Joey Ngo. Photo by Juan Carlos Lara.

Joey Ngo, co-owner of Arena SF, a nightclub on Mission Street, is elated to see his venue finally filling up again. 

For the club owner whose bread and butter is hosting large, sweaty, and intoxicated crowds in an enclosed space, the pandemic has been rough — and it has forced him to get creative. 

“We had meetings all the time trying to figure out what to do, trying to figure out a way to operate and stay relevant,” he said, preparing to open the club on Friday afternoon.

Ngo found partial salvation in Arena’s full kitchen, which allowed him to at least serve Korean fried chicken and lumpia to go. He and his staff even gambled on oddities like alcoholic boba tea, which “popped off really well,” Ngo said. 

When the venue was allowed to reopen indoors in November, Ngo gladly invited customers to dine inside, but the 27-year-old, a veteran of the nightlife scene, could sense a palpable shift in the club’s new set up — the vibes were off. 

Although the business consistently filled its indoor tables, the six-foot spacing felt like light-years of distance compared to the normal nightclub expectation of people packed six centimeters apart, Ngo said. 

“It looked very empty, because it was nowhere near as full as it was before,” Ngo said. 

The point soon became moot as the city shut down both indoor and outdoor dining in December, but Ngo began preparing for the next reopening. The business ordered more televisions and altered the lighting, which  changed the nightclub into something more resembling a sports bar. 

And it was a success. When Arena SF reopened last month, the tables filled up once again, and the space felt more natural than it had in the fall. The business also began hosting events for sports fans to swap trading cards. 

“That’s the reason why I love my company,” Ngo said. “We don’t just wait for something to come; we try to make the best of that situation.”

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Juan Carlos Lara covers business and development in the Mission. Juan Carlos, a San Francisco State alum, is as much a photographer as he is a writer and previously worked as the campus news editor at Golden Gate Xpress, SF State’s student paper.

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