When Cinebar was forced to shut down on March 16 due to the coronavirus pandemic, Stacy Sutherland refused to start a GoFundMe account to help the iconic downtown San Jose dive bar navigate the impending economic downturn.
The Cinebar co-owner—Sutherland runs the business along with Mike Matilainen and Josh Hanoka—didn’t want to ask for help from people who were also struggling.
“But now we’re at a point where we really do need the help from the community to keep Cinebar going,” Sutherland told San Jose Inside about the crowdfunding campaign the business kicked off this week. “I will do anything in my power to keep this place going. I will refinance the mortgage to my house or anything else to keep Cinebar as Cinebar.”
Located on 69 E. San Fernando St. in the heart of San Jose, Cinebar has been around since 1928, making it one of the South Bay’s longest-running drinking establishments.
Known for its unpretentious, divey vibe and uniquely designed interior, Cinebar is going on seven months without being able to serve drinks—even to-go—because of the type of liquor license it holds. As a result, the Cinebar owners are racking up debt because they haven’t been able to pay rent or shave anything off their loan.
“So once we do open, we owe our landlord back, which we’ll have to pay up front or figure out how to pay over time,” Sutherland said. “But the more our debt racks up, the more we have to pay off. Everything was cool before [the pandemic]. We were able to pay our loans, make rent and were never behind on payments. Now we have to double our payments each month. How do you do that?”
Cinebar and its owners were put in the unenviable position of staying closed or reopening for takeout service and patio dining only. The problem? Cinebar has no kitchen and lacks the necessary space for outdoor dining.
Adding food to the menu to sell beverages to go didn’t make any financial sense for the Cinebar owners. Sutherland thought through all the scenarios and came to the conclusion that reopening for takeout would’ve put Cinebar even deeper in the financial hole.
“We just didn’t think it was going to work for us,” she said. “No one thinks of going to Cinebar to get a drink for go. People come here [for the atmosphere]. Cinebar is a place where you stand around and hug your neighbor.”
Santa Clara County’s impending classification into the Orange Tier 3 zone means Cinebar could be back in business as early as next week. However, since it will be limited to 25 percent of its 60-person capacity, Sutherland sees a long road to recovery. “We’re not going to be making enough to pay the bills,” she said. “This has been such a nightmare, but we’re going to fight to keep it open because Cinebar is an institution itself.”
You won’t get any disagreement from Shawn Packer, a guitarist-banjo picker-vocalist for the highly popular local band the Shitkickers. Packer has been a regular at Cinebar for over 20 years, and has a deep fondness for the iconic dive bar.
“Over the years there is something relatively sacred when patrons spend a lot of time with bartenders,” he said in an interview this week. “You create these bonds with them and the place. Over the last 20-plus years, Cinebar came to be a relatively sacred place for me and my friends. It was our Cheers.”
Before Cinebar shut down, it was known to host birthday parties, baby showers, bridal showers and memorial services. When Packer first started spending time at Cinebar, it was usually on Sunday mornings or in the early afternoon. It became his weekend daytime drinking location, and the Shitkickers often convened there to hang out or kick—no pun intended—the tires on their next project.
Their third album, titled Noon’s Moonlight, features a cover picture of a view from inside of Cinebar looking outside. “People that I’ve been lucky enough to meet at Cinebar over the years have become lifelong friends,” Packer said. “There is a pretty sizable group of people who can say the same thing.”