If everyone’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, that explains why so many bars and restaurants across the country are jammed on March 17. In fact, the party aspect of the holiday has turned it into a multi-day celebration for many on-premise operators.
This is especially true in cities with historically large Irish populations such as New York, Boston and Chicago, where parades and green-dyed rivers are now considered just the start of what goes on. Irish-themed pubs do the biggest business of the year during that week, some reporting that they double their income.
But opportunities are not limited to those operations that bring shamrocks to mind. All sorts of establishments try to capitalize on the St. Patrick’s Day marketing bonanza.
For example, Fullerton, CA-based Mexican restaurant Matador Cantina has offered holiday menus that include corned beef and cabbage fajitas, Irish torta and corned beef tacos, along with discounted beer and Irish whiskey. Ethos Vegan Kitchen in Winter Park, FL, marks the day with vegan renditions of traditional favorites including Irish stew, bangers and mash and Irish potato pancakes, as well as beer specials.
How important is the day in bars and restaurants? A study conducted a few years ago by the National Restaurant Association found that more than a quarter of the adult population plan to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in a restaurant or bar each year. What’s more, over 40% of those surveyed considered holiday promotions or traditional Irish menu items as the biggest factor in choosing an establishment.
According to the National Retail Federation survey on consumer behavior around the holiday, Americans were expected to spend $4.4 billion on all things green during March 2016, with about 40% of the key demographic of ages 25 to 34 planning to attend an event at a bar or restaurant.
What’s the best way to take advantage of such open pocketbooks? Nearly every beer brand—and all the Irish spirit brands—provide multiple opportunities for creative promotions and advertising.
But as the competition for the green during the wearing-of-the-green occasion has become fierce, hanging up shamrocks and discounting green beer is no longer enough to make a mark. Here are a few ideas to boost the success of your St. Patrick’s Day promotions.
1. Offer A Unique Experience
The Greene Turtle, with more than 45 units in Maryland and surrounding states, may not be Irish, but the sports bar and grill chain enacts some serious Irish programming. It holds the “Festival of Greene” the Saturday before March 17. All locations offer a special food and drink menu for the month, while a few units add entertainment and special events, according to director of beverage and innovation Nick Kegg.
“With ‘Greene’ being in our name, it’s a natural sort of promotion for us,” Kegg says. “All units sell Irish-themed merchandise, and some will go all out, with bagpipers and special event programming, adapting to their local community.”
For those ambitious units, the Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day starts with a one-price (including beer) breakfast, followed by all-day drink specials, beer-pong and flip-cup tournaments, and Lucky Charms- and wings-eating competitions. Family-friendly options include face painting and Irish dancers and some costumed attractions and live music, depending on the location.
At Ri Ra Irish Pub, with nine units nationally, each pub makes its own plans during the St. Patrick’s Day period, says owner/founder David Kelly. “We have a program in Atlanta that raises funds for charity, for example, and then there’s our location on the docks in Portland, Maine. They do the ‘Penguin Plunge’—a bunch of people dive into the water in the dark at 5:30 in the morning.”
The Penguin Plunge raises money for the Portland Firefighters Children’s Burn unit, while the Atlanta pre-Patrick’s Day St. Baldrick’s head-shaving event raises more than $100,000 for a child cancer foundation. On St. Patrick’s Day itself in Atlanta, the streets outside the pub are blocked for the annual midtown Paddy’s Day festival with live bands. In Las Vegas, Ri Ra hosts a week of live Irish entertainment, and in Charlotte there’s a full calendar of events, including a March 11 pub crawl.
Casual dining chain Bennigan’s offers a month-long “Blarney Blast” promotion. This includes Irish-themed food and drinks, scratch-off sweepstakes cards for iPad Minis, free meals, appetizers and desserts, plus an online contest to win a trip for two to Ireland.
