Any bar or restaurant can put together a list of a few drink specials and call it a Happy Hour, but that kind of half-hazard strategy most likely won’t generate a significant amount of business. There’s an art to cultivating a successful Happy Hour program, and a considerable amount of work that needs to take place before launching such a promotion.
For one thing, you have to have a great offer to draw people in, says George Barton, a consultant specializing in restaurant and bar operations who worked for T.G.I. Fridays for 35 years, most recently as vice president of operations. Make sure you focus on popular beer, wine and cocktail options, as well as brands that you know your guests will embrace. Happy Hour isn’t necessarily the time to try something new.
And while you should provide a price incentive to bring guests in during Happy Hour periods, Barton cautions against deep discounting. Consider your menu options and projected revenue goals while setting price points for your Happy Hour promotion. The ultimate goal should always be to make a profit.
Happy Hour isn’t just about the drinks: You should offer food as well. Rather than generic nachos or chicken wings, you might use Happy Hours to promote some of your signature offerings via small plates.
The Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant in New York recently developed a Happy Hour menu that includes a selection of wines and beers, along with several Martinis offered at reduced prices. But the largest portion of the menu is the raw bar and snacks option, with eight different selections from which to choose, says general manager Kevin Faerkin.
“Happy Hour is a great way for people to get exposed to our menu in a different way,” he explains. “They can come in and spend $12 for a drink and a few oysters, and that makes them want to transfer into one of our dining rooms later on and spend $29 on an entree. They get to try our food, they see how good it is, and they come back wanting more.”
It’s worth noting that while Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant has been around for a century—it first opened its doors in Grand Central Terminal in 1913—the operator didn’t have a Happy Hour program until earlier this year. Why now?
“For years, I was constantly fielding calls and requests from people who wanted us to do something during Happy Hour,” says Faerkin. “I finally decided to get it going.”
Not only has the Happy Hour, which operates Monday through Wednesday from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m., and Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., brought in new business from the younger after-work crowd, Faerkin says that the program has boosted dinner sales as well.
A CURATED SELECTION
Searsucker, which has restaurants in Del Mar, CA, San Diego and Scottsdale, AZ, opened a location in Austin, TX, a few months ago. One thing that makes Austin unique is that businesses tend to close a bit earlier than in other cities, says bar manager Tyler Naumann. “We get a large crowd around five o’clock, so we knew we needed to have something great during Happy Hour.”
Searsucker’s Happy Hour menu features a selection of draft beers, house wines, and cocktails prepared with house-made infusions. Small-plates menu items, such as poached egg with bacon pork belly and short rib “Shiner Bock” with horseradish and fried onion, are also available at half-price ($7 each) during Happy Hour, which runs Mondays through Fridays from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Naumann believes that the key to a successful Happy Hour is offering a small yet balanced menu. “We need to make sure there’s something for everyone, but we don’t want to overwhelm the customer with too many choices,” he says.
Searsucker’s Happy Hour offers three mini appetizers, nine small plates, five house-infusion cocktails, six draft beers, and two wines (house red and white). The Happy Hour menu will likely rotate in some seasonal offerings throughout the year. Daily menus are printed in-house, allowing the restaurant to easily make substitutions at the last minute if necessary.
While Seersucker has found that less is more with Happy Hour menus, it’s a different story at the Dragonfish Asian Cafe. Located inside the Paramount Hotel in the heart of downtown Seattle, the restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and offers more than 25 food options and more than 20 drink specials on its Happy Hour menu.
Dragonfish’s Happy Hour food items are mainly small-plate options of dinner entrees offered at a reduced price. Drink prices are all discounted at different amounts, several of which are priced at 50% less than the standard rate.
The large Happy Hour menu is a complement to the restaurant’s large, family-style dining menus, according to Mari Soejima, assistant general manager with Dragonfish. She recalls that Dragonfish tried using a smaller Happy Hour menu several years ago, but went back to the larger menu when customers protested. The current Happy Hour menu has been in place for the past two years.
While Happy Hours traditionally occur between the lunch and dinner hour, generally from around 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., there’s a growing trend of adding a late-night Happy Hour to the menu to appeal to the younger consumer base of millennials, who are typically out socializing during later hours.
The Yard House, for instance, offers a Happy Hour Monday through Friday 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday through Wednesday from 10 p.m. until closing. The beer-centric chain’s offer includes discounted prices on select beers, well and specialty drinks and wine by the glass, with half-priced appetizers, pizza and sliders. Applebee’s and Bahama Breeze are among the many other chains to offer a late-night Happy Hour.
Dragonfish offers two Happy Hours, the first of which runs Tuesdays through Sundays from 3 p.m. until 6 p.m. On Mondays, Dragonfish runs an extended Happy Hour beginning at 3 p.m. and lasting until last call, which is typically around 1 a.m.
“The first Happy Hour caters mainly to the after-work crowd,” Soejima says. “The second one reaches all the late-nighters. We also bring in a lot of theatregoers and the post-concert crowd.”
Elixir, one of the oldest saloons in San Francisco, also has two Happy Hours: one that runs Mondays through Fridays from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., and a second Happy Hour offered Sundays through Tuesdays from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Promotions include $1 off all well drinks, drafts, and house wines. Elixir also began offering Happy Hour customers $2 off selections from the classic cocktails menu four years ago.
