Bars

The Analog Genius of the Leave-a-Drink Board

How one bar is using a simple blackboard to engage customers and drive sales

Photo courtesy of Loverboy.

At the bar Loverboy in New York City, an enormous chalkboard fills the wall:  “Leave a Drink for a Friend” is scrawled in bubble letters; 24 entries follow, listing about one month’s worth of drinks prepurchased for friends to come in and collect. The drinks range from “well shots” to “3 Tecates” to “Balvenie 12-year” single malt Scotch to cocktails like the rye whiskey–based “Booty Sweat.”

The bar has been open a mere five months, but already that board fills up, month after month. In an age when it can be challenging to pry customers away from the glowing screens in their hands, Loverboy found that what it really took was a larger-than-life IRL prompt to get customers to look up and engage.

“It’s a visual thing,” says Loverboy owner TJ Lynch. “People sit down and say, ‘What’s that?’ You’re not going to do that with an app.”

Not that app makers haven’t tried this concept, too—apps such as BarEye and MoneyShot let you buy and send drinks from your phone or smart device. But if you ask bartenders, they’re more likely to focus on the customers sitting in front of them than a virtual ticket.

The leave-a-drink concept isn’t original to Loverboy, of course; it’s a staple of various Irish pubs and dive bars. Lynch says his first introduction to the idea was at Johnny’s, a West Village dive where a small board listed just three names and drinks—each purchased in homage to a deceased former customer and their usual. “It’s this dusty little chalkboard in the back,” he recalls. “I thought it was the greatest idea.”

Lynch’s board turned out to be a steady moneymaker; he estimates that on average, about $500 worth of drinks are sold through the board each month. Yet it has its limitations—a finite list of 24 handwritten lines and therefore 24 drinks. “It fills up once, maybe twice a month,” Lynch notes. “If we were really trying to make money, we’d make the board super huge.” (An electronic screen was briefly debated, then discarded.)

Of course, the concept wasn’t without hiccups. Plenty of people were buying drinks, explains Lynch, “but it stalled out around week three because no one was redeeming their drinks.” While some bar owners might be thrilled to see prepaid drinks go unclaimed—what Lynch calls the gift certificate phenomenon—Lynch was nonplussed; part of the board’s benefit is that it brings new patrons into the bar. Now guests are encouraged to text friends or tag them in social media posts to come collect their drinks. Lynch also instituted a one-month expiration date before drinks are erased from the board. “It levels out around three-quarters full now, which is perfect,” he says. “It’s healthy now.”

Another hurdle: Loverboy changes its drink list frequently, which means that if Booty Sweat is on the board one day, it might not be available three weeks later. However, the bar has adjusted by asking guests to buy “one cocktail” rather than a specific drink; that option now accounts for about 60 percent of the board.

Overall, the concept is about encouraging new people to come in and come back, Lynch says. He points to one regular, Matt, as a particular success story.

“He comes in every week,” Lynch says. “Present Matt buys Future Matt a drink: one beer, one shot. It’s hilarious.”

Kara Newman reviews spirits for Wine Enthusiast magazine and is the author of Cocktails for a CrowdShake. Stir. Sip.and Nightcap (Chronicle Books).

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