“The start of this story,” says Donny Clutterbuck, “could potentially be the trials and tribulations of becoming a different business every month.”
Thanks, Donny. I’ll take it from here.
Clutterbuck is the bar manager at Cure, which offers French farmhouse cuisine at the Rochester Public Market. It’s one of the small treasures on the culinary scene here. And like all restaurants and bars in the COVID-19 era, the trial it’s been undergoing is the coronavirus pandemic. As an orange zone designee, Cure is open only for takeout.
But to sidestep the tribulations, it’s trying out other ideas.
For New Year’s Eve, Clutterbuck and Cure have hooked up with the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival for the return of one of that event’s most intoxicating shows from the last couple of years: “Shotspeare Presents: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, sort of.”
Starting at 8 p.m. Dec. 31, Cirque du Fringe darlings Matt Morgan and Heidi Brucker Morgan present a 90-minute show from Las Vegas for its Rochester fan base. It's a show with both live and recorded segments that buzz through all of Shakespeare’s plays. Tickets are at rochesterfringe.com; you and the entire family can crowd around one internet Zoom device for $25 and watch the show. For $75, you can get the full Shotspeare treatment: The “Hot Sonnet” cocktail, a premixed concoction that’s pretty much a mulled wine. It serves six, unless you’re not driving.
And in the midst of a pandemic that has killed more than 320,000 Americans to date, the best advice from COVID-19 superhero Dr. Anthony Fauci is: Don’t go anywhere.
“My role is the guy who provides drinks when people want to do stuff,” Clutterbuck says, “and tries to logistically make it happen in a weird time.”
The first phase of this weird time hit at about the end of March, running straight into June. Three months, when Cure and other restaurants and bars had to deal with the state of New York’s restrictions. Social distancing means there’s not much room for customers in a tiny place like Cure. Close quarters where it’s a challenge, Clutterbuck says, “to still make money and stay alive.”
Many bars and restaurants keep a week’s inventory on hand, maybe even a month’s inventory, “just because that’s the way the ordering cycle works,” Clutterbuck says. “So I had to find ways to make the drinks we had been making for people, and bottle them pre-diluted, so they can just be refrigerated and poured, for those three months. We did that.”
Then he and co-owner Chuck Cerankosky hit the road. “There was cocktail delivery alongside food," he says. "I drove around a whole bunch of days a week, just driving things to the suburbs of Rochester. Chuck and I were on delivery runs that lasted almost eight hours apiece in the first few weeks.”
By June, the restrictions eased. But the state regulations remained a moving target, with seating limited to 50% indoor seating, masks, sanitizing with impunity, and “nobody at the bar, but sometimes people at the bar, there was a lot of redirection that had to happen,” Clutterbuck says.
The Public Market sidewalk in front of Cure, and summer days, were a big help.
“We had tons of outdoor seating,” he says. “We might have been technically busier than we would have been in a normal summer, everyone was really itching to get out. And we had to employ a lot more people because there was a lot more walking to do. The physical distance between where the things were made and where the people were sitting was much larger.
“So it was a struggle, but it was really validating, especially after those three months of not being able to serve people in person.”
But you’ve seen the charts. That second big spike in COVID-19 cases arrived. Predictions for the winter are that it’ll only get worse. So Clutterback came up with the booze partnerships. Cure created special drinks for companies and organizations that wanted to host events and needed a specially branded cocktail.
Most recently, it was last month’s Anomaly -- The Rochester Genre Film Festival. For audiences awash in horror, action, science fiction, fantasy and dark comedy films, Clutterbuck created an appropriate cocktail called the Plasma Sunset. It's a reddish-hued drink brought to life with the help of common lab equipment.
“It was more or less a centrifuge-clarified, spirit-forward -- I know, that’s a lot of modifiers -- cosmopolitan,” says Clutterbuck, aware of how editors despise cluttered sentences.
Next up, New Year’s Eve with Shakespeare, featuring the Hot Sonnet, conceived by Rochester Fringe Festival Producer Erica Fee and executed by Clutterbuck. A cocktail starting with Gamay Noir, a light-bodied red wine of medium acidic quality. Then some bourbon, cinnamon, nutmeg, citrus, raw cane sugar and the orange-and-clove accent of amaro del campo. Pick it up at Cure and store it in your refrigerator until it’s time to heat it up for New Year’s Eve with Matt and Heidi.
Clutterbuck says he’s just looking for a little consistency in what the TV commercials like to call “these uncertain times.”
“Honestly, it’s confusing, because our rule structure in New York state surrounding this particular substance, alcohol, doesn't have any provisions for this situation. Because this situation hasn’t happened since like 1918, pre-Prohibition," he says.
“It’s kind of like the Wild West again. We’re just hoping that what we’re doing is cool, because it’s not particularly clear what is and is not correct. I don’t think to anyone it’s clear. I don’t even think it’s clear to the government what is correct.”
Clarity from government? Let’s try that next year.
“The theme of the last month for me has been if bars and restaurants are dangerous, close them," Clutterbuck says. “All. And if bars and restaurants are not dangerous, allow them to operate within regulations like they always do. Because our coolers have to be certain temperatures, and the ice machine has to be clean. The health department inspects us twice a year, or once a year, whatever. There’s always regulations. And we’ve been living by these new regulations, happily, and operating. And it’s very strange to me that someone can draw lines within city limits, not even as big as the county itself or frankly, the city, where restaurants are dangerous when they’re not outside of that.
“I can drive to a restaurant in 10 minutes and sit at it, in it, and eat. But I can’t operate one? So where’s the messaging there?”
The messaging is not black and white. Or in this case, orange and yellow. Clutterbuck calls the mapping of the various COVID-19 zones a “strangely shaped box” where Cure draws the tougher orange zone regulations, while an establishment in Charlotte, for example, draws less intense scrutiny in a yellow zone. Such designations may determine whether a business survives.
The Rochester Fringe Festival tightrope walked through September by going virtual, and recently has been creating special events to remind its audience that it still exists. As the year draws to a close, the festival is presenting the local comedy duo of Kerry Young and Abby DeVuyst in “Bushwhacked British Bake Off: Holiday Edition,” a sold-out virtual parody of the popular reality cooking show; the audience gets the ingredients to bake along with Young and DeVuyst.
Laugh, or it will hurt too much to see what the coronavirus pandemic is doing to culture. Now as Cure goes virtual as well, Clutterbuck says it has to wait for one of only three likely pandemic outcomes: government aid to keep culture alive, force everyone to shut down, or allow everyone to reopen.
“I just want to make sure that whatever we’re doing, we’re all doing it, because it seems a little bit unfair to play favorites,” Clutterbuck says. “Whether it’s geographic or, I don’t know, political, I have no idea.”
Jeff Spevak is WXXI's arts and life editor and reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.