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Surviving the shutdown: No sports, no bars. So what’s a sports bar to do?

Jim Rafferty, owner of Kelly's Korner Tavern in Placentia.
Jim Rafferty, owner of Kelly’s Korner Tavern in Placentia, has had to pivot drastically to keep his sports bar afloat while bars and sports are shut down.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing shutdown have left many restaurants uncertain about their future. As they grapple with new realities, we asked some of them to share their stories

Only two of the 31 televisions inside Kelly’s Korner Tavern were turned on at lunchtime recently, just the most prominent indicator of how the coronavirus has changed the popular sports bar in Placentia.

“People come to sports bars to feel normal,” said owner Jim Rafferty, 41.

The new normal: Tables are pushed together, heaped with cases of beer and T-shirts; plastic bins of utensils obscure the photos and plaques of high school, college and pro teams that adorn the walls.

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And those televisions? They were tuned to Nat Geo and Nat Geo Wild.

“Right now,” Rafferty continued, “we need to offer as much ‘normal’ as possible.”

Chairs are stacked on tables at Kelly's Korner Tavern in Placentia during the coronavirus shutdown.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

With no games to watch and no crowds allowed at restaurants, many sports bars across California have closed, permanently or otherwise, during the pandemic. Kelly’s remains open, in large part, because it has a secret weapon: honest-to-goodness delicious bar food.

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The slate of fare is standard; the execution is superb. It has a robust craft beer selection from breweries across Orange, San Diego and L.A. counties, now available to go as growlers or in closed containers. The salsa verde on the nachos is made in house, the onion rings are delicately fried, the chicken wings are so saucy and crunchy that a fan commissioned a banner à la Colette Miller’s “Angel Wings” street art murals that customers can pose in front of.

“I wish every town had a Kelly’s,” said Robert Flores, a retired butcher from Santa Ana. “They know your name, they have above-average grub. They don’t have sports right now, but you don’t suddenly stop supporting a place like this.”

Bartender Brianna Van De Mortel takes a beer order from a customer at Kelly's Korner Tavern.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
The Yorba Linda Chicken Sandwich of Placentia from Kelly's Korner Tavern.
The Yorba Linda Chicken Sandwich of Placentia is one of the best-selling menu items at Kelly’s Korner Tavern.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
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Right now, during the hardest times Kelly’s has faced, Rafferty has realized how beloved the sports bar is in northern Orange County.

“Friends will order at the same time just so they can catch up from a distance in person for a bit,” he said. “We’re a bigger part of the community than I figured.”

Rafferty was at Kelly’s for the March 11 game between the Utah Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder that got canceled just moments before tip-off because Jazz center Rudy Gomert had tested positive for the coronavirus. Just hours earlier, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson had announced the same thing.

“No one at the bar seemed to notice,” Rafferty said. “But I knew then this was going to get serious.”

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After a couple weeks of running a pop-up shop to sell off surplus produce and meat, Rafferty closed for a few days so the restaurant could prepare for its current model.

Even with the support of regulars, business is down by more than half. A third of Kelly’s staff of 24 is furloughed, with everyone else’s hours reduced. He was approved for a federal paycheck-protection program loan, but he hasn’t yet received it.

The PPP was supposed to save our small restaurants and businesses. But where’s the money?

At this rate, Rafferty says, the sports bar will be OK until June, at which point he will have to furlough an additional 50% of the staff “and make other drastic changes. Either way, it’s just a struggle to survive.”

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Bartender Julie Radtke and chef Miguel Barrow  prepare takeout orders at Kelly's Korner Tavern.
Bartender Julie Radtke and chef Miguel Barrow prepare takeout orders at Kelly’s Korner Tavern.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

And when California lets restaurants allow in-person dining again, he says that will create an existential challenge: how to run a sports bar where people will probably have to social distance for the foreseeable future instead of pack it full like the old days.

“I’m honestly potentially going to have to turn people away even though we’re half-full,” he said. “I’m gonna have a lot of customers upset with me, I’m sure.”

So Rafferty tries to lighten the mood whenever possible. Near the entrance, the 4-foot-tall bobblehead of Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden now wears a protective mask with Kelly’s logo on it. And the bar’s popular Thursday trivia nights have transitioned to Zoom; one recent night saw more than 40 people drinking, laughing and trash-talking virtually. Rafferty joined in from home, with a picture of Kelly’s in happier times as his wallpaper.

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For a couple of hours, everything seemed, well, normal.

T-shirts and other items on sale at Kelly's Korner Tavern.
T-shirts and other items on sale at Kelly’s Korner Tavern. A bobblehead of Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden now wears a protective mask.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)


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