How a brand new cocktail bar rebounded after shutdown

Team behind Dayton’s Tender Mercy hopes to open Mexican restaurant this summer

Restaurants and bars have suffered greatly during the past year. The pandemic-related shutdown, coupled with many months of people staying home, caused many establishments to lay off staff and, in some cases, shutter their doors for good.

Shortly before the shutdown in March of 2020, a new, upscale, underground cocktail bar opened on Third Street in Dayton. Co-owner Chris Dimmick, a native of Los Angeles who moved to Dayton in 2016, was excited to introduce Dayton to a different bar experience. Tender Mercy was only able to remain open to the public for three days after its debut.

“It was definitely a blow,” Dimmick said. “We saw an opportunity to come in and offer a level of experience and service that people usually believed they had to drive to Cincinnati or Columbus to get.”

Fourfront, LLC is the hospitality group that helped bring Tender Mercy to Dayton and with the backing of investors and a design/consulting group called the Idea Collective, the cocktail bar became a reality.

“When we first moved the Idea Collective to Dayton, we were involved with a development project downtown,” Dimmick said. “It ended up stalling, but we asked ourselves if we still wanted to do this bar in Dayton.”

Ultimately, the answer was yes.

“We knew that Dayton could support it,” Dimmick said. “We set out to find a location for our Mexican restaurant and found a building that would support Tender Mercy as well.”

Dimmick and his team met with Jason Woodard of Woodard Development who showed them the Avant-Garde building downtown. When they toured the basement, they saw the potential for their cocktail bar.

“We decided to open Tender Mercy before Sueno (the restaurant) because it was a little lighter on the buildout and had a smaller staffing model. This would give us time to do the restaurant right.”

After a year of design and construction, Tender Mercy had its official grand opening on March 12, 2020. Dimmick said they had hosted a “soft” opening and a few events several weeks prior to the grand opening as well. After March 15, all business were shut down, expecting to reopen within a few weeks. Those weeks turned into months.

Credit: r

Credit: r

For a cocktail bar that had a very small food menu, this closure could have been devastating. But Dimmick said they decided to “make lemonade” and figure out how to retain their staff and pay them during the shutdown.

“We have a really dynamic team with both the capacity and willingness to be creative,” Dimmick said. “We ended up modeling, labeling and selling our signature cocktails, wine and beer to go.”

Once bars and restaurants could reopen nearly three months later, there were many restrictions regarding distancing, capacity and masks, as well as cleaning protocols. Besides the six-foot distancing requirement, only groups of 10 or fewer could gather and curfews were implemented.

“Because we are a very small bar, the curfews and restrictions cut our business in half,” Dimmick said. “Even now we are operating at about 20% of the revenue we were projected to do in normal times.”

The cocktails-to-go concept helped and once the bar was open again, people could also order them during last call to take home.

Dimmick admits the timing of the shutdown was unfortunate, but could have been worse.

“Of course, it was terrible,” he said. “But we were fortunate enough to have time to create about a month of buzz around the bar and actually hosted about 3,000 people over the course of the soft opening. We were lucky to be able to leverage our product and all the fun things we came up with later to help us stay alive.”

Some of those ideas included virtual wine tastings and cocktail classes and some computer-based educational classes. And even with their own financial woes, the team at Tender Mercy did what they could to help nonprofits during the shutdown by hosting virtual events and encouraging their employees to work at local food banks by offering to pay them for their time.

Today, as the worst of the pandemic appears to over, Dimmick and the team are hoping to open their Mexican restaurant, Sueno in early summer. The group hopes to launch and operate another four to six restaurants and bars over the next five to 10 years.

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