Beer is no longer flowing at this Salt Lake City bar, but paychecks are

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kirk Bengtzen in his Salt Lake City bar Twist on Friday, April 17, 2020. Bengtzen has continued to pay his employees while the bar is closed due to COVID-19.

When bars shuttered across the state last month, most employees had no choice but to apply for unemployment.

“Nobody can really stay in this industry right now and make money," said bar manager Erica Taylor.

But Taylor and 31 of her co-workers at Salt Lake City’s Twist bar are lucky. They have been able to keep their jobs because owner Kirk Bengtzen is paying employees out of his own pocket.

“I see the way the employees live paycheck to paycheck. A lot of the servers live for those tips every night that they work,” Bengtzen said. “They’re planning on that cash to … make their bills, and I knew that a lot of these people just wouldn’t make it through [the coronavirus shutdown]."

Bengtzen is covering about 70% of their normal pay. And he told those who left to take unemployment benefits he would have a job for them when Twist, 32 Exchange Place, reopens. So far, three employees have taken him up on the offer.

Twist also is one of the few bars to offer health insurance to employees.

Bengtzen had several reasons for keeping some of his original 35 employees on the payroll when he was forced to close the business last month in response to orders from state and county health officials.

“My family didn’t have much money growing up, and I’ve been very fortunate in my life to make a few extra dollars,” said Bengtzen, 48. “So there’s no reason in the world why during this time I can’t … help out at least the people that have worked so hard for me over the last couple years.”

Born and raised in Sugar House, Bengtzen spent most of his career working in the auto industry, owning several car dealerships throughout Utah and other states. A friend of his owned Twist for 3½ years and wanted to sell it to someone who would invest in the community and, Bengtzen said, “make it bigger and better than what it was before."

Bengtzen sold all of his dealerships and bought Twist in January 2019. He also owns a pizza company, Pinsa Lab USA, in Pleasant Grove, and a small company in Hawaii, which distributes electric vehicles for resorts and rentals.

Although these two companies are also closed because of the coronavirus, Bengtzen has kept his three employees at Pinsa Lab and six employees at Hawaiian Moke America on the payroll as well.

Layoffs force employees to file for unemployment benefits, he said, which is already a heavy tax for businesses. Utah currently has its highest unemployment report on record as a result of COVID-19.

“I choose to support and pay my employees, so they don’t have to go take from that unemployment fund.”

Bengtzen said it would have been difficult for Twist to stay open and offer takeout and delivery — something it has never provided — because food is a small part of the business’s revenue.

Instead, he took the pandemic as an opportunity to have his staff deep-clean the bar so that it’s well sanitized when it reopens.

Employees come in — four to six at a time if they are healthy — once a week for three or four hours. He separates them between the upstairs and downstairs levels and requires them to work at least 10 to 15 feet apart.

“Without the team, Twist would not be successful,” Bengtzen said. “They’re the ones that made me successful. I need to do the right thing and step up to support them during this time.”

Taylor said she feels “so fortunate” to still have a paycheck. “I am beyond grateful that I can still pay my bills, and I don’t have to panic."

Last week, Gov. Gary Herbert announced that restaurants and bars may be able to open by early May with some social distancing restrictions.

Bengtzen hopes to reopen Twist to a few customers May 15 and then to have a full reopening in June. The bar will wait for direction from health officials, but he plans to have employees wear masks and keep 6 feet from other staffers and guests.

He said Twist will also rearrange furniture and the bar so that all seating tables are a minimum of 10 feet apart from one another.

“Instead of having an open seating, we’ll do more of a set seating," said Bengtzen, "where we sit certain people to try to keep the distance as far away from everybody as possible.”