Wet for 75 Years

In my last post, I referred to the Great Depression and the year 1932.  Oddly enough, the date of that post (Dec 5) is the 75th anniversary of the end of prohibition in the U.S. in 1933.  For 13 years, all through the roaring ’20s (ironically, the biggest partying decade of all time, with the possible exception of the ’70s), it was illegal to drink alcohol in the states.

Why would an intelligent, free, progressive nation make it a crime to enjoy a glass of wine, and mug of beer, or a dash of spirits?  Simple: over-reaction.  The same reason an intelligent, free, progressive nation would invade and occupy a country that posed them no threat, but let’s not go there.

Sometimes, when people drink, they drink too much.  Sometimes, when people have drunk too much, they say or do things they otherwise wouldn’t.  Often, the things they say or do are more funny or more insightful or more honest than if they were sober.  But sometimes, drunk people do mean, stupid or embarrassing things that they later regret.  Is this a valid reason for completely banning booze?  You might as well criminalize swimming because people occasionally drown.  Or pot, but let’s not go there either.

But there is a lesson here for bar owners.  If you let someone get so drunk that they are embarrassing themselves or making others uncomfortable, you are hurting your business in several ways.  Although you may have sold more drinks to that individual, and made more money, you have made your establishment one where poor behaviour is permitted (as I alluded to here), and therefore, eventually, a place people will avoid.  Even the person who got too drunk will probably avoid your spot.  The people he or she bothered certainly will.


There’s a reason why the phrase “cut him off” exists in bar parlance.  Don’t be afraid to do it, even if it costs a few dollars in booze sales.

ALERT!  BLATANT CHAUVINISM FOLLOWS!  To the 10 ladies in that photo, the only way you’re getting any is if the dude has serious beer goggles on.



When I worked at the Algonquin Hotel…

algonquin… in beautiful St. Andrews, NB, in the early ’80s, there was one spot that was the undisputed best place to party – a bar/restaurant called the Brass Bull.  The Algonquin is a seasonal establishment, opening in May and closing after Canadian Thanksgiving weekend.  Most of the 400 or so staff members are from out of town and live in 3 big dorms behind the hotel.  So it’s very much a party atmosphere.

Therefore, the Brass Bull was almost always full of 20-something people with tip-money in their pockets and binge-drinking on their minds.  It was a blast every night of the week.  I have some great memories of dancing the night away to Prince and the Police and Eurythmics.

Anyway, when we were in St Andrews last month whale watching, we went to the Brass Bull, which is now called The Gables, and the dance floor is now a family-friendly dining area.  It has completely changed the way it markets itself, and consequently, its clientele.

I spoke to the owner of the establishment (who was tending bar) about my nostalgic recollections of the old Brass Bull.  It turns out he used to work there during that time, and shortly after my summer there, actually bought into it and eventually became sole owner. 

He told me that things changed during that period – his younger crowd of customers stopped being gleeful drunks and started turning into nasty drunks.  After a while, he decided it wasn’t worth it any more, and turned the place into a restaurant around 1990 and it has remained that way.

He’s happy with his decision, but I have to wonder if he wasn’t surrendering in a way.  He let the customers control the “story” about what the Brass Bull was all about, instead of creating  the story and having customers self-select if they liked that story.  I’d like to think that he could have preserved the fun party-place, instead of throwing up his hands and letting a bad crowd run him out of business (or rather, into another business).

It reminds me of a story in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, about how the NYC subway was transformed from a very dangerous, crime-ridden atmosphere into the relatively pleasant place it is now, in a very short time.  They didn’t put thousands of cops down there, or put security cameras everywhere, or any other kind of force majeure.  They did two things – eliminated graffiti, and arrested everyone who jumped the turnstile instead of paying.  They created a story of a place where small acts of bad behaviour would not be tolerated, and this in turn created an atmosphere where people were much less likely to perform greater crimes.

If the Brass Bull had handled its marketing/story better, could it have remained a fun bar?


What’s Your Secret

Seth had a post a few days ago about the Catch 22 of sharing your favorite things with other people.  It could be your favourite store, Web site, hairdresser, nightclub, physician, mechanic, restaurant, whatever.  If you tell your friends about it, it could become too popular and you could get squeezed out, or have your experience downgraded by overcrowding, or have the price of the thing go up.  All bad.  But if no-one promotes it, it could cease to exist – go out of business, move to a different market, or change to attract more business.  Also bad.

Seth concludes with:

It’s simple, I think. In a world where consumers have so much power, we now have two responsibilities:

  • If you don’t like what an organization stands for, work actively to spread the word and force them to change


  • If you will miss a product, a service, a book, a site or a professional when they close up shop, stand up, speak up and bring them masses of new business.

We get what we promote.