2. Make It More Than One Day
Many operations create weekend celebrations when the calendar cooperates, while others build awareness of the day itself through multiple events during the week or even weeks before. Tilted Kilt Pub and Eatery, a Celtic-themed sports bar franchise chain with about 90 units, marks the holiday from late February through early April by launching what it calls the Hooley menu. The drinks featured—Jameson and Ginger, Black and IPA (layered Guinness stout and Leggy Lass IPA), Green Tea (Jameson Irish whiskey, peach schnapps and lemon juice) and the Lucky Kiss (Jameson, Malibu rum, Midori melon liqueur and pineapple juice)—hew to the traditional with a twist, says Tilted Kilt marketing vice president Mercedes Contreras.
“This being such a big period for us, we hit hard in the build up, via decorating and dressing up and social media and focus on all the Irish varieties of food and drink we feature,” she says.
While not all units feature day-long Hooley parties, those that do bring in bagpipers and Irish bands through the day, even during the week as part of the build up. The Hooley food menu includes drink pairing suggestions, a move that often incrementally increases beverage sales.
3. Do It Halfway
Operations with Irish themes have helped create a new phenomenon: Halfway to St. Paddy’s Day, a Sept. 17 event that mimics the Gaelic holiday and provides a much-needed promotional occasion in early fall. Both the Tilted Kilt and Bennigan’s mark the day, and the trend is spreading.
“Halfway to St. Paddy’s Day is like a mid-year warm up, and we feature many of the same food and drink items that we offer during the month of March,” says Angela Discher, vice president marketing for Legendary Restaurant Group, owner of the 20 Bennigan’s domestic units. “And it’s something that has caught on.”
Drinks included for the promotion include the Skinny Leprechaun (Deep Eddy vodka, mint and soda water), the Celtic Hurricane (Jameson, Malibu, grenadine, orange juice and pineapple juice), Long Ireland Iced Tea (Jameson, Stolichnaya vodka, triple sec, lemon sour, cola) and Shamrockin’ Sangria (Blackstone merlot, DeKuyper Razzmatazz, lemon sour, lemon juice and orange juice).
Ri Ra execs let local units decide whether to participate, and some of them have employed the halfway theme. The Charlotte unit once held a Halfway to St. Patrick’s Day event with a “Halfway to Ireland” competition, which sent the winner halfway there—to Reykjavik, Iceland.
Then there are the various events known as St. Practice Day. Tilted Kilts in some locations mark the 17th of every month with special promotions of drink and food, with the January and February promotions gathering the most attraction and business, says Contreras.
“St. Practice Day is something that we coined some time ago, since St. Paddy’s Day is the biggest day of the year by far for our pubs, and being that we try to create an Irish feel, we always want an excuse to host a party.”
4. Get In On The Crawl
One way for operators to get in on St. Paddy’s celebrations is by participating in scheduled bar crawls. St. Practice Day is held the week before the big day in Savannah, GA. Called the perfect way “to build your tolerance and be in tip-top shape for the big day,” the charitable event involves scorecards for participants with prizes awarded to some of those who complete the crawl, advertised drink specials from each participating bar, swag from sponsors and free entry into all participating bars.
And then there are the sometimes raucous events known as Lepre-Con, bar crawls or music fests mimicking geeky conventions by proposing leprechaun-themed costumes. While taking part in these crawls can boost business, they may be too boisterous for some bars. The annual LepreCon crawl in Hoboken, NJ, which involved more than 20 bars and drew nearly 3,000 revelers, resulted in 15 arrests and 35 other people being sent to the hospital last year.
5. Step Up The Specialty Cocktails
St. Patrick’s Day patrons expect green beer, Irish Car Bombs and Irish Coffees, but those ideas are a bit stale and won’t capture much attention for an average operation. In Chicago last year, the city was awash with new cocktail ideas, some even made without Irish whiskey.
