I kept the doors of my NYC bar open on 9/11 to help comfort my neighbors. It taught me the value of community – which has been crucial during the pandemic.

Charles von Herrlich, owner of Von Bar in New York City.
is the owner of Von Bar in New York City. Charles von Herrlich
  • Charles von Herrlich is the owner of Von Bar in New York City, which he opened after the 9/11 attacks to try to provide a place of comfort for people.
  • After surviving the pandemic, von Herrlich says he’s learned the importance of building a community around your business.
  • This is his story, as told to freelance writer Meira Gebel.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Charles von Herrlich, a business owner in New York, about their experience during the 9/11 attacks. It has been edited for length and clarity.

On the morning of the 9/11 attacks, I woke up early, around 7:45 a.m., to take my dog to a vet on the Upper East Side. When the first plane hit, I was on the Brooklyn Bridge, and I was at the animal hospital when we started hearing reports on the news. It quickly became clear it was something serious.

I started driving downtown from 68th Street to my bar Von Bar, which is on Bleecker Street in the Bowery. As I was coming down 3rd Avenue, I could see one of the towers in flames and could smell the smoke. By the time I got to 14th Street, there were no more vehicles on the road, just thousands of people. I didn’t understand what was happening until I saw people crying in the middle of the street.

I parked my car near the bar and went up to my sister’s apartment, who lived across the street, and watched as the tower fell with some of the neighbors on the roof.

Later that day, I left to go back uptown to get my dog, but then the authorities wouldn’t let me drive back downtown. They allowed me to park the car and I walked back.

At that point, I was stuck in the city with all of the bridges closed, so I decided to open the bar. I felt like there was nothing else to do.

None of my bartenders could come in to open the bar and I couldn’t leave, so it was a natural decision. The people who ended up coming in that night had been working on the rescue effort, and a few people were just sitting there looking at their beers in silence. It was a heavy moment. I hoped that providing people with just a place to sit was providing some sort of service.

That night at the bar, it felt like a memorial service – it was quiet and candlelit with people mourning.

It was apparent pretty quickly by that evening that there was a major loss of life, and the gravity of that sunk in almost immediately.

It felt like the smell of burnt flesh lingered in the city for over three months. It was horrific. For over a year, people were afraid to come downtown.

After 9/11, we had to work to keep the bar alive, and that’s the same now with the pandemic.

Following 9/11, we had to shut down, too, for a little while, which was tough. But now the pandemic has nearly destroyed our business.

Like the rest of the country, we’ve had to shut down completely and reopen on a dime after three months of lockdown while still following health guidelines and orders that are changing all the time. We built a kitchen and came up with a small food program from scratch and a brand of cocktail mixers. At the beginning, people were afraid to come out, and it was a devastating few months financially. I’ve worked the better part of the last year on less than subsistence-level wages, and I’m still personally tens of thousands of dollars in debt because of how the pandemic affected our business.

This has been one of the hardest years of my life as a business owner.

I’ve had to work harder for less money and be more dedicated than ever.

One of the unifying aspects of both the pandemic and 9/11 is just wanting to be there for the community and provide a sense of normalcy – give people a place to go to sit down and have a moment of quiet, even if everything else in the world is completely sideways.

For me, business isn’t just about the receipts at the end of the day. It’s about having relationships.

When things are difficult and tragedies happen, being a business owner is about having a presence – and making sure that presence is felt in the community

Even though both events presented us with financial difficulty, it also was an opportunity to be there for our community – and hopefully in the long run that’s the business model we will sustain and be proud of.