How one of the world’s most influential bartenders is navigating an industry in disarray

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“If I hear the word ‘pivot’ one more time I might throw something”: How one of the world’s most influential bartenders is navigating an industry in disarray

“We’re all going to have to get very creative over the next six to eight months”

After putting down roots in Toronto last year with Supernova Ballroom, Kelsey Ramage was looking forward to a big 2020. But the pandemic had other plans for her industry. Now, Ramage’s bar is permanently closed, and the return of indoor drinking feels further away than ever before. Here’s how Ramage is dealing with it all.  

My business partner Iain Griffiths and I met at London’s Dandelyan, named the world’s best cocktail bar in 2018. We travelled the world with our Trash Tiki pop-ups, which we used as a showcase for sustainability in the bar world. But we knew we would have more of an impact if we set up a permanent home.

We could have opened a bar anywhere in the world. But Toronto stood out to us the most—we’re pumped to work with the talent in this city and Ontario’s lush landscape and produce. We opened Supernova Ballroom at Bay and Adelaide last fall, and people seemed to get it: they were really into our no-waste fizzes and spritzes.

Six months of being open were just enough for us to start turning a profit. We were just gaining momentum—January and February are generally a slow time for the service industry. They wound up being two of our strongest months, with more parties and events planned for March and April.

On March 16, all the city’s restaurants closed, and we went into survival mode. I went in that day and got all my staff paid and laid-off so they could claim E.I. right away, as most other restaurateurs and bar owners in Toronto did at that time. We looked at what was going on in the U.S. and knew we needed to start doing to-go cocktails immediately if we had any hope of making it through to the other side. So before the AGCO made to-go alcohol legal in Ontario, we quietly launched Dolly Trolley, our delivery brand. It’s the only way we could make revenue—we had no clue how long we would be closed—so we quickly started delivering batches of spicy Tajin margaritas and daiquiris with coconut syrup: $20 for the cocktail ingredients, plus the price of a bottle of alcohol.

Business was good, especially when everybody was in lockdown. People were so appreciative—we’d leave the bags on the doorstep and they’d come out of their house and wave. But the revenue was not even close to covering the bills that were coming in.

We are fortunate to have reasonable landlords. Our rent is $10,000 a month, and with no income, we said, “Look, there’s not enough money to pay the rent that we owe you.” If we held onto the space through the subsidy, our landlords were even willing to throw in a couple of months free rent at the end of it—none of their other tenants were even answering emails or calls, so they were just happy to hear from us. We didn’t think we’d be shut down for more than three months, so we agreed and had every intention of reopening by June or July.

But, even now, the Financial District hasn’t recovered, not even close. With our location, we relied so heavily on events and the Bay Street crowd, and those events are dried up for the foreseeable future. We decided there was no way to stay open. We officially closed Supernova Ballroom in July, a little less than a year after we first opened.

I lost my entire investment in Supernova—just over six figures. We packed everything away in three massive days. I still have everything—our hightops, our velvet curtains, the pink unicorn that greeted guests—I wasn’t about to liquidate my investment. This part of my life, my creative process, hasn’t died.

We were about to launch a series of super-experiential pop-ups this month in a private room at Bloor and Dovercourt. Innovative drinks. Limited seating. Groups of only two or four, six feet apart. Early seatings, with plenty of time in between to sanitize the space. Temperature checks at entry. We were going to get COVID tests before each event. If it worked, we hoped to roll it out Canada-wide, and give Supernova Ballroom a new, albeit different life from the one it had in the Before Times.   

But the cases spiked and we put a pin in the pop-up. It just doesn’t feel safe to run an indoor bar right now, and because we no longer have the overhead of a bricks and mortar space hanging over us, the postponement seemed like the right thing to do. Once we have more safeguards in place, like rapid antigen testing, we’ll announce new dates and get it rolling again. I’m too excited about the concept not to.

Between hatching the idea for these pop-ups, launching a delivery cocktail business and learning to make cool cocktails that travel well, I’ve had to get very creative. We’re all going to have to, especially over the next six to eight months. Unfortunately, we’re seeing smaller bars and restaurants hit harder than larger restaurants. But on the other side of that, people are thinking outside the box: Civil Liberties’ Nick Kennedy built an entire wood patio in the back parking lot of his bar with his own two hands. He started working with Paradise Grapevine and now they’re making canned cocktails. We’ve all had to “pivot” but honestly if I hear that word one more time I might throw something. Our industry needs real financial relief from the government if we’re going to make it, not in the form of more debt or some bullshit assistance that gets chucked to our landlords. But until then, I guess at least we’re all in this together.

It’s hard telling this story. Part of what drew me to Toronto is the incredible restaurants, bars, and concert venues. We’ve lost so many amazing live music spots and we’re starting to watch cocktail bars and restaurants get taken out by this thing. It’s heartbreaking for sure. I’ve felt it first hand: just last week, I won International Bartender of the Year after closing my bar. But I believe in what Supernova stood for, and the drinks, vibe, and people that made it what it is. I want to reopen somewhere new, just not at such an uncertain time. But all my stuff is in storage. I’m going to hang onto it all.

—As told to Kate Dingwall