I like snow as much as the next shoveler, but when you’re in the bar business, especially when beer is important to your concept, face it: winter sucks. Things start to slow down in November, as the daylight gets scarce. Then, after a month-long frenzy of Christmas parties, shopping lunches, and New Year’s Eve, The Slump sets in, three months of the slowest beverage alcohol sales of the year. It’s hard not to get depressed yourself, but there are ways to wake up your winter.
The first quarter is always the weakest of the year; everyone knows that. Why? It’s pretty easy to explain. The weather becomes rotten in much of the country — snow, rain, sleet, ice, windy cold and people don’t want to venture out much, especially not if it involves drinking. Even if the weather isn’t so rough where you operate, you’ve got to deal with the sidereal reality: when the sun sets around 5:00, it gets dark pretty early. Lots of people get the cocoon tendency in the winter and they just don’t party like they do in the longer days of summer. It ain’t the heat, it’s the lack of luminosity.
If it wasn’t bad enough fighting the weather and the very sun in the sky, you’ve got to deal with holiday hangover, too. Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa empty the pocketbook and fill the waistband, so people don’t want to spend the money to go out and don’t want anyone to see them in their fat clothes anyway. Then a significant part of your clientele might go drink a lot less or not at all for Lent. Together with everything else, it means fewer people in your business and less money in the till during the first months of the year.
What can you do to turn these trends around, how can you fight the sun and Santa Claus? With the same things that work year-round: innovative, creative promotions. Remember to work with your suppliers; they’ve got promotions too, because if your business is slow, so is theirs. Most major beer companies plan their seasonal promotions a full year in advance and they focus on off-season holidays as well as the big ones. If you’re planning ahead, contact your suppliers to get a heads up on your bigger selling beers’ subsidized promotions.
While the big national and international brewers plan separate promotional schedules for all their beer brands, smaller companies focus on their top brews. In some cases, the smaller the supplier, the more personal attention you can get. Your job, whatever outside help you seek, is to create some excitement, lead with an attractive price, and you’ll soon have enough warm bodies to melt the snow right off your roof.
JUNE IN JANUARY
Visions of warm bodies are one thing that can work well. People love wintertime summer parties. “We have a Jimmy Buffett-style Christmas party,” says Sean Lockovich, marketing man for the Quaker Steak & Lube chain based in Sharon, PA. “You know, a beach party in December. People love it.”
And you might want to grab any warmth that comes along. Lockovich says the chain, noted for massive Bike Nights during the summer that draw up to 10,000 motorcycle riders, will put out the word for a wintertime Emergency Bike Night when there’s an unseasonable temperature spike. “We got four or five hundred bikers out in the middle of December last year,” he said, “just because it got warm.” Not bad for spur of the moment!
You can also plan with something as slow as the calendar. There are a string of minor holidays scattered through this period, and you can make the most of them. Some are quirky enough that no one else will touch them, and you can take them and make them your own. Let’s take a quick run through them.
First comes the birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps, on November 10. I’ll never forget the first time I stumbled on one of these celebrations in Fishkill, NY. Once I found out what was going on I started buying drinks for Marines, Marines were buying drinks for me, and by the end of the night everyone was a proud, patriotic American, especially the bar manager.
It’s a natural: the USMC was started in a tavern, the Tun Tavern on Water Street, in Philadelphia. If you’re the kind of host who can handle it, this is a great bunch of men and women to have on your side. If you’re part of the Corps, let ’em know and you’re halfway home: as they say, Semper Fi! Get a birthday cake and find a local top dog Marine to make a little speech when you cut it. If you can get this kind of tradition started, you’ll have at least one big day every November.
It’s easier for a restaurant to make some business off Thanksgiving. Lots of Americans now go out for Thanksgiving dinner. Keep in mind that the holiday beers have hit the market by that time, and let your serving staff know you have them. Special meals call for special drinks. Pete’s Wicked Winter Brew, with its raspberry and nutmeg notes, is a particularly great match for turkey, for instance, and it hardly need be said that Wild Turkey is a natural sell.
December can take care of itself; I don’t need to tell you how to put up garlands and lights. But when the New Year’s Eve party is over, how do you get things going again? Well, in Philadelphia, you don’t have to. Philly parties on New Year’s Day with its big Mummer’s Parade, a zany tradition of amateur musicians and strutting fantasies of sequins, feathers, and foil.
It’s a big deal. Chris Mullins, owner of Philly’s oldest bar, McGillin’s, says, “On New Year’s Day we’ll serve over 3,000 people. They line up for over a block.” Even if you’re not on Broad Street, you’ve still got a TV. If you can get satellite feed, you can telecast this goofy ‘day after’ party no matter where you are. Or check your own regional traditions for something to get people to start their New Year with you.
