Calkins: Taylor Berger shutters Railgarten and Rec Room — and already misses Memphis spring

By , Daily Memphian Updated: March 19, 2020 8:16 AM CT | Published: March 19, 2020 4:05 AM CT
Geoff Calkins
Daily Memphian

Geoff Calkins

Geoff Calkins has been chronicling Memphis and Memphis sports for more than two decades. He is host of "The Geoff Calkins Show" from 9-11 a.m. M-F on 92.9 FM. Calkins has been named the best sports columnist in the country five times by the Associated Press sports editors, but still figures his best columns are about the people who make Memphis what it is.

Editor’s note: Due to the serious public health implications associated with COVID-19, The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed.

Taylor Berger finally gave in to the inevitable.

He showed up for work Wednesday morning, consulted his partners and then closed Railgarten, Rec Room and Highland Axe & Rec.

He notified the 100 or so employees that they would not be needed any longer.

“I’m so lost right now,” he said, later in the day. “Two weeks ago, I was on cloud nine.”

Two weeks ago, we all were.

Can you even remember two weeks ago?

The Grizzlies were making a sprint to the playoffs. The Tigers were poised to win their final home game of the season, against Wichita State. Spring — always the very best season in Memphis — was on its glorious way.

Berger’s establishments are made for the this time of year. They’re not just bars, not just restaurants, they’re gathering places. Places where you can sit outside, listen to a song, bring your dog, throw an axe.

“Spring is when everybody comes out of their houses after the winter,” Berger said. “These are big outdoor places. In the winter, we operate at a loss. But in the spring, people are hanging from the rafters, having a great time, listening to music, just being outside and alive.”

Berger sounded wistful, talking about it. This Memphis spring has already been lost. Nobody will be hanging from the rafters of the Rec Room. Nobody will be getting a cold one at Railgarten’s tiki bar.

And as for the axe, it fell Wednesday morning, when Berger finally delivered the bad news.

“Everybody has kind of seen this coming,” he said. “It’s been a weird, moral question because I’ve kind of known for three or four days that we have to stop. On the other hand, we’re responsible for feeding these people, for their livelihoods. And without a directive to close, what are we supposed to do?”

Monday, members of the Rec Room staff told Berger they weren’t comfortable coming to work any longer. So that was that. Tuesday — St. Patrick’s Day — Berger spent the evening serving customers at Railgarten.

“There were very few people,” he said. “At least in Midtown and Downtown, folks seem to have gotten the word that this is not playing around. It’s here and we have to isolate. And, as an economic matter, I can’t operate on takeout. That’s 10% of what I’m trying to do. And every restaurant in town is trying to do the same thing. It just wasn’t going to work.”

So there really wasn’t any decision to make, by the time Berger put up a Facebook describing what he called “the worst day of my life.” Railgarten, Rec Room and Highland Axe & Rec are closed indefinitely. Bounty on Broad is takeout only. Loflin Yard will operate in a scaled-back fashion, in an effort to keep maybe 10 of the 100 staffers employed.

“I don’t know what comes next,” Berger said. “Today, I had to call my landlords and they are in the same the boat. What are they going to do, rent the places out to someone else? One of my landlords told me, ‘If you don’t have any money, you can’t pay rent.’ There’s no money. Nothing to pay it out of.”

Berger knows there are thousands — no, tens of thousands — of people like him in Memphis, people who have seen their lives flipped upside down. Berger, 40, is married to a nurse practitioner. So they should be able to feed their three kids. But that won’t help the 100 or so people who used to work at his establishments, who used to serve drinks, or cook food or make certain nobody perished by axe.

That’s one reason Berger has started up a new enterprise, “Two Broke Bartenders and a Truck,” which he describes as “your friendly neighbors, bartenders, musicians and service industry workers that now find ourselves temporarily displaced.”

It’s not really just two broke bartenders. It’s a whole raft of them who will cheerfully “pick up your groceries, shop for you, cook for you, make your drinks, unclog your toilet, fix your doorknob, move your stuff or do anything else you can think of.” And if that seems like a spectacularly wide range of offerings, there’s a reason for that.

“We have a staff that can do a lot of things,” he said. “I’ve got staff who can fix things, I’ve got staff that are good at tech, I’ve got staff who love pets, I’ve got staff who love kids. We were able to create this business idea and even get a jingle (by Memphis musician Mark Edgar Stuart) together in 24 hours because we know how to do things. That’s what small business is — getting things done. I’m hopeful to find a way to continue to do that, but in a socially distant way.”

Berger laughs ruefully at the last part of that sentence. How exactly do we live — and work — in a socially distant way? How do we sustain ourselves? How do we sustain community? That’s what Berger’s places were all about, in the end. They were places to gather. Places to be with each other and watch the sunset. So what do we do when gathering itself is irresponsible? Whether it’s at a church or at a school or at the zoo or at the mall or at an old Midtown rail yard?

“I’m trying to figure out how we can connect with each other, if we can’t be physically close,” Berger said. “I’m sure everybody in Memphis feels weird right now. We’re supposed to be out. Our bodies are supposed to be getting out and seeing everybody after the winter. This time of year is supposed to be a time of joy in Memphis. It isn’t supposed to be like this.”


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