How the tipping point can help cure the summer bar blues

Drinks: Drinks

An empty bar. Every operator’s worst nightmare.

No chatter.

No laughter.

None of the clinking of glasses or the shaking of ice.

Team members fidgeting with awkward inexperience, slipping into the default position on their phones.

If the devil makes work for idle thumbs, then an empty bar is his production line…

As summer approaches more and more operators and owners that I speak to are lamenting the lack of custom. The guests in our snug and comfortable cocktail bars are disappearing with the rainclouds, seemingly in search of grazing pastures, home BBQs and long hours in the park; addicted to soaking up whatever few precious rays their weeks allow.

Disappointingly, outdoor drinking appears incompatible with high end drinking in this society – testament, perhaps, to the fact that value lies not in the drink, but in the drinking environment. Mr Lyan’s Good Things to Drink may be helping to steer a change in this, but most often Martini drinkers become pint drinkers, and shit rosé trumps Lillet rose. The natural order of things diminishes.

We all design our bars to sing when they’re winning. We take into account the flux of the guest, the mechanics of a full team working at full speed, the according volume of glassware, prep, ice, etc.

Good design and operations mean that when a bar works, it really sings – like a gospel choir in full voice. It’s a joy to behold. Great design however, realises that there are two sides to the coin. A bar must also sing when it’s not full.

Smaller spaces make this easier. My two seater space is a bundle of energy every time, albeit at the expense of turnover.

Sadly, what can often be just as painful as the gaping hole in revenue, is the effect that a quiet bar has on the staff. Our teams are built up and taught to operate with speed and efficiency. The cognitive dissonance of an empty bar can often cause malfunctions of thinking and some very bad decision-making.

Why is it that (almost always) the level of hospitality declines with the number of guests in a bar?

I tell our teams to remember a simple phrase: “When we’re at our quietest, we’re at our best”. It’s not as sarcastic as it sounds, since it stands to reason that the less a team member has to do, the more energy and attention can be spent on the guest.

All sorts of operators look for all sorts of ways to fill the bar. If a bar has 50 seats, they look to find 50 guests to fill them. But this is a false logic. Finding and encouraging those 50 persons during a summer demands extreme enticement.

Plenty opt for the price option with Happy Hours and discounts. But the problem here is a both an undermining of value and the paradigm of the new ‘more expensive’ positioning of the regular pricing.

If you can get a drink for £7 between 5pm and 6pm, would the same guest be enamoured with paying £10 at 6.05pm for the same drink? Value is the important metric in the guest experience and must be maintained at all times.

Luckily, there is an alternative. Bars are magic. There’s a sorcery in sharing a space and a drink with other people: a validation, a buzz.

So don’t try to fill your bar. We do not need to find 50 people to fill our 50 seats. We need, say, half of that. Finding 25 is a much easier proposition, requiring less sacrifice, and maintaining value. And such is the shape of the bar, that the energy and noise created by 25 guests is enough to fill the room, penetrate the space and electrify the experience.

We call this the Tipping Point. Any number below this point can feel lacking, or awkward, anything above is infectious. Every bar will have its own tipping point. Find that, and achieve it, and the rest will take care of itself.

Maintain those numbers by shifting focus from attracting new guests to hosting the ones already in the venue. Retention trumps acquisition every time.


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