Doors Open: A Bay Area Reopening Series – The Midway

Photos courtesy of The Midway // Written by Molly Kish //

The Midway – San Francisco

On March 15th, 2020, bars, nightclubs, wineries and brewpubs all across the Bay Area were told to close effective immediately under California state order as industries long considered to be the backbone of the Bay Area’s cultural identity were shattered overnight by COVID-19.

While restaurants and retail began to slowly continue operations, the state’s color coded reopening plan left venues shuttered. Without any clear indication or timeline as to what the future held, SF’s nightlife was left to wonder when (or if), they’d ever be able to announce “Doors Open” again.

Amidst this last year of pandemic chaos, several local entities demonstrated resilience in preserving the city’s entertainment infrastructure. Setting the precedent for the rest of the country through unwavering passion and innovation, this series highlights key figures and institutions that continue to survive, fight for and usher in the re-opening of the Bay Area economy.

To start things off, we feature a SF venue that has progressively and successfully transformed in order to keep its doors open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic: The Midway.

Providing moderated crowds with uniquely intimate and COVID-19 friendly experiences, we spoke with The Midway’s assistant general manager Andrea Kirk about the struggles, endurance and ingenuity it takes to run an entertainment space during a global pandemic.

“The Midway is an intersection of art, culture, technology and food. We really aim to bring together all of those different elements that would be considered to be part of the creative realm and to be a canvas for different types of ideas that are coming through.” – Andrea Kirk, Assistant General Manager

It’s 3 p.m. on a Thursday, and The Midway patio is surprisingly active. Technicians are testing speakers, managers are laying out floor plans and several forklifts continue to load in tables, chairs and audio equipment. The energy is bustling. Kirk arrives and suggests that we relocate to the venue’s main room to avoid the noise.

Sitting at a table staged for an upcoming event, Kirk proceeds to laugh and lament about the absurdity of everything, humbly recognizing the fact that it’s a privilege to even have the opportunity to be interrupted by a load-in this afternoon. She’s still processing the emotions of the pandemic and subsequent toil it took on the Bay Area as she candidly discusses the moment it all became real and the past 18 months at The Midway.

“I mean, I think that there was definitely a certain level of disbelief. Not in a ‘is COVID real?’ sort of way but more of a ‘Is this really happening?’ It felt very surreal. Having to drop everything to a 250-person capacity effectively meant that we had to shut everything down. Afterwards we went into shelter in place for the two weeks which then was extended and extended again and it just was sort of like, ‘What is happening in the world?’ and not even having words to even identify thoughts or feelings about it. Just being really in shock.”

During the months leading up to reopening, Kirk’s main focus was to keep optimistic, explore all creative options and maintain open and honest communication with the staff. As businesses stood by watching the Bay Area dance between colors on the tier system, the staff of The Midway decided to be proactive with their options.

“I remember when we were approaching our initial ability to reopen, which I guess would’ve put us into the purple tier the first time and it was really such an experiment for us. We realized that outdoor dining was going to open and that we have our café on site, so one of the things we kept doing regularly was have a weekly staff check in. It really helped for all of us to stay on the same page.

This allowed for us to really have the conversation and realize that ‘Oh, wait we do fit this criteria?’ and raise the question of ‘Do we actually think anyone would come out, if we did it?’ You know those first several events I think we were losing money on them, but we really felt that it was so important to have something for people to do. When I say that I’m not just talking about the people who are coming to these events, I mean it was really important for us psychologically. Our team having the ability to do something and have ‘work’ … many tears of relief were shed.”

The Midway made its best efforts to comply with the city’s fluctuating live entertainment regulations, with initial events ranging from comedy shows to movie nights and even outdoor drag shows. Providing one of the only spaces in the Bay Area to engage in socially distant entertainment, the venue operated for about six weeks before it ran into its biggest obstacle yet.

“There was obviously that fact that we were shut down, which I think everyone knows about. The funny part was when an article was published about it months after the fact, people assumed that it had happened again, when it hadn’t. I think that was really hard because first of all, on that evening we were less than 10 minutes away from the end of the event and of course this is when the cops show up. When they wrote us up, they were saying ‘Oh, you guys don’t have food and you don’t have this or that,’ and literally my chef was walking out and the rest of the kitchen staff was still on site. It was just one of those moments where you’re thinking, ‘This looks so much worse than it is.’

Most disappointing was not the fact that we got a lot of feedback from the health department or anything like that, it was actually that they straight up gave us a cease and desist order instead of anybody reaching out to contact us. It was point blank ‘You have done all of the things wrong’ and ‘Let’s get the lawyers involved,’ which was really unfortunate.”

On July 22nd, 2020, The Midway was amongst a large sweep of businesses that were temporarily closed by the San Francisco Health Department. Along with the EndUp, The Knockout and Valencia Room amongst others, the venue’s live entertainment and dining experiences were once again placed on hold just weeks after it got up and running.

