Like all bar owners, Loycent Gordon had a tough 2020. Even before COVID-19 hit, he was trying to save his nearly 192-year-old bar and restaurant, Neir’s Tavern, in Queens, from closing due to an exorbitant rent hike.
On January 9, 2020, the bar didn’t have enough money to pay their lease. The tavern's landlord, Henry Shi raised the rent from $2,000 a month to over $5,000, as reported by the New York Times. Gordon posted on the Neir’s Tavern Facebook page that he had made his decision. He was going to close the bar three days later.
The future looked bleak, but the community rallied in support of the historic venue. While the media spread the word about Neir’s plight, a bar regular gave Gordon a lead: WNYC’s “Ask the Mayor” segment on “The Brian Lehrer Show.” Every Friday, the show has New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on as a guest to answer questions by listeners.
That Friday – the day that bar was slated to close – Gordon phoned the radio station. After his third try, he got put through to the mayor and asked for his help.
“I just poured my heart out and let him know the value of this local institution that you’re getting ready to lose, and our customers were really upset,” remembered Gordon. “He said, ‘Yeah, I’ve already been seeing it in all of the media; I already saw it in The New York Times’. It was almost like he was expecting my call.”
That live chat with the mayor resulted in a miracle. City officials led negotiations between Gordon and the building’s owners, which resulted in a five-year lease, allowing the tavern to remain open. The landlords were awarded a $90,000 business grant from the city’s “Love Your Local program.”
Gordon wasn’t always a bar owner. In fact, he started going to Neir’s as a customer. As a lieutenant in the New York City Fire Department, Gordon didn’t know anything about running a venue before he took ownership of the historic tavern in 2009. Prior to his purchase, the venue was six months behind on rent and the owner – a friend of Gordon’s – was considering turning it into a convenience store.
Gordon decided to buy the business and preserve Neir’s Tavern’s place in Queens’ history. He was planning to buy the building, too, but it was sold to Shi for $1.3 million before he had the chance. “I gave it a shot because it was a way to try to give back, and it was really important to try to save this place,” says Gordon who feels strongly about the venue’s historical value.
Opened in October 1829, the watering hole has remained a fixture within Queens’ Woodhaven neighborhood. Mae West, a Brooklyn native, is said to have performed there. The bar has had some screen time, too, being featured in scenes in Martin Scorcese’s “Goodfellas,” the Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller flick, “Tower Heights,” and CNN’s “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.”
It was tough from the beginning. Along with owing back rent, Neir’s customer base became unsustainable. Things needed to change. So, Gordon decided to connect with his community, and tell people why Neir's was important. “That was the key to overcoming my ignorance of how to run a bar and restaurant,” says Gordon. “What I lacked in experience, I made up for in community value and connection.” This served him well when COVID-19 struck.
For weeks following the initial citywide shutdown in March 2020, Gordon and his patrons connected via “bar talks” on Zoom on Wednesday evenings. The happy hour chats also led to a Facebook group called “NEIRS200,” where Gordon posts bar-related updates and members share bar memories, current news and comments.
The Neir’s community has moved beyond their screens and back into the real world. Both a food drive and a COVID-19 antibody testing were held at Neir’s last year, when it reopened to the public in July 2020. In December, the tavern served as a drop-off center for food, clothing, and other donations for the 48 residents of Queens’ Richmond Hill neighborhood who were displaced after a major fire.
Gordon has become a public figure, speaking on behalf of small businesses to the media local government regarding policies on local, state, and federal levels.
In a petition last year, Gordon called for Uber Eats’ transparency on whether or not they were waiving delivery fees for participating restaurants because of the pandemic or just deferring them. He also speaks with fellow bar and restaurant owners about their worries, staying open and keeping abreast of related issues that influence their businesses.
“I try to stay informed because what affects me also affects others,” he says. “So, I'm just sharing what I know. And because I'm using that to also help Neir’s Tavern navigate the pandemic.”
Gordon continues to be transparent with his staff and customers regarding his business, whether it’s good news or bad. In September 2020, the bar’s cash register was taken in a burglary. When he told people he might not be open on the subsequent weekend, loyal customers created a GoMeFund campaign to raise $2,500. The goal was surpassed by almost $2,000.
During one of the 'Bar Talks', Gordon also shared that he was struggling to catch up on back rent, due to the financial implications of the government-mandated shutdown. A customer suggested he offer a ‘Neir’s Recovery Box’, with a gift certificate and related merchandise, all sales of which would go towards the rent. That led to an ambassador program where subscribers can purchase various membership levels and receive perks – and it’s been working for Gordon so far.
“I feel it's important to share certain things because others might be going through the same thing,” says Gordon. “And that's the thing that could probably help them get through.”
Upcoming plans for Neir's Tavern include an October 2021 co-naming ceremony of “Neir’s Tavern Way,” a marker to be located on the corner of 78th Street and 88th Avenue in Woodhaven. And of course, the venue's 200th anniversary in 2029.
For more information on Neir’s Tavern and Loycent Gordon, visit www.neirstavern.com.