The owners of The Golden Bull in Oakland never expected to be reselling pizza, but now that’s what’s keeping the popular bar afloat during the pandemic.
Alameda County regulations allow bars to sell sidewalk seating and to-go alcohol orders as long as they have food on the menu. So friends Jason Beebout, Bill Schneider and Mark W. Lynn partnered with nearby Hoza Pizzeria to sell its pizza. While business isn’t booming, the bar, a popular metal and punk club, is slowly regrowing clientele to stay in business.
“You see some chairs on the sidewalk with no one in them, and it doesn’t pique much interest. But when you have a couple of people sitting there and having some beers, which our regulars are nice enough to do for us, people have been coming in who I don’t recognize from the past,” Beebout said. “This is mostly a music venue. That’s what we were trying to do with the space. The bar was something that’s part of it. Now it’s the only thing we have going. And we’re developing a whole new bar clientele.”
The owners are now also developing a sponsor-financed concert series, with performances by local acts that will be recorded at The Golden Bull and then streamed online. They’re hoping that money from sponsors will be able to help them and other small concert spaces in the area.
The owners are all musicians.
Beebout is best known as a member of Samiam, and Lynn is in Dead Sound and Dear County. Schneider is in Pinhead Gunpowder with Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, The Golden Bull’s silent fourth owner. The four purchased the bar from the previous owners in 2019. Beebout, previously the booker for the Ivy Room in Albany, was hired by the previous owners to book shows and soon found himself also managing the bar.
“It’s a little club, and its success has a lot to do with its reputation within the circles of fans who come to see shows here,” he said. “The [previous] owners made some decisions that bummed punk and metal fans out.”
Beebout invited Lynn’s and Schneider’s bands to play The Golden Bull, after which the three got to talking about buying the bar since the previous owners had announced they were selling it. Armstrong, who owns Broken Guitars in Oakland with Schneider, also joined. The new owners tore down and rebuilt the stage to make it taller and roomier, rewired the sound and added a new soundstage and soundboard. Things were looking up—until the pandemic hit.
“Initially, not having a crystal ball, we all just thought, ‘Well, eight weeks, and we’ll be back in action,'” Lynn said. “So we were abjectly unprepared for it, just like everybody else. We had no idea was going to be seven months later and still no signs of opening. We were woefully unprepared.”
Lynn and co. were forced to lay off about a dozen employees. Since reopening, they’ve done most of the work themselves to save on costs, along with help from Schneider’s wife. Every once in a while, they’ve been able to give former employees some hours to fill in for them.
As soon as Alameda County allowed, The Golden Bull had its doors open, selling its expansive lineup of local craft beers from Ghost Town, Hen House, Almanac, East Brother, Line 51 and more, as well as cocktails—and Hoza Pizzeria pizza. The owners also set up four tables on the sidewalk outside and is now doing to-go orders, curbside pickup and home delivery.
“We’re a full-functioning bar; only you can’t come inside the bar,” Lynn said. “You can actually get any cocktail you like. Put a lid on it, and off you go.”
The Golden Bull has also received city’s approval to build a parklet, which will double table capacity, Lynn said.
“It’s about as limited of an operation as I’ve ever been involved in. Having four tables on a sidewalk were never in my plans for success,” Beebout said.
At the same time, from the moment the owners put the first tables down and sat down to enjoy a beer, an overwhelming sense of familiarity washed over them.
“Oh shit, we’re at a bar!” he said. “And that’s been the reaction from customers, too. Surprise that there’s something on the street that’s open. And you’ve gotta jump through a lot of hoops to make that work. … But it’s better than nothing. People are coming and having a pretty good time. It’s still a chance to sit and talk with people, and have a drink—and eat a slice of pizza, now.”
With the bar open again, Lynn is now focusing on bringing music back to Oakland in whatever capacity he’s able. For now, that’s likely to include performances on The Golden Bull stage that will be streamed online. The money will come from sponsors in the adult beverage industry, Lynn said. He said he hopes to get some other smaller venues involved in it, and has people lined up to lead the technical efforts to record and broadcast performances.
Beebout said dealing with worsening weather is the bar’s next challenge, as well as a lack of specific information from the city and county about reopening timelines and assistance. Even when business starts returning to normal, he’s concerned that not enough people will feel comfortable returning to cramped bars.
“My bandmates included!” he said. “I’m worried and I don’t blame them. I don’t know if I’d want to be in a bar with 50 people.”
Lynn said that each day brings the possibility that The Golden Bull might go out of business, and that he’s felt the death knell several times over the past seven months. But for now, the sidewalk business is helping.
“We’ve got our numbers all figured out. We’re afloat, and we intend to stay afloat,” he said. “But it’s never ever a guarantee.”
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