“We’ve since come around and been able to really have more of a real conversation with them. It’s been a balance to do this both safely and in a manner that people feel comfortable, which aren’t always the same thing.

There was a lot of back and forth during the shut down. Some very valuable information was exchanged but also with consecutive frustration when for example: you’ve got redlined documents in which we stated ‘tables and chairs are cleaned between guests,’ and we get told, ‘You need to say tables and chairs are sanitized between each guest’ I do feel like a lot of that could’ve happened in a really good conversation and that it didn’t need to go the way it went, but again, there were good things that came out of it too. We definitely revamped a few things, including how our security worked and service was conducted.”

After adjustments were made to comply with the new standards, The Midway was able to continue with their operations within a matter of weeks. The current outdoor layout spans two full city blocks accommodating more than 100 tables, all of which are limited to four people per designated space. The patio remains open with access to two outdoor bars and the venue’s café, Madame Zola’s Fortune, is providing both brunch and dinner menu options.

“Some of the changes just sort of happened naturally, like how we have the ability for people to do contactless ordering from their tables. This was something that we had just started to do via online ordering with our café, for our neighbors. I think we were some of the early adopters of that, and now you see it at just about every restaurant that I’ve been to in multiple states at this point. It was really nice to just be able to do that, and it definitely has been the thing that has allowed us to successfully scale. Getting 100 tables out here is a lot, especially if you have service. So, the online ordering has been really key in our ability to operate at the level that we are.”

Transitioning from streams and virtual events into full scale performances was no easy feat. Besides the logistical nightmare of attempting to book artists who were available and interested in performing, The Midway faced the challenge of creating an audio experience that would be comparable to the venue’s main room, but outdoors.

“We had to uninstall a bunch of equipment from one of the rooms here and really dig into our inventory to make sure that we were able to hit the sound outside, which in part was due to the new standards but also conversations with the neighbors, who have been absolutely amazing. I’m grateful that they are very supportive and they basically have an open invitation to come to any of the shows, (they just have to let us know so that we can reserve them a table).”

Though navigating the last few months has been no easy feat, Kirk remains positive in the fact that the venue has booked a consistently busy event calendar that people continue to remain excited about. As the vaccination rates rise in SF, the possibility of a “return to normalcy” in 2021 becomes more and more realistic by the day. Even with the current limitations, The Midway has already started to book their several indoor spaces for upcoming events and dining series.

“As for additional culinary things coming up, they’re still kind of in the works, but we’re developing a series of different types of tastings, food and liquor pairings. We’re very excited about those. In terms of the exhibits, we actually opened up our ‘Artist in Residence’ program, which was supposed to be a six-month cohort and it’s now going to be like nine or ten months just because we had opened and shut. We’ll be doing some shows with them later in the fall, and we actually are going to be launching some workshops with the artists as well.”

Instead of viewing this past year as an insurmountable challenge, Kirk and The Midway’s staff have taken risks to provide the Bay Area with an ingenious spin on outdoor entertainment. By utilizing its property and assets to their full potential, The Midway has not only been able to work around barriers other clubs have not been able to, but it also has produced events and concepts that have exceeded so many of their guests’ expectations.

“Well, our brunch has been really successful, and I think that there’s at least some elements of that we would love to keep. It’s funny because I moved to San Francisco just about four years ago and one of the things I said was that ‘I still love to go out and go dancing, but I just don’t know if I want to be up until 4 a.m. for much longer. Then I thought, day parties … day parties are great in the Bay Area!

They’ve been so good for our café, to really just come up with solid menus and develop them to shift seasonally. Whereas before, I think a lot of our café food was based on what corporate events would say they’d want on their menus. We will always have certain key dishes, but now there’s seasonal changes that will happen as well. So, I think from a creative aspect there is a lot more going on now.”

Looking toward the future, Kirk sees no slowing down and expects California — should things continue to trend positively — to be back in action in accordance with the statewide projection of June 15th. She remains grateful for The Midway’s ability to survive the challenges of this past year but could not be happier for the proverbial end in sight.

Remaining cognizant of everything that the venue has been able to endure, Kirk mentions how she has been humbled and changed personally by the pandemic. Her main takeaway, however, is much more indicative of the strength of her work force as well as her genuine leadership and core values as the venue’s assistant GM that truly make The Midway a relentless force in the re-opening of the Bay Area.

“No. 1 thing that I have gotten out of COVID is an emphasis on how we all work together. In my opinion, The Midway has always had a family vibe and I roll my eyes a little because I know that people say that and it’s annoying. But we really had each other’s backs through this across the board, and I am super duper proud of this team and how they’ve worked together.

I would say secondarily was the need for people to get out and have a way to do that in a safe manner. But 100% it has all been to make sure that our staff is taken care of.”

Check out The Midway’s event calendar for reservations here.