The big secular holiday of January is the Super Bowl, the annual gladiator fight. Getting people in for the Super Bowl game is almost as easy as getting them to eat free popcorn; your key is to make more than one day of it. Take Louisville for example: I’ve lived there, and that town gets five days of furious fun out of a two minute horse race on the first Saturday in May! You should be able to stretch a three-hour game into quite a bit of business. Hold pre-game parties, team nights, get local sportscasters or newspaper columnists in for a bull session with your fans. By the time the big game comes around, you’ll have standing room only.
February means Valentine’s Day, the season of love. Capitalize on it with drink specials and food and drink pairings. This is the time to pop the corks on champagne and those big bottles of specialty beers: Unibroue’s Quelque Chose, a spicy cherry beer that’s wonderful served hot, is a great one for romance. You may not turn as many tables, but you can get bigger sales off each one by offering something special for the ladies; desserts, drinks, flowers, chocolate.
February is also often the month of Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Carnival. Call it want you want, it means the good times are gonna roll. Are you gonna roll with them? Mardi Gras isn’t just about New Orleans these days, though that city’s way of celebrating it right out into the street is spreading to other cities. Think hard about how involved you’re going to get, and what your cleanup might be like! You might want to work with other establishments in your area on getting distinctive bead necklaces from each bar to encourage people to collect them all. Bead trading is up to responsible adults, of course.
Fat Tuesday is always followed by Ash Wednesday, of course, and that’s when things slip a bit more in heavily Catholic areas in the Northeast and Southwest. Giving up alcohol is a common Lenten vow. What can you do for these earnest souls? Even though Lenten rules have changed, many still observe the old “Fish on Fridays” stricture. Make sure you have a fish special on Friday, for one thing, even if it’s a tuna sub. When I was younger, we always went to the same bar every Friday in Lent because of their shrimp specials. And it’s hardly ever true that everyone in a group is on the wagon.
One Catholic feast day that has become popular with almost everyone is St. Patrick’s Day (and almost every Lenten vow gets bent a bit then, too). Like the Super Bowl, the key to St. Patrick’s Day is stretching it. For most Irish bars, St. Pat’s is the single biggest day in the year, but if you can squeeze one more day of frenzy out of it, you’ve got a big start on your monthly nut. Try a day before party as a “St. Pat’s Prep” and promote it as being for “hardcore Irishmen.” They’ll come out of the woodwork to have a shot of Jameson at midnight. Irish brews are widely supported then by suppliers, and the all-American brewers work doubly hard to connect with partiers that time of year.
Don’t forget to have something besides the usual. Get your Irish coffee fixings ready for the early crowd (and for the late afternoon boost!), and stock plenty of Irish whiskey brands. You can establish that crucial difference for your bar by having a wider selection of true Irish spirits, including Jameson and Bushmills, of course, but also Powers, Midleton Very Rare, the newly available Redbreast, and Tyrconnell. Sure, and it’s true that the higher margin on these whiskies will put a bit more green in your St. Pat’s Day till.
That’s not a bad idea to keep in mind the rest of the winter as well. If people are drinking less, encourage them to treat themselves by having something that’s nicer, something that’s a bit more upscale than they usually have. It might become a habit, and that’s nice for you.
Remember that if you don’t like any of these holidays — or you want more — you can always make one up. The Rock Bottom brewpub chain has been running a Fire Chief Ale promotion for five years. Jennifer Hartman, the support marketing manager for the chain, explained. “We brew a special Fire Chief Ale that taps in late March,” she said. “We donate a percentage of sales to local fire departments or burn units. We raised $60,000 last year.” To boost the charitable donations and raise awareness of the promotion, they do a number of special events along with it at the local brewpubs. “They do a fireman bachelor auction in Cleveland that’s very successful,” said Hartman, a tie-in that gets the local fire department involved.
Wintertime is a good time for these kinds of charity tie-ins. Even when people won’t spend for themselves, they’ll spend for a good cause, especially if they get to drink and eat while they’re doing it. All they need is an excuse, and they’ll be down to see you; give them that excuse.
Lockovich at Quaker Steak & Lube says the Lube’s Frostbite Footrace in early January is always a big event. “We have a footrace from bar to bar in town,” he said. “It ends up at The Lube, where we give away prizes.” That’s the kind of promotion everyone benefits from, and it’s another good suggestion. Business for the group means more for everyone, and friendly competition can be good to keep you on your toes. Lockovich understands the whole idea of beating the slump season and waking up winter. “We try to keep busy,” he said, and that’s the key.
It is a slow time of the year, but fun and business is where you find it. In Philadelphia, the Grey Lodge Pub has even made Groundhog Day an event. Since the little furrball in question pops out at dawn, tavern owner Mike Scotese lets regulars know this is a once-a-year obligation. “We have them in for an eggs-and-kegs breakfast,” said Scotese. As a bow to the furry prognosticator, there is a meeting of the Grey Lodge’s “Inner Circle” to decide whether the local wildlife saw their shadow — which will mean six more weeks of winter seasonal beers. It’s a small event…but for at least one day in a cold month, the Grey Lodge is full and humming. That’s what waking up winter is all about.