Amid Pandemic, New Generation Revives Bushwick Bar

Graffiti art on the walls welcome customers to The Sampler.

Article and photos by Ayse Kelce | May 26, 2021

Julian Tineo knew his father’s bar was struggling to survive under COVID-19 restrictions when he invited some friends there to celebrate his 21st birthday in November. He didn’t expect his birthday party to turn into a brainstorming session with his friends on how to save The Sampler Bushwick.

After being a loyal customer, Leo Tineo took over The Sampler in 2017. The craft beer bar also was functioning as an event venue and gallery space for local artists, until the coronavirus pandemic hit.

The Sampler offers a wide selection of craft beers from indie breweries all around New York State.

His son, Julian Tineo,  a senior at Baruch College studying economics, saw this as an opportunity to gain real experience in running a business. He started managing the bar after consulting his father, and his friends helped with the entire process. Julian Tineo’s friend Julio Hernandez took over as the chef, and prepared a new menu for the bar with signature items like the “dirty dirty fries,” topped with fried salami, bacon bits and cheese.

Julian Tineo organizes the bar before customers arrive on a Saturday.

Before last November, The Sampler did not have a consistent food program. It was Hernandez’s first professional experience as a chef, but he said that he was used to the environment since his father was also in the restaurant business.

“We’ve established a really good system. We’ve all been working together since November and we’ve grown a lot,” Hernandez said.

Even with the new management and food menu, the bar faced unique challenges due to the restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Only outdoor dining was allowed in the middle of November and December when it was freezing cold outside,” Julian Tineo said.

They were unsure if they should build an outdoor space because they were afraid that the city government would tell them that they would have to shut it down for the winter. 

“We weren’t going to put the time and money into building one if they’re going to just take it down, and there was never really an answer on that so we held off for a while. That kind of uncertainty that prevented us from making big decisions was constant,” Julian Tineo added. 

Starting July 2020, bars had to sell food along with alcoholic beverages according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. This decision was a part of the safe reopening plan during the coronavirus pandemic, however, many customers and bar owners struggled to understand how this specific rule was supposed to help reduce the spread of the virus.

Although Julian Tineo said that he understood and agreed with the health precautions the city implemented, such as not allowing large crowds and events, he thinks that the curfews and having to sell food with drinks does not make sense.

“Having to serve food with every drink directly hurts our business. That is like an undeniable fact. But did it actually reduce COVID numbers? I think it’s really difficult to prove that,” he said.

New York State announced on April 28 that the bars will no longer be required to sell food along with drinks. As of May 3, seating will also be allowed at bars.

The curfews were specifically affecting bars since most customers come later in the night.

“When we could stay open up to 11 p.m. instead of 10 p.m., and that alone increased our revenues by 30 percent, because people spend more money later in the night,” Julian Tineo said. The state extended the closing time for bars from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Feb.14.

Despite the challenges, The Sampler is trying to be the meeting point for both old and new Bushwick residents.

“We wanted one item that would be our niche,” Hernandez said.

A considerable number of young people moved to Bushwick during the recent years. The 2006-2010 American Community Survey estimated around 25,000 residents between the age of 25 to 34 lived in Bushwick. The estimate for the same age group increased to around 33,500 people in 2014-2018.

Even though The Sampler started out as a craft beer bar, it is trying to catch up with the neighborhood’s pace of change by incorporating ideas from its young staff.

Bartender Madison Scott pouring craft beer into disposable cups, which the bar
started using after the coronavirus outbreak.

“It’s more like hanging out with friends, but also, making a business work at the same time. It’s great to share ideas and just build off of one another,” Madison Scott said to describe the work environment at the bar. Scott came up with new cocktails, in addition to its wide selection of craft beers, and the frozen margaritas became a huge hit among the younger customers.

With New York State’s vaccination efforts, the state is reopening at a faster pace. As of May 2, 31 percent of New Yorkers, which is over 2 million people, have been vaccinated. Following these developments, the midnight curfew will be removed for indoor areas beginning May 31 and the New York City indoor dining will expand to 75 percent capacity beginning May 7.

“All staff is fully vaccinated so we do not generally wear masks,” Julian Tineo said in a text on May 26. “We have signs telling customers that if they’re fully vaccinated, they don’t need masks either.”

Many small businesses like The Sampler hope to benefit from the easing restrictions.

“Having my son involved with family and friends really makes a big difference. So far, we are very optimistic of what’s coming,” Leo Tineo said.