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This Isn’t Your Mother’s Happy Hour

The happy hour has long been the domain of college bars, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and after-work watering holes.  These establishments always understood a cardinal rule in driving business: a busy place is a place people want to be, and the easiest way to fill up a bar or dining room early is with a happy hour special.

Of course, many restaurants focused on good food, excellent service, and solid advertising to drive business, and for a long time it was easy to fill dining room and pack bars without having to discount during happy hour.

That model is working less and less as customers in all segments of the food service industry continue to insist on deals and discounts to get them to buy.  As a result, fine dining has started getting into the happy hour game in order to get butts in seats and keep them there.

This also isn’t the happy hour you might remember from five years ago.  It isn’t just a couple domestic beers on tap for $2 anymore.  Many restaurants are taking their happy hour all out, with special tapas style menus at bargain-basement prices and premium cocktails for $5.  Happy hour has also gotten much longer, from 2-3 hours to 4-5 hours of deals.

The effect in restaurants and bars that have gotten aggressive with their happy hours is noticeable.  Customer traffic tends to peak in the last hour, and that makes the place look active and exciting to potential walk-ins.  It beats the heck out of a couple quiet diners whispering over cocktails at two tables in the corner.

If you’re considering adding a happy hour or spicing up the one you’ve got, keep a few key factors in mind:

Happy hours should make the customer happy.  These days, your customers aren’t looking for a dollar off a Budweiser.  They want more, and they’re getting it as restaurateurs continue to fight for business.  Make your happy hour a smokin’ deal if you really want to ratchet up the buzz and the traffic.

Create a special menu.  There’s no need to lose your butt on your dinner apps just to stay competitive.  Take your highest margin apps and entrees and turn them into smart, fun, finger-style dishes that can be prepared fast and efficiently, preferably with a margin you can’t lose on.

Spend some money advertising.  If you’re changing up the menu and slashing drink prices, you need volume.  You’re not going to get volume if you don’t get the word out.  Start with your regular customers and then hit the rest of the market with whatever you’ve got (and whatever you can afford): email marketing, local ads, flyers, etc.

Once you’ve got ‘em in the door, keep ‘em!  Customers are there because you’ve gotten their attention with some good deals.  There’s never been a better opportunity to get them to stay.  Use happy hour menus to advertise dinner specials and train your staff to drop some great deals on happy hour patrons before they leave.  At the very least, they may come back for dinner another time after learning that your deals don’t end at 7 pm.

From the looks of it, happy hour specials are here to stay, and if you’re not in the game, your competition is or will be soon.  Many restaurateurs accept this as a fact of life and have already gone after happy hour crowds.  Fine dining, on the other hand, has held on to their prices and focused on the value of their service and product for as long as possible, but now event these places are slipping into the discount game.

About Greg McGuire

Greg has blogged about the food service industry for years and has been published in industry magazines, like Independent Restaurateur and industry blogs like Restaurant SmartBrief. He lives in Colorado with his wife and two sons and enjoys reading, live music, and the great outdoors.

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  1. This is a great idea! Going to happy hour is about one of the greatest things! Also, people end up staying long after happy hour is over which makes it more than worth it. Another couple spins on happy hour would be guy’s night and girl’s night where you could specialtize in beers or martinis!

    • I like the idea of guy’s night and girl’s night – different themes are a great way to add value to the deals you’re offering. I would suggest analyzing which kinds of customers come to your establishment on which nights – and then customize a theme to the type of customer who shows up on a given night.

  2. Another trend I’ve seen is two happy hours. The 4:00 to 7:00PM after work crowd, and the 9:00 to close happy hour for those that may want to have a cocktail after a night out. Either way, you can’t go wrong. There’s value to the customer.

  3. I like the late happy hours that Marty is referring to. Hapa in Boulder has a late night happy hour Thur-Sat. that starts at 10. They offer deals on both sushi and drinks at that time. I think this is a good marketing strategy for places that lean more towards being a restaurant as opposed to a bar with a late night scene. A late night happy hour is a great way to fill your place in the after dinner hours.

  4. Why limit your customer’s expectations and have a happy hour when you can always be “happy”?Have a great value all of the time on your food and drink and atomoshpere, your customers will reward you at all times of the day. Once you are known for a great happy hour, your customers will feel like they are getting a less value out of their experiene when it is not happy hour…and this will in turn dilute their opinion of your establishment. Always offer a happy experience.

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