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Nickel On A Dime: How One Austin Bar Tried To Make Ends Meet Through Deliveries

Nickel City Co-owner Travis Tober and Manager Amanda Carto go over delivery orders.
Michael Minasi
Nickel City Co-owner Travis Tober and Manager Amanda Carto go over delivery orders.

To say businesses in Austin are getting hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic is putting it lightly. The City of Austin on Tuesday ordered all bars and restaurants to close their dining rooms, restricting businesses to takeout and delivery-orders only.

It might not be too difficult for a place already set up for this kind of thing to make the transition. But businesses that don’t do delivery or takeout have had to find creative ways to adapt to this new normal. 

Nickel City is one of those places. The dive bar, which sits on 11th Street a couple blocks west of the Texas State Cemetery, has been around for more than two years. Co-owner Travis Tober calls it “a beloved neighborhood bar.”

“At least we like to think it is,” he says. 

A sign says Nickel City is closed.
Credit Michael Minasi / KUT
Nickel City closed Monday, a day before the city ordered bars closed and restricted restaurants to takeout and delivery.

Tober says it has tons of regulars – some of whom come in every day. When Nickel City decided to shutter Monday – a day before the city's official order – it was really hard.

But then he had an idea. 

“There is a law that if you actually have a food and beverage permit, and you serve food, you can actually do delivery,” he says. 

On Wednesday, Tober and his team made a callout on social media saying they would start delivering what they call “Nickel Citys” – a six-pack of beer with a half bottle of whiskey – to anyone within a 4-mile radius of the bar. State law requires that any alcohol delivery come with food, so they threw in a cheese sandwich and a bag of chips from their on-site food truck, Del Ray.  

Tober says they prepped 24 orders Wednesday and sold out in an hour and half. Most of the people who bought from them were regulars. 

“Nobody really needs a $40 six-pack of beer and whiskey,” he says. “It’s mainly just people kind of helping us out and helping out the staff.” 

Kristen Bolek and Robyn Closson prepare cocktail kits for delivery.
Credit Michael Minasi / KUT
Kristen Bolek and Robyn Closson prepare cocktail kits for delivery.

Tober says they made around $1,500 before taxes that day. The money will be divided evenly among his 15 employees – who haven’t been working since the bar closed.

Tober had already decided to keep up deliveries when Gov. Greg Abbott made things more interesting. On Wednesday, he issued a waiver allowing restaurants to deliver not just beer and wine, but mixed drinks. 

“We’re able to sell cocktails, which is pretty crazy,” Tober says. “[We] started coming up with a crazy hairbrained scheme to make craft cocktails and have everything done and super simplified.” 

The plan was to have three do-it-yourself signature Nickel City cocktails. The drinks would be pre-portioned with all the ingredients and each would come with printed instructions on how to assemble. 

One of the drinks on the menu is a Paloma kit. It comes with a bottle of Milagro Tequila, grapefruit soda, fresh squeezed lime juice, grapefruit slices and salt packets. Another is Nickel City’s most popular drink – the Frozen Irish Coffee.

The drink is a doozy. It comes with Tullamore Dew, Patron XO, soft-serve ice cream, whole milk, coffee syrup, cold brew and, even, crushed ice. 

“You’ll be able to throw it in a blender and make your own Nickel City cocktail,” bartender Robyn Closson says as she prepares a kit Thursday. “People come here specifically for that Frozen Irish – it is amazing.” 

This kit, which will make four drinks, costs $52. Each order also comes with two TopoChicos and koozies originally donated for SXSW.

Closson says she’s really been enjoying making these deliveries because she gets a chance to catch up with a lot of her favorite regulars. 

“The people that come to the bar every day are the people that we’re going to miss seeing, so it was cool to be able to do this and say hi to them,” she says. “They miss us and we miss them, so this is a nice way to keep in touch with everybody while this is going on.”

Closson and her team will start taking orders soon, so everyone is frantically working to get things done. This time around, they’ve prepared almost three times the product they had on Wednesday. The staff volunteers wear gloves as the prep and sit a table apart from one another. 

“Everything is going to be in fresh, brand-new Ziplock bags,” Tober says. “I mean, we’re even sanitizing pens, and the people sign the receipt and they get to keep the pen.” 

As soon as the clock hits noon, the calls start coming. Bar manager Amanda Carto is using an old flip phone to take the orders, and it’s clear right away she knows most of the callers. At one point a regular named Drew calls, and when she greets him, the other bartenders yell his name. 

“It’s good to hear from you,” she says. “Hopefully we’ll just be able to make you a Negroni soon. It might be awhile – we’ll see.” 

Closson loads up her car to deliver the drink kits.
Credit Michael Minasi / KUT
Closson loads up her car to deliver the drink kits.

When a batch of three orders is ready for delivery, Closson heads to her car and loads a giant Yeti cooler in her trunk. She then pulls up Google Maps to figure out her route and starts heading south. 

After the first stop, Closson realizes a regular bought all of these deliveries for her friends.

The couple on the last stop – Brittany Williams and Brandon Herzog – were bartenders at Eddy V’s, which like all restaurants in Austin was forced to close its dining room. 

“Obviously, we’re unemployed right now,” Williams says. 

Closson gives them their order and the two thank her multiple times. 

“As soon as we open back up, we’ll be at Nickel City,” Williams says. 

The bar sold out by 3 p.m. and made 28 deliveries. 

The grand total: $2,250.

It may not seem like much when compared to what this bar usually brings in. But the staff working these deliveries were no longer bringing in paychecks from Nickel City. The opportunity to split this day’s profits is better than nothing.

Unfortunately, even this little bit wouldn't last. On Instagram, the bar said Friday is the last day of deliveries for “the safety of our employees and our beloved neighborhood.”

Nickel City officially closes Saturday. 

Nadia Hamdan is a local news anchor and host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT.
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