Remember that when you design your own company’s promotion tactics.  Make it easy for people to spread the word about you if they like you.  If you own a bar, try giving free drink coupons to your best (happiest) customers.  But write their names on them, and they’re not allowed to use them for themselves.  And they only become valid the day after they’re issued, and expire a week after that.  So your customer will give it to someone else, who will come in themselves; or the customer will have to bring a buddy when he comes back.


Why It’s Hard to Sell to Bar Owners

In college, Seth Godin tried to start a business selling a discount coupon book program to local student-oriented bars.  He found one of the reasons for failure was that it’s difficult to sell to bar owners.  More details are enumerated at his blog here

I find one of Seth’s points interesting: he feels that many (most?) bar owners aren’t really tying to grow  their businesses.  That must mean that they are content with the current level of income; or they are at their maximum capacity, and don’t want to invest in the extra infrastructure (staff, space, products, whatever) needed to grow.

I can certainly understand both those perspectives.  When I open my bar, I want it to be a smallish place with a steady stream of mostly the same customers.  Of course, I will want to make enough money to cover my expenses and pay myself, but if it does nothing more than break even, that’s OK.  I suspect that a lot of bar owners feel the same way.  I know that most  of the ones I knew in Montréal felt that way, and the few I know here in NB do too.

Sure there are outliers like the guy who ran Studio 54 who was obviously in it for the money (he skimmed millions in cash for himself), but I bet he also enjoyed the scene and his role in it.

Most bars that are successful are successful for a long time.  Most bars that are unsuccessful die off pretty quickly.  Therefore, the odds are that at any given time, most bars in existence are already successful.  So if you are trying to sell something to a bar owner on the premise that it will make the bar more popular or profitable, then you’re making an offer to try and change something that the owner thinks is just fine the way it is.


Wedge of Lemon

I am about to veer radically back into the theme that this blog is supposed to adhere to, as opposed to pontificating about society’s ills as I have been lately.  Today’s post will reveal a secret that has been held by bartenders (and perhaps the Knights Templar) since the dark ages: the cure for hiccups.

The fact that people tend to drink in bars, and the fact that over-consumption of alcohol often causes people to hiccup, means that the ability to cure the hiccups is a valuable skill for a bartender.  Here is the cure that NEVER failed in my 5 years of bartending in Montréal:

Take a wedge of lemon, pile as much white sugar as you can onto it, and splash some Angostura bitters on top.  Then tell the patient to place the entire wedge in their mouth, bite off all the flesh of the lemon (and the sugar and bitters) and swallow it at once.

Let me repeat: in perhaps 2 or 3 hundred instances of administering this treatment, it NEVER failed for me.  If someone asks you why it works, tell them that the sugar rush is “shocking” their diaphram back into normal rhythm.  This may well be true, but I have never seen any reliable source confirm this explanation.  I believe it works because all the hocus pocus and strange tastes simply takes the person’s mind off  their hiccups.  Unfortunately, now that I’ve told you this, the “cure” probably won’t work for you.  (It doesn’t work for me, now that I know the “secret.”)

So to make up for that, let me tell you my 100% effective cure for hiccups that works for the same reason (it takes your mind off them), but that requires no theatricals.  Hold your breath.  Really.  Hold it (with your hand over your mouth and nose so you won’t cheat) until your face is turning blue and you are slapping your thigh.  When your mind and body start worrying more about their next fix of oxygen, hiccups will drop off their agenda.


Would You Pay to Be My Customer?

Last night, my wife and I laughed at the young woman in the Direct Buy TV spot who boasted that she “got this $1,400 rug for only $600!”  What they don’t tell you in the ad is that joining Direct Buy costs over $16,000 (over the course of 10 years).  Congratulations, sweetheart, you’re only $15,200 in the hole!

However, I’m not here to judge the Direct Buy model or its customers.  I’ll let Consumer Reports do that (they’re not big fans).  I’m more interested in the clever marketing strategy of locking in your customer with something more than just loyalty, or satisfaction or even delight.  Direct Buy virtually guarantees that every purchase their members make for the next 10 years will be through them.  And although they claim to have no “retail” mark-ups, you can bet there’s a little slice for them in every sale.

Same thing for Costco.  They only charge $50, and by all accounts I’ve heard it’s totally worth it.  Of course, there’s some psychology at work here: once you’ve paid for a membership, you are predisposed to think it was a good decision and pass that opinion on to your friends.  But regardless, everyone that I know that uses Costco is very happy with the service.  And when they go there for the things that are giant bargains, they also pick up stuff that’s only marginally cheaper than other places.  So Costco still makes full margin on most stuff, and guarantees that their paid membership keeps coming back.

On to bars.  In the 70s and 80s here in New Brunswick, the byzantine liquor laws in force at that time required any establishment that wanted to serve wine, beer AND spirits, without requiring people to dine, and stay open past midnight, to be a “club.”  And as a “club” you had to have “members” and “member” was defined as someone who paid dues.

