The Plaza Tavern is regarded by many as a Madison institution. But the bar, established in the 1930s, is the latest in a long line of local businesses threatened by the pandemic.
Before the Plaza Tavern was the Plaza Tavern, it was a pool hall and a speakeasy, according to Erica DeRosa, who’s worked at the Plaza since the 1990s.
In its near-century of operation, The Plaza has witnessed its share of Madison history. Mayors, local politicians, college students, journalists: all have passed through its doors at some point.
DeRosa calls it a place for everybody.
“I’ve worked at Plaza for twenty years and I’ve seen generations come through,” DeRosa says. “I see parents bring their infants and now those infants are coming in on Thursdays and buying Long Islands.”
DeRosa, one of the Plaza’s current managers, was in the process of taking ownership of the bar, alongside incoming co-owner Ian Miller, when the pandemic struck and closed bars and restaurants throughout the country. The Plaza has continued delivering food during the pandemic, but DeRosa says delivery alone is not a solid long-term strategy.
“Our business model is not set up to rely on the food aspect,” she explains. “The food is kind of a bonus when you come to Plaza. We are a bar, so it’s quite difficult to afford staying open.”
A GoFundMe to support the Plaza has already raised over $50,000 of its $75,000 goal. One thousand people have donated since the page was set up two days ago.
The money, DeRosa says, will go towards maintaining the restaurant’s fixed overhead costs in the coming months. The rest will go towards paying DeRosa, Miller and current owner Dean Hetue’s salaries.
“For the last six weeks, Erica, my other manager Ian and myself have been donating our time. We’re making enough to pay for the product and the utilities,” Hetue says.
Hetue, who’s owned and operated the Plaza since 1980, says the support from the community was greater than he expected.
“I knew we would get a good response, but I didn’t have any idea it would be like this. we’re two thirds of the way there in less than 48 hours.”
According to both DeRosa and Hetue, most of the local restaurant aid measures passed by the city won’t work for the Plaza. DeRosa says the restaurant and bar doesn’t have enough outdoor sidewalk space to expand with the city’s Streatery program.
Madison has closed some streets to allow for expansion of the streateries, but Henry Street is not one of those.
“They’ve closed down other streets in the city, but ours is not closed and our sidewalk is not big enough to put a patio on,” DeRosa says.
Hetue says that the bar was temporarily opened during June, but had to shut down on July 2nd after the city passed a public health order blocking indoor seating in bars.
The Tavern Plaza’s situation encapsulates issues faced by restaurants across the country. About a quarter of those who lost their jobs early on in the pandemic worked in the restaurant industry, according to federal unemployment data.
As COVID restrictions have loosened nationally, those numbers have gradually improved. But, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate of restaurant workers stands at nearly nineteen percent, more than double the national average.
Haley Sperling is the former Editor in Chief of the Badger Herald, one of UW-Madison’s student newspapers. She says The Tavern Plaza, which is just around the corner from the Herald’s office, has been a gathering place for student reporters for years.
“When I worked as an editor at the Herald, Thursday nights at the Plaza were long island nights,” Sperling says. “It was never an ideal situation when you were the editor on Thursday evenings, because you knew that you were going to be in the office for a long time. The light at the end of the tunnel was always being able to walk into the Plaza and get a Long Island.”
Madison-resident Greg May started going to the Plaza as a freshman in college. He was initially hooked by the bar’s Plaza Burger, but an indefinable quality kept him coming back.
“I don’t know,” he says. “It has this certain je ne sais quoi. I can’t quite describe what works about it, but it is just an amazing place.”
(Photo c/o The Plaza Tavern)