For instance, The Allis featured two cocktails: Drowning the Shamrock, with rum, green Chartreuse, lime, creme de cacao and vanilla simple syrup, and the Mott Street Cathedral (Irish whiskey, Lillet Blanc and orange bitters), each $12. Bar on Buena served The Tipperary ($10), with Bushmills Black Bush Irish whiskey, Aperol and Cocchi vermouth, and The Dawson promoted four cocktails ($10 to $15) including the Dawson Snakebite (Guinness layered with Lindeman’s kriek beer) and Hatchet Annie (Irish coffee, pear and ginger).
The Green Turtle sets a month-long St. Patrick’s Day drink menu with its own twists. These include the Green Crush, a play on the Maryland bar favorite Orange Crush (fresh orange juice, triple sec and soda), and the Shell Shocker, a green Long Island Iced Tea. Melon liqueur gives the drinks their green hue.
Bennigan’s includes such drinks as the Irish Apple (Deep Eddy Cranberry vodka, Jameson, Sour Apple Pucker and cranberry juice) and an Irish Mule (Jameson, Absolut vodka, ginger and lime). Prices range from $7 to $10.
Indeed, as Moscow Mule-type drinks are surging, the Irish Mule has been appearing on many menus recently. At Yard House units marking St. Patrick’s Day in 2016, the menu included the Dublin Mule (Jameson, ginger citrus agave, ginger ale and Guinness), the Emerald Isle (Cruzan banana rum, Midori, St. Germain elderflower liqueur and Zaya rum); and a Celtic Mojito (Jameson, Midori, citrus agave, lime and mint). The drinks are priced at about $10.75 each.
Cocktails such as the Black Velvet (Guinness and Champagne) make sense on such a free-flowing day for stout. And libations like Green Sangria, with recipes using pinot grigio or albariño with Midori and fruit, or mint and green grapes and a touch of food coloring, give wine drinkers an option amidst all the beer and Irish coffees.
6. Think Beyond Corned Beef And Cabbage
Consumers are drawn to conventional St. Patrick’s Day fare, but adding a twist to the classics can set you apart from the crowd. One of the hottest food and drink fads for the big green day has been Kegs and Eggs, a way to take advantage of an increasingly important breakfast daypart. SideBar sports bar in New York launches its celebration each year with green eggs, green pancakes, green bagels, Lucky Charms and unlimited green Bud Light draft.
Bennigan’s offers a full Irish-American menu with a twist: Irish Street Tacos, Reuben Egg Rolls, Corned Beef & Cabbage, Beer-Battered Fish & Chips and Beer Cheese Soup. The Tilted Kilt’s Hooley menu includes clams steamed in Guinness, shepherd’s pie, Irish stew, and corned beef—with cabbage, in a sandwich, hashed with eggs or in a horseradish dip.
Other creative kitchens do it differently. Cecconi’s in Hollywood has featured Green Eggs—pesto-topped poached eggs on sautéed spinach, avocado, and English muffins. Hopdoddy Burger Bar in Austin has served a burger topped with green beer cheese, Kennebec fries, veggies, and a green bun. Chicago’s R.J. Grunts in March featured Baileys aioli, cabbage slaw, mustard, Jameson vinaigrette, Guinness cheddar cheese, and thin slices of deli corned beef with a patty on a potato bun.
In the Boston area, the Anna’s Taqueria chain has mixed and matched ethnicities for the holiday, with a cabbage- and corned-beef burrito: slow-roasted corned beef, steamed cabbage and carrots, beans and rice. And in downtown Los Angeles, Fritzi has served Irish nachos—tater tots, house-made beer cheese and flecks of corned beef.
St. Patrick’s Day has become such a big deal for operators that one Irishman remains surprised at how broad and deep the celebration goes. “As an Irish person, I never fully appreciated how much Americans embrace Ireland,” says Ri Ra’s Kelly. “It was actually a bit humbling, the way everybody embraces the day and lets their hair down, whether they’re Irish or not.”
Jack Robertiello is a spirits writer based in Brooklyn, NY.