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Closure rumors aren't true — but Bender's Bar & Grill could use some help

Closure rumors aren't true — but Bender's Bar & Grill could use some help
Bender's Bar & Grill owners Dion Jolley (left), Johnny Davis, and Kevin DeMattia. | Photos: Alisa Scerrato/Hoodline
By Alisa Scerrato - Published on July 13, 2020.

Bender's Bar & Grill has survived a lot, from a 2006 fire that shut it down for 15 months to a needed recent renovation that ran its cash reserves dry. But since the popular Mission dive bar launched a GoFundMe campaign, social media has been abuzz with rumors that the pandemic will spell its end.  

The COVID-19 crisis is definitely the biggest challenge Bender's has faced yet, said co-owner Kevin DeMattia. But rumors of a closure are overblown. 

Along with his business partners Dion Jolley, Johnny Davis, Liam Martin, and Will Schoeppe, DeMattia has been trying to hold on since bars were closed down on March 16.

Four months on, DeMattia — who also owns Emperor Norton’s Boozeland in the Tenderloin with Jolley, Martin and Cam Maddern — is getting worried, which is what drove him and his partners to crowdfunding. 

"For four and a half months, we've been paying rent while having zero income, and that's not sustainable for anyone," DeMattia said. Throw in fixed costs like power and trash service and a depleted bank account from a major recent renovation, and it's easy to understand his concern.

DeMattia never thought he'd be in a position where he'd to have to ask for help, but it's just an uncertain time.

"It's been a tough time for everyone," he said. "This pandemic thing has put everything on hold."

The GoFundMe campaign is aiming to raise $50,000 to support the bar, known for its old-school rock-and-roll character, live music and frequent fundraisers. 

To make extra cash, DeMattia and his partners considered reopening Bender's as a bottle shop, but they didn't think it would be very profitable — and they didn't want to put staff at risk.

The bar does have a kitchen, meaning it could offer outdoor seating with food service. But the tiny back patio won't fit many customers with proper social distancing, and customers would need to walk through the interior to get to it.

Even if Bender's could snag a sidewalk berth or parking spot through the Shared Spaces program, the location on busy South Van Ness Avenue isn't the safest. (Boozeland, on crowded Larkin Street, is arguably in an even worse position.)

That leaves crowdfunding.

"We just don't want to get buried in so much debt that we cannot come out of it," DeMattia said. Every bit helps. 

Even if Bender's can survive the pandemic, DeMattia said, a change will need to happen around the city for bars to succeed. With social distancing, bars like his aren't going to be able to reopen at full capacity — and landlords are going to need to reduce rents accordingly. 

"If landlords are too greedy, they will lose tenants," he said. "Right now, we have a good relationship with our landlord, and we want to stay here and continue that."