Holidays in the ‘Burgh

How Pittsburgh bars prepare for ‘Blackout Wednesday’

Thanksgiving Eve is one of the busiest nights of the year.

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‘Twas the night before Thanksgiving, when all through the city, every creature was stirring, getting (as the kids say) “litty.”

So after hours of being hunched over the viscous Rubik’s Cube that is a Turducken, you decide it’s time to get “litty” yourself.

You grab your phone from the counter and, forgetting to wipe the entrails off your hands, drop a typo-laden text to your BFF.

She discerns it, somehow, and the two of you agree to meet at the local watering hole — you know, the one with that odd mix of octogenarians and college freshman. You make your way out the door and into the night, suddenly unburdened by the logistics of meal prep and the minefield of Uncle Stu’s food allergies.

You guiltily consider, for a moment, that your mother will spend the next few hours awake in her bed, dreaming of a Rockwell-esque Thanksgiving feast while knowing full well that you, her family, could never pull it off.

In the living room, Uncle Stu is watching Hannity and silently crafting his Clinton Foundation talking points ahead of The Big Meal. Mom’s apprehension, it turns out, is totally valid.

But you’re free, a temporary refugee from the awkwardness that is sleeping in your childhood bed as a full grown adult. At the bar, the service is slow, the noise deafening and the crowd stifling (also suspiciously young).

But then you picture that failed Turducken, and Uncle Stu bathed in the neon glow of a standard definition TV set, and realize that there’s nowhere else you’d rather be.

And for that, you are thankful.

‘Just so many people’

If this rings true, first of all, our condolences to mom.

Second, you’re not alone.

The day before Thanksgiving is traditionally one of the busiest of the year for America’s fine purveyors of beers, wines and distilled spirits, on par with New Year’s Eve. It’s even been dubbed Blackout Wednesday — need we say more?

“The whole weekend of Thanksgiving is usually pretty busy,” said “Bear” McKenna, a long-time bartender at the William Penn Tavern in Shadyside. “People are back in town and haven’t seen each other in months. They’re tired of seeing their families and want to come out and blow off some steam.”

Others, in attempting to explain the Blackout Wednesday phenomenon, have pointed out that almost everyone has Thanksgiving Day off, no one wants to also entertain people at home the night before, everyone is back in town, and Thanksgiving dinner is itself an ideal hangover cure. How convenient.

The rest of us *may* also have families that literally drive us to drink. But that’s a discussion for another day.

“Do people need alcohol more on the holidays? I’m not sure they need alcohol more, but they definitely partake in it more,” said Lisa Zech, a server at the North Park Lounge in McCandless.

Mostly, she added, people come out on Blackout Wednesday to “see old friends and start the holiday season off right — and nobody wants to cook either.”

Amen.

At the William Penn Tavern, McKenna said an average Blackout Wednesday looks like this: “Earlier in the evening it’s an older crowd, people coming out to get a drink before they head home. But as the night progresses, it’s mostly college kids back in town for the holiday weekend.”

That’s when things get interesting — and profitable — from a server’s standpoint.

“It’s really busy that night and usually all of our employees have to work,” said Jen Oliver, a bartender at Kendrew’s Lounge in Aliquippa.

McKenna agreed. He also recalled working one alone and doesn’t sound like he’d recommend it.

“I’ve worked that night. It’s pretty crazy, especially from 10 to close. Just so many people. […] I remember many years ago, I was working around the corner from here at a place called Cappy’s. I was all by myself and it got real crazy, and from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. I didn’t stop for anything. I was slammed for four and a half to five hours straight.”

He added of the atmosphere, “It’s usually pretty jovial, but it only takes one idiot to ruin it for everybody.”

Truer words have never been spoken. And this reminds us: Remember to tip your waitstaff well, they’ve more than earned it.  

But how much busier is Blackout Wednesday than normal, really?

It depends who you ask.

Bryan Carey, owner of the aforementioned Cappy’s Cafe in Shadyside, said, “It’s pretty busy, probably 30 percent busier than your average Wednesday. You get kind of like mini-reunions for that week, where, like, people come home to see their parents for Thanksgiving and hook up with some old friends because now they live in different cities.”

Carey added, “But we also lose a lot of college kids that are usually here, because they go home to their families, the people that aren’t local. We have a lot of CMU and Pitt grad students and Duquesne students in here normally and a lot of them go home for that holiday week. But for some places it’s the busiest night of year. For us, it’s never like that. It’s just above average.”

Tony Brown, a manager at Mario’s in Shadyside, said, “It’s typically more like a Friday or Saturday than the average Wednesday, and that’s huge.”

Brown added, “Honestly, before most holidays there’s a couple busy days. Christmas Eve Eve is typically pretty busy. If the Fourth of July falls on a Tuesday, that Monday is really busy. Anytime there’s a reason for a mass amount of people to be off, we see an influx.”

Upserve, a restaurant management platform, analyzed data from nearly 3,000 restaurants in 2016 and reported a 23 percent increase in overall restaurant sales on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, compared to the week prior. In 2016, Upserve said overall beer sales increased by 270 percent on Blackout Wednesday while growler sales grew by 658 percent. Liquor sales were also up by an average of 114 percent, while there was only an 18 percent increase in the number of checks — meaning a small number of people drove most booze sales. Additionally, food orders only increased by 28 percent, Upserve added.

At Bob’s Garage in Fox Chapel — where it’s always Christmas — bartender Nina Carrabba confirmed that the night before Thanksgiving is one of the busiest of the year for them.

Merry Yinzmas 🎄🍻🎅🏻

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“It’s a neighborhood bar,” Carrabba said, “and when you’re visiting family it’s always a tradition to come to Bob’s. You get in the spirit, whether you’re ready or not.”

Oh, we’re ready.

And while we’ve established that everyone wants (or needs) a drink around the holidays, and that the bars will be obnoxiously busy, we’d be remiss if we didn’t remind you to drink responsibly and, if so inclined, healthily.

After all, that Turducken isn’t going to stuff itself.

UPDATE: This article was updated with information on Blackout Wednesday sales numbers from Upserve.