PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAN WAGNER
FOOD AND DRINKS BY EXECUTIVE CHEF, VINCENT BARCELONA, SEVEN, NYC
Happy Hour. Even the name sounds great. Who wouldn’t want to be happy for an hour? Noted food & beverage writer John Mariani, in “The Dictionary of American Food and Drink,” describes it as “the period of one or two hours before dinner when people enjoy a cocktail or other beverage.” Mariani goes on to note that since the 1960s, the term has been used by bars and taverns and “refers to a 1920s connotation of the word happy with being slightly intoxicated.”
What Mariani’s definition fails to mention is that most bars originally built their happy hours around reduced priced drinks and that the hour was often 120 or 180 minutes long. In recent years, however, many state and local authorities have instituted regulations that prohibit or severely limit practices that the authorities believe encourage over-consumption. Where legal, drink discounting is still a common practice, but it’s by no means the entirety of the happy hour experience. These days savvy operators are using creative appetizers, innovative drink menus and electronic entertainment to draw patrons during hours when business is traditionally slow. The happy hour of today has evolved from its original profile, but it’s still alive and well.
“I definitely think that happy hour is as popular as ever, but it has changed dramatically over the last five to seven years,” observed Patrick Henry, president of Patrick Henry Creative Promotions. “The happy hour of the past was typically two-for-one, or even three-for-one drinks, fifty-cent drinks or well brand drinks and a big buffet of mostly very fatty foods. But now it has become so refined. We were out looking at a happy hour for a client the other night and the place was promoting sophisticated Martinis. They were not discounted one bit, but everyone was drinking them.”
“We’re big proponents of the happy hour and four days a week we even do a late night happy hour,” said Will Jacobus, director of beverage operations for Dave and Buster’s. The chain’s program consists of a 4 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. promotion at which all mixed drinks are discounted to half price. Beers are offered at $1 to $1.50 off the regular price and wine with a $1 per glass price break. Finger foods are also offered at a dollar discount as well. The same pricing policies are used for the late night program, which is in effect from 10 p.m. until closing, Sundays through Thursdays.
“We pump this deal up and we’re seeing huge returns on it,” Jacobus said. “Returns on the beverage side are incremental because in effect we’re giving away every other drink. But the returns on the food and the entertainment side, which is half our business, are through the roof.”
The Dave & Buster’s program was tested in Orange County, CA, in the early 2002 and although it took off slowly, by the end of the year it was successful enough to be rolled out coast to coast.
Part of the success, according to Jacobus, is due to all the in-house promotions that the chain does, including table tents and closed-circuit tv. “We’re really trying to get people in, and one audience that we target are the employees of other restaurants in the area, after their shifts end.
“We’re seeing that the other concepts that followed suit are seeing similar results,” Jacobus observed. “We’re sort of robbing Peter to pay Paul with the drinks, but we’re getting such good returns on the rest that it’s worth it. We’re just starting to get the analytic data from the first full year and the results have been outstanding.”
HAPPINESS IS A…
Like Dave & Buster’s, for the late night portion of the happy hour, The Ground Round also targets service industry employees, including those who work at competing restaurants. “Our places stay open later in most markets than our competitors and we offer our full menu right up until closing,” explained Larry Varvella, director of beverage marketing and development.
According to Varvella, in most Ground Round operations (the company is pretty equally divided between company-owned and franchised units), the happy hour program is in effect Monday through Friday from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and again from 10 p.m. until closing. “We’re involved in an overall lounge initiative and happy hour is a big part of it.
“In markets where it’s legal we try to have very competitive offers,” Varvella continued. “We have our smaller draft beer (14. oz.) for a dollar to $1.50 and usually offer a dollar off on mixed drinks and on wine under the theme of Dollar Power Hour.
“We’re also discounting our full appetizer menu to half price during happy hours. Our focus is very much on the appetizer portion of the business and on a really busy day like Friday we’ll also put out a free buffet in addition to the half price menu.”