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The Dos and Don’ts of Building a Successful Happy Hour Program for Your Bar

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(photo composite: Laura Sant

The French have l’heure de l’apéro. The Dutch have borreltijd. Here in the States, we have happy hour. Though these pre-dinner drinking traditions are largely cultural, signaling the end of the work day, happy hour is also a longstanding marketing tool for bars, with reduced prices to help fill a space during off-peak hours.

While innovative happy hours can convert a burst of organic foot traffic into repeat business, poorly executed programs lose money in the long run and risk cheapening a bar’s brand integrity. So how can bar owners leverage a happy hour that gets people through the door, wins them over and also makes sense from a financial standpoint? We’ve tapped some top bartenders to share their happy hour wisdom.

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1. Consider the Timing

It goes without saying that you must be mindful about setting the start and end times of your happy hour. Track and compile data on your busiest and slowest hours, and only activate a happy hour when needed. Be cognizant of holidays that could pack your bar when it might not otherwise be busy. “Happy hour is all about filling an empty room, so introduce it as soon as your room is empty and make it last until you have other business,” says H. Joseph Ehrmann, owner of Elixir in San Francisco.

“Happy hour is all about filling an empty room, so introduce it as soon as your room is empty and make it last until you have other business,” says H. Joseph Ehrmann of Elixir.

2. Do Something Different

While your local dive can run happy hours with price-slashed beers alone, cocktail bars should use them to get creative with drinks and ingredients. “Make it interesting and compelling,” says Ehrmann. “Don’t do what everyone else does. If you’re main attraction is specialty cocktails, discount them. If you’re a sports bar, do a special themed to the favorite teams.”

Daniel Zacharczuk, the general manager at Los Angeles’ Bibo Ergo Sum, says his team waited a few months after opening to launch its happy hour program, making sure to first establish their brand identity as a retro Art Deco–inspired bar. Staying true to that throwback motif, Bibo Ergo Sum’s happy hour is a take on old-school classic Martini menus.

“Our happy hour menu draws inspiration from the neighborhood at large, riffing off classic menus that were predominantly Martini lists,” says Zacharczuk. “We find our own ways to make items such as an Appletini with apple brandy and caramel apple cordial that we produce in-house. This way, we create a product that fits the ethos of our brand while still being approachable for the guest.”

Test out a variety of concepts to see what work. Don’t be afraid to start from scratch if you’re not seeing a return on investment. either during the happy hour or in overall business over time. “ROI is about balance,” says Ehrmann. “If you’re spending $300 a week on advertising for happy hour, are you getting that back in increased business? If not, change it up.”

Bibo Ergo Sum happy hour Martini menu

3. Win Over the Locals

Understand that the audience you’re targeting for happy hour will likely be the folks who live near your bar. “Most people are not traveling across town; they’re hitting it on their way home, so cater it to your locals,” says Ehrmann. “Maybe create a promotion with a local food business for them to bring their takeout food into your bar to eat and have a drink. At Elixir, we provide menus for the local takeout spots so that people will get something and bring it back.”

Zacharczuk agrees, suggesting the best way to promote a happy hour is to speak directly to the neighborhood: “Along with typical promotion channels, we’ve found most success by connecting with local business people in person.”

4. Use What You Have

You don’t need to buy extra ingredients and product for your happy hour. To keep any added costs down, create discounted cocktails that use up your surplus and order leftovers. “We look to products we already use in other parts of our menu as opposed to having to produce a unique ingredient, which can definitely take up more time,” says Zacharczuk. “When we look at our ingredients, we ask: How could this be an alternative in an everyday ingredient in a cocktail bar? In other words, think of a ‘bartender’s choice’ for ingredients instead of cocktails. How can we make a syrup that highlights the great thing about a Mojito? Mint syrup!”

Good Measure offers a happy hour with $2 off each glass of wine, half-priced draft beers and discounted small bites.

5. Get Them to Come Back

Use your happy hour as an opportunity to encourage and win over repeat business. In other words, make sure the quality of the experience is the same as it is during regular hours. “It’s a great juggling act to not cheapen your brand while offering something a happy hour devotee will find good enough to come back for,” says Los Angeles sommelier Matthew Kaner of Bar CovellAugustine Wine Bar, and Good Measure. At the latter, Kaner runs a happy hour from 5 to 6 p.m., as well as 9 to 10 p.m. from Sunday to Thursday, with $2 off each glass of wine, half-priced draft beers and discounted small bites.

“We all want to believe happy-hour-seeking customers will become regulars and frequent the establishment,” says Kaner. “Hopefully, you supply them with such good product, atmosphere and service that the discount on the glass of wine or appetizer isn’t the only reason they’re coming in.”

At the end of the day, you want to make sure you’re giving happy hour guests what they want: a much-deserved break after a long day in the office. “I think the biggest opportunity is to listen to the guest and understand what they’re looking for and to set realistic expectations,” says Zacharczuk. “For us, it was a way to serve a quick and approachable product that could help our guests unwind after a long and stressful day.”

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