Nightlife Inflation: Why Drink Prices and Entrance Fees are going up

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On a crowded Saturday night at Pieces, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, Gregory Keller and three friends claimed a spot on the floor shortly before the drag performer Jasmine Kennedie took the stage. One of Mr. Keller’s friends bought the first round, another got the second, and then it was his turn. After a few failed attempts at flagging down a bartender, he ordered four vodka sodas.

All in all, it was a great night out, except for the cost.

“I remember just going ‘yikes’ when signing off on a nearly $80 bill,” Mr. Keller, a 25-year-old architectural designer, said.

New York is known as an expensive city, and drink prices are not exactly set in stone. But Mr. Keller said the surprising bar tabs of recent months have left him wondering if he can continue to justify his nights on the town.

“As much as I love going out, being with friends and dancing, I hate the next morning, seeing the damage to my credit card,” he said.

Inflation has been rising at the fastest rate in nearly four decades, affecting the prices of almost everything, from pizza to rent. Amid the surge, nightlife is taking a hit.

In an effort to make up for the increased costs of labor and supplies, many establishments have resorted to hiking entrance fees and charging more for food and drink, measures that could make a night out less accessible.

Ponyboy, a club in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, raised the prices of its drinks by one dollar, said James Halpern, the owner, who added that he felt bad about passing costs on to his customers. “Nightlife should be for everybody, not just for the elitists who can afford it,” he said.

He noted that Ponyboy’s electricity costs have nearly doubled and that he is paying more for various staples. A case of limes, which cost $20 or $30 a few years ago, now goes for $100, he said.

“You turn that into lime juice, and it costs more for an ounce of lime juice than it does for an ounce of top shelf tequila,” Mr. Halpern said. “We end up doing little things like not giving someone a slice of lime with a tequila shot unless they ask for it.”

Before inflation, the typical ticket price for a Friday or Saturday night at House of Yes, a club in Bushwick, Brooklyn, known for showcasing aerialists and dancers in elaborate costumes, was $20 to $25, said Kae Burke, one of its owners. Now the price is $25 to $30, she said.

Justin Ahiyon, a co-owner, noted that “every straw, every napkin” has gotten more expensive in recent months. Because of the strain, the venue is no longer open Sundays, which used to be a “break-even” day, Mr. Ahiyon said.

“Sundays were really fun for the community,” he said, “but now they’re just a straight loss.”

For Kind Regards, a cocktail bar on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, alcohol supply chain disruptions have been the main challenge. Michael Bray, the owner, said he has had to buy premium liquors in large quantities, fearing they won’t be available again soon, which means spending more than usual up front. “You tend to make those big drop decisions cautiously, but we’ve been having to make them recklessly,” he said. Mr. Bray also said a major liquor supplier told him to expect a 15-percent price increase in the months ahead.

The Flower Shop, a restaurant and bar with a retro feel on the Lower East Side, is also feeling the squeeze. Dylan Hales, a co-founder, said the price of fryer oil has risen to $1.28 a gallon, from 67 cents. A pound of chicken wings, once available at $2.49, now costs $4.49. Mr. Hales said he has raised the prices of some menu items, but only slightly.

“We can’t charge $35 for a bowl of chicken wings,” he said.

Ariel Palitz, the senior executive director of New York City’s Office of Nightlife, said that most bars and clubs in the five boroughs have been making an effort “not to raise prices so much so that there’s sticker shock.” At this point, she added, “the need to socialize outweighs the cost.”

Some regulars are cutting down, though. Connor McInerney, 26, who works at a media company, said the steeper cost of a night out means he is staying home more. “There’s a whole lot fewer two-night weekends and more one-night weekends,” he said.

Inflation has hampered venues across the country. The Elephant Room, a jazz bar in Austin, Tex., charged a $5 door fee on Friday and Saturday nights for decades. This month, it raised the cover to $7, according Aaron Frescas, the bar’s director of operations.

Scott Gerber, the chief executive of the Gerber Group, which owns nightlife properties including Mr. Purple in Manhattan, 12 Stories in Washington, D.C., and Whiskey Blue in Atlanta, said the company has had to raise drink prices by roughly 5 percent across the country. And in an effort to hang on to its work force during the so-called Great Resignation, it has also increased wages for some employees by more than 25 percent.

“Because of the labor shortage, we’ve had to increase our hourly rates and make sure that people want to come to work,” Mr. Gerber said.

For some people who make their livings at night, such pay raises have been a life raft. Pablo Romero, who works as a DJ and a light and sound technician, said he was out of work for months at a time during the pandemic, when some venues went dark. Things started looking up when Public Records, a music and performance space in Gowanus, Brooklyn, started paying more for his services, he said.

Not everyone has gotten a boost. Matt FX, a DJ and producer, said he has noticed that DJ fees have gone down lately at some venues in Manhattan. “Before, you could make between $500 and $1,000 a night, potentially,” he said. “I’m seeing all of these fees reset to $250 and $300.”

Melissa Rich, a comedian and writer, said she would almost rather stay home than face the anxiety of the bill. “The feeling of worrying about money when you’re out is so stressful to me,” she said.

On a recent Tuesday night, Ms. Rich, 32, had a plan to meet up with friends at The Box, a Lower East Side club. After arriving later than the others, she ordered a gin and tonic alone at the bar. When the bill came to $28, she was shocked — and a bit relieved.

“Thank God I was by myself in that moment,” she said, “because if I was getting two friends drinks at $28 each, it would’ve been a different scenario.”

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