“Happy hour is a key time for our regulars to get out of the house,” says Elixir’s current proprietor, H. Joseph Ehrmann, who purchased the space in 2003 and completely restored the building to preserve its authentic saloon look and feel. “It means something different to everyone, so our job is to be open and offer that place for whatever purpose they need.”
The best Happy Hour program isn’t likely to thrive without effective promotion. Creative point-of-purchase (POP) materials can help, says Barton.
“Restaurants need to use creative materials that are colorful and eye-catching to excite guests,” he explains. Barton suggests calling out Happy Hour promotions from other print materials, with striking posters or table-top materials.
The Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant, which has a seating capacity of up to 450 patrons, places a large sign at the entrance of the restaurant every day at Happy Hour, announcing the promotion and displaying the menu offerings.
Simplicity is also key. “A lot of places make the mistake of cluttering the bar and tabletops with numerous menus detailing various promotions, and that just confuses the customers and the staff,” Barton says.
Searsucker is currently promoting its Happy Hour via social media (primarily Facebook) and also by distributing flyers at high-rise residential complexes in the area to tap into the local consumer market. As an additional draw, Searsucker features live music each week during its Thursday and Friday night Happy Hours.
“Ultimately, our concept is to get people to come in early and stay late,” Naumann explains. “There’s no reason for people to want to wander too far. We give them multiple reasons to stay with us, and to keep coming back for more.”
INVEST IN TRAINING
Dragonfish promotes its Happy Hour specials via point-of-sale table tents, social media, and advertising in local media. But the best promoters are the servers themselves, Soejima says.
“Being in a hotel, we cater to a lot of travelers,” Soejima says. “We tell our servers to constantly promote our Happy Hours in the morning when guests come down for breakfast, and all throughout the day. Word-of-mouth is great advertising for us, and a lot of people do return later in the day to take advantage of the great specials.”
Barton stresses that educating staff members about Happy Hour promotions is an essential component to success. “Make sure your bartenders and servers greet every customer and then immediately tell them about the Happy Hour promotions,” he says.
For Elixir, which limits advertising to the building façade and table tents, one of the secrets to a successful Happy Hour is using it as an opportunity to foster evolving relationships with your guests, Ehrmann says.
“Our staff is trained to constantly build relationships with our guests that bring them back whenever they need to come back,” he says. It’s about letting guests know what Elixir’s different programs are as the opportunities present themselves in conversation, he says. “We don’t shove any information in their faces. It’s a long, slow build, not a fast, hard sell.”
Your staff can also be a valuable resource to your program. “If you look at the people working as bartenders and servers these days, many of them are millennials, and that’s a target audience,” Barton says. “Talk to your staff to find out what competitors are offering, and what your employees prefer. That could help you tailor your promotions accordingly.” ·
Melissa Niksic is a Chicago-based freelance writer.
The Ainsworth Rocks a Prime-time Happy Hour
The Ainsworth, which opened last year in the lobby of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, found it was competing with a plethora of other bars and restaurants in the area. What’s more, some of these competitors are located within the same hotel, making it difficult for Ainsworth to distinguish itself.
“A lot of other restaurants and venues in the hotel have set Happy Hour times, or other similar events that take place during that time of day,” says Michele Chioco, assistant general manager with Ainsworth. “At any time of day, there is a place to go and enjoy some kind of drink promotion. We decided to make ours unique by offering it later in the day.”
Ainsworth’s Happy Hour launched several months after the lounge’s grand opening with a menu offering $5 well drinks, beer, and wine. The kicker? Happy Hour, which runs Sunday through Friday, doesn’t begin until 8 p.m. and lasts until 11 p.m.
Chioco says the untraditional Happy Hour hours are perfect for Las Vegas: Many people stay out late while visiting Sin City, so a late night Happy Hour is often a great way to get their night out started. Also, the Happy Hour serves as a great segue into other events that are held in the lounge many nights beginning at 10 p.m., such as live music and karaoke. The program instantly increased customer traffic and revenue.
“We definitely see a lot of people who are drawn into the lounge because of the Happy Hour promotions, which are advertised in signage and digital screens across the hotel, and through our social media,” Chioco says. “Those people will come in and then decide to stay and enjoy the other events taking place later that night.”—MN
Creative Promotion: Drink Tokens
The Mint Ultra Lounge in Scottsdale, AZ, is adding a bit of pizzazz to its promotional events with the use of personalized drink tokens for private and corporate events. “When we have a large group that is buying out a portion of the club, we use the drink tokens for the party to get their drinks with,” says Stephanie Lowe, a representative with The Mint’s parent company Evening Entertainment Group.
What’s the benefit? “It’s so much classier than when you’re at a party and are given just a random ticket that is good for a free drink,” Lowe says. “This way we can make sure that if a party pays for two drinks per person, they get that many coins.”
The Mint is currently using tokens purchased through TokensDirect, a division of Osbourne Coinage Co. The company offers a full line of tokens that can be customized with logos, business names, or other messages.
The Lounge also offers its top customers a “Mint VIP” token, which allows them to skip lines and receive free admission to the lounge. Lowe notes that using tokens presents only one minor drawback: “Since they are so cool-looking, they sometimes get taken by the patrons.”—MN