For many guests, happy hour is a social time to have fun at a discount. For bars and restaurants, it’s a chance to turn off-peak hours into sources of strong sales. U.S. bars and restaurants generate 60.5 percent of their average weekly sales during happy hour, according to a 2018 Nielsen study. The study also found that the average happy hour check (including food and drinks) is $68.99—a full $8 more than the average check during other parts of the day.
If executed strategically, happy hour can provide an opportunity for an establishment to increase its bottom line—though this depends on where the venue is located. Happy hour laws vary from state to state, with several states banning happy hours altogether or restricting the discounting of alcoholic beverages—these include Alaska, Indiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Utah, and Vermont. SevenFifty Daily spoke with operators at bars and restaurants that have taken an innovative approach to happy hour to get their tips on how to build a successful program.
1. Offer a unique experience.
A happy hour program should offer more than just a discount on food or drinks. To stand out from the crowd, it should also provide a distinctive experience. Corkbuzz wine bar in New York City, owned by Master Sommelier Laura Fiorvanti (formerly Maniec), offers a $15 blind-tasting happy hour every day from 4 to 6 pm; it includes complimentary cheese and charcuterie. Guests get a flight of three 2-ounce pours of either white or red wine, with a worksheet to help them identify what they’re seeing, smelling, and tasting in the glass. Wine selections rotate almost daily.
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This specialized happy hour attracts a diverse crowd, while also upholding Corkbuzz’s identity as a serious wine destination. “We get lots of first dates, after-work groups for corporate team building, and wine students practicing for upcoming exams,” says Jamie Greco, the general manager of Corkbuzz’s flagship location in Union Square. “It’s really unique and engaging.”
Walnut Street Café, an all-day café in Philadelphia, taps into a local tradition with its $5 Citywide Special during happy hour. Historically, the Philadelphia special, served at various bars throughout the city, included a shot of Jim Beam and a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon for $3. Walnut Street’s Citywide Special rotates, currently featuring a shot of Kinsey Rye with a Rolling Rock for $5, along with other happy hour specials, like an Aperol Spritz and a rosé from the by-the-glass list, both discounted. “Make sure your [happy hour] menu is fun,” says Melissa Fuechtmann, Walnut Street’s director of operations. “Remember that people are there to have fun.”
2. Feature intriguing selections over merely cheap ones.
Move beyond the expected discounted draft pours, well drinks, and glasses of house wine. Rather than offering the lowest-priced alternatives during happy hour, list drinks that the staff is passionate about. Chances are that if the staff loves a beverage, the customers will, too.
Anthony Garcia, a co-owner of Shift Drinks in Portland, Oregon, was keenly aware of this likelihood when he and co-owner Alise Moffatt were building their all-day happy hour program. “We were not going to serve products that we didn’t love,” Garcia says. “We knew we wanted to include everything a person could possibly want.” The resulting happy hour menu includes various fizzy, white, red, orange, and fortified wines for $7 a glass, along with $3 beer, $5 cider and sake, a $5 barrel-aged spirit that rotates monthly, and cocktails, from $6 to $7, featuring that spirit. It’s a menu that has helped put Shift Drinks on many “best of Portland happy hour” lists.
Fuechtmann agrees with this strategy. At Walnut Street, she says, “what we offer is something we’d actually want to drink, and that’s really key.”
3. Choose happy hour times wisely.
Happy hour is an opportunity to attract customers during what would otherwise be downtime at the restaurant, so it’s important to choose the right time to help maximize profits. Traditionally, happy hours are held during the after-lunch and before-dinner period to attract the 9-to-5 work crowd, but alternative times can also be a boon to business.
Finding the profitable sweet spot sometimes involves supplementing with additional hours. Extending happy hour can bring in more customers and make a space with greater capacity look filled throughout the day, says Garcia. “If you have a larger footprint and are looking to make sure you’re always busy, you might consider expanding your hours.” Since Shift Drinks’ happy hour was changed to an all-day program in February 2017, Garcia says there’s been a tremendous response in business and the bar now has a regular crowd throughout the day, which contributed to a 16.5% increase of total revenue in 2018.
Adding a late-night happy hour can attract a different clientele and also improve slow nights. “There are people who work in hair salons, coffee shops—not to mention other bars and restaurants,” Garcia says, pointing out that these late hours can also make happy hours more accessible to guests with nontraditional work schedules.
4. Harness the power of digital promotion.
Promoting a bar or restaurant on social media—especially Instagram—can help build brand awareness and create a deeper connection with guests. “You have to utilize social media in this day and age,” stresses Corkbuzz’s Greco. “Especially in New York.”
It’s also critical to update the venue’s website regularly to keep attracting new clientele. “Make sure that you’re updating your websites with content that says ‘happy hour’ so you’re ranking higher on Google,” Garcia says. By doing so, you’re more likely to rank on the first page of results when someone searches “best happy hours” in whatever town the bar or restaurant is located in.
5. Be consistent.
One key way to build a loyal following of happy hour customers is to schedule the promotions on the same days and times. Pop-up happy hours may generate buzz, but people who come out for them don’t always return.
According to Greco, consistency is key to retaining happy hour guests. “People know that we have this happy hour, and it’s not going anywhere,” she says. “And so they know they can always come back.”
Shelby Vittek has written for Wine Enthusiast, Bon Appétit, the Washington Post, Longreads, Narratively, National Geographic, and The Kitchn, among other publications, and is an associate editor of New Jersey Monthly. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @bigboldreds.