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Making Happy Hour Downright Ecstatic

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Having been in the restaurant/bar business all my life, I have never had a “traditional” (or what my grandmother would call “real”) job, and therefore never had a 9 to 5 workday. Still, I must admit that there is a certain feeling about the hours between 4 and 7 on the rare weekday afternoon when I have nothing else to do and I can join friends for this omnipresent promotion featuring cheap eats, drinks and conversation. Happy hour has become not only a post-office rite for working stiffs, but a catch-all promotion for restaurants, bars and clubs looking to boost the bottom line during a traditionally slow day part.

Though a decades-old standby — the term originally popped up in the 1920s during Prohibition and referred to the practice of meeting for an hour or so at an illegal speakeasy to consume drinks before heading out to dinner at a legitimate restaurant (in this context the “happy” meant slightly tipsy) — happy hour is on the move. Patrons, perhaps seeking an inexpensive and relaxing respite from the trying times we’ve been experiencing lately, are tuning in to what’s available at their favorite establishment during the late afternoon and early evening like never before. Operators who step up with something interesting stand to benefit. If you haven’t revised your happy hour program recently, consider the following steps.

1. Understand the Purpose of Happy Hour 
Although many operators treat happy hour as a stand-alone day part on par with lunch, dinner or late night, it is not. Happy hour is a transitional promotion tactic meant to drive traffic into the evening day part. It is a mistake to consider a busy happy hour a success. A busy happy hour is not its own reward. It is a diminished-return or break-even proposition at best. Happy hour is not a success unless it creates or leads into a busy, lucrative dinner or late night. Happy hour marketing is a traffic-driver, not a sales-driver.

The trick is to offer a deep enough happy hour discount to drive guests in the front door, and then capture that traffic for a full-price experience. Your marketing should be compelling enough to drive the foot traffic, but once on property, your staff and products should sell the real deal.

2. Train Your Team 
Make sure your staff is well versed in how to turn a happy hour visit into a profitable experience. If your intent is to keep guests through happy hour into dinner, make sure your team is talking up dinner. If you are trying to transition guests from happy hour into late-night customers, make sure servers and bartenders are promoting the night’s entertainment. No matter what, make sure your staff sells everything to guests, not just the happy hour loss leaders. When a guest asks for a recommendation, your team should be trained to talk up full-priced signature items as well as inform him or her on the specials.

3. Sell the Right Stuff
Discount and display the things that you hope will endear guests and keep them coming back. Give them a taste of what you’re really all about. In other words, lead with your “A-List” items. If you are famous (or wish to be famous) for a certain kind of food or dish, discount small-portion tasting plates of that dish. If you are famous (or wish to be famous) for a particular premium signature cocktail, then that’s what you should be selling at a discount. Do you want to be known for your cutting-edge DJs, live music or piano shows? Then put your best act on stage during happy hour, not a “filler.” If a guest comes to happy hour just because you brought in a cheap keg in order to execute your bargain basement deal, or because you serve 25-cent wings that would never make it onto your appetizer menu, then that is all they’ll think of next time your establishment crosses their mind. 

4. Do Not Offer Deep Discounts on Both Food and Beverage  
Remember that happy hour’s function is to funnel traffic into the next day part. Discount and promote the opposite product from your primary profit center. If you are trying to drive people into dinner, feature drink discounts. If you are driving people into an evening of cocktailing and dancing, feature excellent food specials. What good will it do your dinner sales if your guests have filled up on an “all-you can eat taco bar?” How can guests stay for a night of drinking and dancing if they have already indulged on two hours of $2 well drinks?

5. Prepare for Groups
Happy hour is a group activity. No one goes to happy hour alone (that’s not very happy at all). Happy hour is an opportunity to get together with colleagues or friends at the end of the workday. You should not only be prepared for guests in large groups, you should reward it. Rearrange seating in your cocktail lounge for groups of more than four. Present your discount items as bundled, group offerings; appetizer platters or drink specials that are value-priced per person — “Our famous appetizer sampler platter just $2 per person” — or pitchers/buckets that are priced by the person, such as “Bottomless Sangria pitchers between 5 and 7 p.m. just $5 per person.” Present discounting according to group size in order to encourage maximum attendance. This practice of offering “Groupons” assigns different deals based on how many guests are at the table, such as offering “$3 off the total bill for each person in attendance.”

6. Step It Up
If the resurgence of “cocktail culture” over the past few years has taught us anything, it is that consumers are looking for good value, not just good price. They are demanding higher quality ingredients and seeking out interesting, exotic and expertly prepared flavors. Your happy hour promotion should feature unique offerings as a way to attract guests, promote your business and differentiate you from the “all you can eat nacho bar” down the street. 

Discount premium and signature drinks that use top-shelf ingredients and are unique to your establishment, and that is what you will train your guests to order during full-price day parts. Feature exotic, shareable small plates and tapas that reflect the quality and flavors of your usual menu, and you will create unique, crave-able experiences that will keep guests coming back for more. Which, in turn, will make the rest of your workday full of happy hours.

Article By: Tim Kirkland - November 10, 2009