Jamie Boudreau's Capitol Hill cocktail bar Canon is, by many accounts, home to the finest rare liquor bottle list in the world. The 10,000 unit collection comprises a kind of National Public Library of booze from across the planet. The bar's list of accolades reads like one of those never-ending PBS "Viewers Like You" pre-programming ad spots, in that it is never-ending. As a Pacific Northwesterner, this is the bar I'm most likely to be asked about while traveling; people in New York City and Melbourne and London are curious about Canon.
The last few months have served a dizzying combo of body blows, right hooks, and haymakers to establishments like this one, but Canon's COVID pivot was more elegant than most. The bar, all 460 square feet of it housed inside a former private 12th Avenue residence near Seattle University, saw itself transformed into a lovely, glittering, warmly toned liquor store. Fine whisk(e)y abounds—rare bottles from Japan, Scotland, Kentucky—as well as vintage glassware, limited-edition releases, sought after collectors items, and pre-batched cocktails available for takeaway.
But behind the scenes at Canon, the situation is dire. Founder Jamie Boudreau gave The Stranger a candid, raw-nerve interview from his basement office beneath the bar, separated from this reporter by a full six feet and safely behind the dull whir of a Molekule air purifier.
"We don't make any money on bottle sales," Boudreau told me ruefully. "I mean, we make some money on the unicorns, but otherwise I'm matching Total Wine's prices, which is just insane. There's no money in it."
Staffing at Canon has gone from a team of 18 to just three. "And that's a generous three," said Boudreau. "I got one of those loans"—a PPP loan—" but you have to bring back all your staff to use it, and most of them didn't want to come back given our limited hours. And technically our capacity upstairs is just 12 people at the max, and instead of service stopping at two in the morning, we have to be closed at ten. Even if we wanted to bring more people back, our business has shrunk in all possible ways."
Like many bar owners, Boudreau appears caught in a fucked squared sort of situation—fucked to the second power in every direction. He outlined an innovative potential reopening plan, one that involved pre-fixe visits by reservation for just three parties at a time in the space.
"My priority is 100% safety for staff and guests," said Boudreau. In this scenario, each guest would be seated for a two-hour experience featuring multiple courses and cocktails, accompanied by a personal tableside HEPA filter (plus more in each bathroom). Canon would serve cocktails from a wheeled cart, with bartenders clad in clear visors sourced "from a high-end hospitality company in Spain."
But Boudreau's next pivot may be in a different direction. Opening a seated upstairs experience would involve more hiring, more training, more expenses, especially to pull it off to Boudreau's high service standards. "I do want to hire more people, but heading into fall everyone is a fucking idiot and cases are going up again, and we're going to get more restrictions placed on us, and every time that happens it costs us way more money."
Food delivery offers a lifeline, but Boudreau was blunt: "Unless we see a considerable increase in delivery sales by October 1, I'm going to have to shut down." He told me the bar has never had debt, always operated at a profit, but now he's taken on loans he regrets to keep the place afloat.
"We're losing $8000 a week at this stage," he said, a grim figure whose implications become mind-boggling week over week. "But it costs me just 10k a month to hunker down, close, and wait for spring. It sucks," he adds. (He's right.) "But I either collapse now, or I shelter and maybe we can have jobs again in the years to come."
It's existential shit to sit across from a small business owner of an internationally renowned cocktail bar as they plot their retreat. For Boudreau, the owner of one of the world's largest rare spirits collections, the vultures are circling.
"A lot of people want to buy my stuff," Boudreau told me. He laughed it out as he said it. "First of all, they want to get deals because they think I'm going out of business. But I'd be stupid to do that; I'd rather sell it on the market than to people who are trying to harvest a business. People don't want to pay fair prices; they want deals."
Selling off the collection would have profound ramifications for Boudreau's ability to continue the Canon name in whatever new normal emerges after COVID, if there is such a thing. "If I start digging into my rare stuff, Canon is done. We're the only place in the world with a list like this—that's not hyperbole, that's fact. And if we sell our stuff off, we aren't the same business anymore. That's not an option to me."
Boudreau predicted a closure through March of 2021, after waiting out the coming fall coronavirus wave. And he may not be the only bar owner hunkering down for winter. "We want to keep Canon's aesthetic and make people remember what it used to be like, so they come back, support us, and help us survive after this," he told me. "And I know everyone else is in the same boat. I'm sure nobody is doing any better than us."
We shall see. The coming of Seattle's rainy season and looming uncertainty around COVID-19's second wave has many business owners playing with these same figures in their heads: daily losses, weekly operating costs, an uncertain business future, with no help coming from elected officials. America may lose half of its bars and restaurants to insolvency in the coming months, and that estimate could prove optimistic. Business owners across the country are up all night; for them, sleep is a cruel joke, lost in red-number insomnia. Behind every statistic, there is a person, and Jamie Boudreau—proprietor of Canon, one of the great cocktail bars on the planet—has done the gallows' calculus.