Long Beach's Wrigley Tavern Reopens With Face Masks, Temperature Guns And Tons Of Hand Sanitizer
A live version of "Walk on the Wild Side" wafts from the jukebox as Tommy Mofid points a temperature gun at my forehead. I'm standing in the entryway of his Long Beach bar, the Wrigley Tavern, on what should be a routine Friday night. But it's Juneteenth. And the eve of the Summer Solstice. And we're in the midst of sweeping civil rights protests as well as a society-altering global pandemic. Mofid couldn't have found a more auspicious date to reopen his bar, after a painful three-month closure, if he had tried. Fireworks, probably illegal, explode somewhere in the distance and he checks the readout. "You're too cool," he says, his grin peeking out of his mask as he squirts a glob of hand sanitizer into my palms.
This is the new normal, not just for Mofid but for the proprietors of most Los Angeles County bars — if their establishments haven't closed for good.
On Thursday, June 18, county health officials announced bars could reopen the following day, as long as they followed certain protocols. Some rules were obvious — operating at reduced capacity, enforcing physical distancing, requiring employees to wear masks. Some, obscure — no buying or consuming beverages while standing, no board games, no loud music.
Like most bar owners, Mofid is muddling his way through the regulations, hoping it will be enough to keep his business afloat.
He opened the Wrigley Tavern, a vintage cocktail lounge, nearly two years ago in northwest Long Beach. It quickly acquired a cadre of hyper-local regulars looking for imaginative cocktails and interesting conversations. "Best-kept secret" is probably the most overused cliche in the world of food and drink writing but that's how the Wrigley Tavern's patrons often describe the joint. It's humble yet classy. Note the ornate, vintage light fixtures and jukebox that pipes tunes through a custom sound system designed by producer Andrew Murdock.
Cameron Crocket, an architect who has lived in the area for 12 years, calls it a "neighborhood nexus." "It is the kinda location where we get together and have conversations about what is going on with each other," Crocket says.
Mofid and I met when he was one of the head bartenders at The York, in Highland Park, where he owns a home. Before that, he had tended bar at Edendale in Silver Lake. We were reunited when we both moved to the Long Beach area and Mofid purchased the bar, which would become the Wrigley Tavern.
As regulars trickle in during his first night back in business, Mofid struggles to settle back into his routine. Like a jazz musician searching for the right note, he tries to remember where he stores certain bottles of liquor. He mixes gin, ginger ale, grapefruit and pickle juice into a Galapagos, one of his signature cocktails. Customers start conversations as though they left them a few minutes — not a few months — ago.
Mofid reflects on the emotional rollercoaster of the COVID-19 quarantine.
"We couldn't pay our bills... tried to apply for all the loans," he says. For the first time in his life, Mofid says he applied for unemployment. He was told he had qualified but hasn't yet received any money.
Amid this economic uncertainty, protests against racism and police brutality sprung up around Southern California. Mofid joined a march in downtown Long Beach on May 31 then rushed back to his bar after hearing reports of civil unrest.
The protest in support of Black Lives Matter had begun peacefully with approximately 200 people kneeling in front of approximately two dozen officers in riot gear. But as a 6 p.m. curfew was haphazardly announced, civil unrest spilled into areas surrounding downtown Long Beach, including Wrigley to the north and Cambodia Town to the east.
Mofid purchased two-by-fours and boards for the windows but couldn't bring himself to put them up. "It kind of felt defeatist to me. For two years, these windows have never been tagged, never scratched, never broken. I had the stuff and it was just like, 'I'm not going to do this. I'm going to wait it out,'" Mofid says.
That night, he joined forces with other local shop owners who had armed themselves with machetes, bats, shovels and whatever else they could find. One nearby shop owner, from El Salvador, parked his car on the sidewalk. Other business owners followed suit.
Friends and family members implored Mofid to leave but he refused. "I've spent my whole livelihood here," he says slamming his hands on the bar, "30 years [of bartending] coming to this. People were like, 'It's not worth your life.' Well, it's like two-thirds of my life. What am I supposed to do? Go become a barback at 51? I can't really afford that kind of hit," he says.
That night, he and approximately 10 other business owners were joined by a few employees and a handful of die-hard residents as they stood outside their establishments, waiting and watching. When groups ranging in size from six to 15 people drove through the neighborhood, Mofid and his fellow business owners brandished their DIY weapons. The scenes of literal saber-rattling continued until 3 a.m.
The next morning, he experienced a jumble of emotions, mainly numbness mixed with a feeling he calls "treading water." The experience recalled his life in Iran in the late 1970s and, later, the 1992 uprising in Los Angeles. Some surrounding Long Beach businesses, such as a bike shop and the nearby Walgreens, had suffered damage but the Wrigley Tavern had remained intact. Mofid spent the next three nights sleeping at the bar with Gordy, his adopted, nine-year-old Terrier.
Prior to Friday's reopening, Mofid and a neighbor conducted a top-to-bottom cleaning of the Wrigley Tavern, wiping down all surfaces with bleach. Mofid says he has no issue with the county's regulations although he doesn't like the way the bleach leaves streaks on his live oak bar.
Approximately 18 customers showed up, not all at once, on opening night, well below the 50% occupancy level for a venue that can hold 48 people. Mofid used to have two bartenders. They have both moved and he now tends bar alone. He works double-time to check people's temperatures, take orders, mix drinks, wash glasses and bus tables.
"You are working so hard for such a thin margin of profit and now you are going to add all of this," Mofid says. Still, he considers himself lucky. Several nearby bars and restaurants including PBS Pub & Company have gone out of business.
Mofid credits his imagination and some of the difficult experiences he lived through for this resilience. In December 1982, when he was still an adolescent, Mofid and his family fled Iran. They soon landed in the San Fernando Valley.
"I'm an immigrant. I feel like I understand the morphing reality. If you don't have that change, it could be hard for you to go through this change," Mofid says.
Mofid is also a storyteller who comes from a long line of storytellers, most notably his uncle, Bijan Mofid, an influential Iranian playwright who got his start in the 1950s with the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. Commonly known as Kanoon, the program was a personal project of Farah Pahlavi, the Shah's wife. When Mofid came to the United States, he and his family performed in a roving theater troupe. He still travels around the country to act in speculative interpretations of Persain folktales and play traditional music, mostly at Iranian and Persian events.
The last few months he hasn't been able to do any of that, and it has left Mofid restless and anxious. He hates not being able to bartend, something he has done for the last 30 years. When he heard last week L.A. County bars would be allowed to reopen, he was ready — in part, he says, because he had initially been told by officials to expect a June 2nd reopening.
With the reopening come new challenges. How does he follow the health department's guidelines without destroying the bar's ambiance? Mofid balked at putting tape on the floor — too childish for such an adult place, he says. Otherwise, he says he's taking all the proper precautions. But he feels certain guidelines are unclear and he isn't always sure what he can and can't do. Case in point, he wants to set up tables and chairs on the sidewalk and in the rear parking lot surrounding the bar but says he hasn't received word from authorities on whether his plans are in compliance with recently passed ordinances.
The confusion didn't dampen his excitement about the Wrigley Tavern's first night back in business, when he finally got to see some of his regulars. "It is weird but you adapt," Mofid says. "I was pretty excited. They're not just my customers, they're my friends and neighbors."