Michael Maxwell – Partner, Blue Orbit Restaurant Consulting
I embrace the Urban Dictionary’s definition of happy hour: “Where the worst selling and nastiest tasting alcoholic beverages are sold for half price to a bunch of alcoholics too drunk to notice.” Before Dram Shop Laws, this was a very accurate description. Operators gave away low cost alcohol at 2 for 1 prices and made money from sheer volume of product moved with little or no concern for quality or safety. Today these happy hours seem to only remain in college towns and vacation areas where everyone is walking and focused on having a good time.
Today, any business preparing to enter the happy hour marketplace should first make sure they are fully educated on all the local and state laws affecting the sale of alcohol – as these tend to change from municipality to municipality. Secondly, they should evaluate the time periods during the day that need or can accommodate more sales. Finally, a good understanding of the demographics of the local market is necessary to help determine what the offer should be and the best ways to promote it. Many credit card processing companies provide demographic and purchase trends information to their clients. The local Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitor’s Bureaus can also help with this information. No marketing decision should be made without a careful understanding of the needs of the consumers in your area.
While there are always exceptions to the norm, I believe that there are two time periods that lend themselves well to happy hour deals: pre-dinner (4 pm to 6 pm) and late night (10 pm to 12 am). These two time periods target two distinctly different groups. Pre-dinner attracts guests finishing up their workday and those who would like a drink before an early dinner. Late night attracts college students wrapping up study time and hospitality workers (notorious for patronizing nearby competitors) just getting off work. Both time periods are limited to two hours. This is enough time to generate some decent sales but not enough time for the normal person to become intoxicated, thus helping to control the liability issues. The time periods are typically slower sales times so the extra business fills seats that are normally empty and does not interfere with prime-time diners. In most markets, weekend sales are typically spread more evenly throughout the hours of operation and guest counts are higher so happy hour promotions normally only have a home Monday through Thursday.
Happy hour and two-for-one used to mean the same thing. Today’s offer is much more varied. Some promotions that I have developed or seen successful include:
- Specialty Cocktails: Drinks only available during happy hour offered at a lower than normal price.
- Flights: Sampling of tequila, bourbon, cordials, wine, beer, etc. with an educational component.
- Giveaways: No reduced prices or special drinks, but free food sampling or drawings for free items. For example, a Mexican restaurant I frequent gives everyone a token. If your number is called you spin the wheel to see what you win. Sometimes the fun factor is as important as the value.
- Targeted Daily Specials: The offer changes daily. For example, Wednesday is Wine Down Wednesday with half price glasses of wine.
- Punch Parties: The bar makes several different batches of punch and they sell for a dollar a cup.
- Food Happy Hour: No drink specials but all appetizers are half price.
The ideas are endless and once again should be tailored to the guests you are targeting.
Targeting groups is also a good idea particularly if you have office towers around. The goal here is not only to fill empty seats in the afternoon, but also to build loyal customers that will return for regular meal periods. I recently helped a restaurant group build a program with this goal in mind. We visited two local offices per week and offered them a happy hour party for up to 15 people. The offer included a free meat and cheese platter and a round of cocktails created just for them. The offer was designed to get people in the door and a drink in their hands, but also to encourage continued purchasing. Hosting networking groups for happy hour is also a great way to fill seats and sell drinks during down times. It usually requires providing something to snack on and a specialty cocktail at a reduced rate. Depending on the type of group, both the pre-dinner and late night time slots are desirable.
Most of all never underestimate the power of hospitality. Guests arriving at happy hour need to be greeted immediately with a big smile. Bartenders need to be fun and entertaining. Cocktail servers need to be fast and efficient. A discount alone is not sufficient reason to spend money or to become a repeat guest. We are in the people pleasing business and that starts with our people being eager to please.