I kind of like that idea, even now that it’s not required by law anymore.  If I could get people to buy memberships to my bar, they would be more likely to come to my place than somewhere else where they have no “special privileges.”  I’d have to give some thought to the privileges, but maybe lower drink prices, special “Members Only” parties for the Super Bowl, dedicated beer steins, their name on a plaque, whatever.


What Do You Expect?

On this day in 1805, Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson kicked some Napoleonic butt when he soundly defeated the combined navies of Spain and France at the Battle of Trafalgar.  The British were outnumbered 33 ships to 27, but managed to rout Bonaparte’s fleet – sinking 22 of them in the process and not losing a single vessel themselves.


Just minutes before the decisive battle began, Nelson ran the following message up his flagship’s mast, for everyone in his command to see:  “England expects that every man will do his duty.”  No exhortations to be brave, or win one for the Gipper, or attempts to psych up the men or whip them into a murderous frenzy; just a simple reminder of what was expected.

It sounds simple to do what people expect most of the time, but it isn’t always in marketing.  And most of the time, people don’t like not getting what they expect.  (There are exceptions of course, like surprise parties, twists in plot, stumbling on a beautiful patch of flowers in the woods, etc.) 

If you pick up the phone, you expect a dial tone.  If something newsworthy happens, you expect it to be covered in the local paper.  If your bar is a cozy place with wood paneling and British paraphernalia on the walls, you expect it to have good scotch and a variety of imported beer.

You could think about what people expect from you before you decide what to give them.  Or, from a marketing perspective, you can decide what you’re going to give people, then work to make sure they expect it.


Who’s Counting?

Back on September 16, in this post about Wal-mart, I noticed that my last three pieces in a row had titles that began with “W”, and wondered how long I could keep that streak going.  Well, this is number 22.  Has anyone been noticing?  Surely the extremely awkward title, “Whence Your Cortlands, Sir?” must have alerted folks that something weird was going on.

I’ve been prolonging this experiment in a lame effort to create a sense of anticipation for regular visitors.  Kind of like when Ken Jennings was on his 74-match winning streak on the game show Jeopardy!.  The show’s ratings were much higher during the streak, because everyone wanted to see if this would be the night he finally lost. 

So are people hanging on the edges of their keyboards every weekday waiting to find out how long I can keep it up?  What if I can overcome the gargantuan intellectual challenge and keep going for ever?  Will people grow weary of the artificially manipulated language that will be required?  Maybe I will become famous as, “the blogger who starts all his post titles with a ‘W'”.  And where should the period go at the end of that last sentence?

Anyway, creating a streak is a great marketing tool when it really does keep people coming back to see if it can continue.  What could you do in a bar that would create that kind of anticipation?  I remember a long time ago, on TV, or in a movie, or in real life maybe, there was a bartender who could not be stumped on ANY sports trivia question.  That would be a great streak to try and keep alive – every night at 10:00 a predetermined person (if you set a schedule beforehand, than the questioner has to show up that night) gets to ask the bartender a question that he and at least one other person know the answer to.  If the bartender gets it right, cheers all around and the big board with his correct nights in a row streak gets incremented.  If he (gasp!) is stumped, the house buys a round for everyone there.

I’d go.

Who Are You?

Can you do me a favour?  If you know me personally, can you leave a comment on this post?

I have gotten to the stage now that people I don’t know, who stumble across this blog through Google or Technorati or other bloggers who link to me, have started leaving comments, which is very gratifying.  But it leaves me wondering how many people I actually know visit here semi-regularly.  Netdud and CM I know drop by often, but I yearn to know who my regulars  are (just as if this were a bar).


Witty Software

Every blogger in the world is required to download Google’s new browser called “Chrome,” and then write about how much faster, easier, buggier, sexier, prettier, memory-efficient, and inexpensive it is. Well, I just did the download, and I’m going to write about how…  witty it is.

Chrome has a feature called “incognito browsing” which works just like normal mode, but doesn’t save any browse or search history, or any cookies you pick up along the way.  Once you close that session, no-one will be able to tell where you’ve been.  Of course, teenage boys all over the world are loving this, but I love the introduction screen:

Google (the company) has a reputation of being a fun, irreverent place to work – their corporate motto is “Don’t Be Evil.”  It’s nice to see that they have enough of an organizational sense of humor to let those last 2 lines through.  Can you imagine IBM or even Microsoft allowing those words to appear in shipping software?

It’s also an example of how your business needs to stick with its “personality.”  If your company (especially a hospitality establishment like a bar) has a fun personality, it always has to be fun.  If you’re edgy, you always have to be edgy.  If you’re a redneck sports bar, having a Goth night is probably not going to work for you.

It’s all part of the story you tell.