. Otherwise, the loan carries a 1% interest rate though payments are deferred for 10 months after the end of  the period. There’s no requirement to rehire the same workers. As noted, the owner I spoke to believes they are in full compliance with PPP requireemnts.

 

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