I don’t know who first said it, but somewhere along the way a very wise bartender made the recommendation that their fellow bartenders read the local paper from cover to cover every day so that they could easily converse with the guests about everything from stock prices to box scores to the storm that crossed the region and knocked out all the power, leaving the drinking water unpotable.
Polarizing political points of view aside; if it’s news, you should know it. Be prepared. Your guests will feel well taken care of when conversation is made easy. That’s great advice for an average night when the crowd ebbs and flows. Read that paper, be ready to render your opinion; or, better yet, agree with the patron so that they feel heard and engaged.
But what about those nights when you’re so very busy you’re not even sure if you remembered to breathe. What do you do to prepare for those? And how can you tell when they’re coming? Well, anyone’s who has been in the industry for a while knows that – whether you like them or not – there are a few big drinking holidays. And preparing for them early means making them as seamless, and profitable, as possible.
Though we can’t plan for a rush of people who descend upon the bar seeking solace after a major layoff, big world news, or personal tragedy, when it comes to the spring months it is easy enough to look at the calendar and expect you’ll have a few pockets of busy nights on or around St. Patrick’s Day, during that Passover/Easter/Spring Break period, on May 5th, and early June when graduation generally takes place. These happen every year like clockwork. So, what to do in advance?
Cole Newton, USBG President and Owner of Twelve Mile Limit and The Domino in New Orleans, is an old hand at big crowds. He has to be with running bars in a town that lives and breathes by it’s tourism activity and draws locals and tourists alike for festivals, parades, and all sorts of celebrations daily. He faces these busy busy kinds of days with a sense of calm, adopting the forewarned is forearmed theory, and says, “The main thing for us, aside from making sure we’re flush on the products of the day (Irish beers and spirits on St. Patrick’s, Mexican on Cinco de Mayo), is just reminding the regularly scheduled bartenders to expect a weird one.”
While things are getting weird in New Orleans Newton’s bartenders are anticipating it. And doing what it is they need to do to deal with the incoming crowds. Newton leaves a lot of the decision making up to them when it comes to scheduling as he explains his approach to making a schedule for these big days, “I let the regularly scheduled bartenders and barbacks make that call. If they think they can handle it by just hustling hard, I’ll defer to them.”
In Birmingham, at cocktail spot Queens Park and the more casual, but no less fun, Neon Moon, owner/operator Larry Townley gets in deep with his staff for these big days. He has to. Events are their bread and butter and to get it right every time he needs them prepared; winter, spring, summer and fall. Townley explains, “We have weekly meetings/trainings with our staff and always use those times to set expectations of our upcoming events, as well as make sure we have dedicated time for extra cleaning of the space and making sure we have decorations ordered/installed prior to the beginning of events.”
He continues to share their approach to successfully embracing all bar holidays like they do, “We always do our best to make sure we are transparent in the expectations of our staff and let them know ahead of time that we will be changing our set schedule to prepare for holidays and dates we expect an increase in business. We encourage people to take time off during the weeks before or after major holidays and will often bring in additional ‘seasonal help’ from in town/out of town in an effort to make sure we don’t put too much stress on our normal staff.”
Avoiding that stress also involves everyone feeling comfortable with the holiday offerings. Townley notes, “We also use this time to taste and give details about all of our additional menu items and any special events taking place during any holidays/expected times of business increase.” This is particularly important for a bar that, for the square footage, is the country’s busiest Miracle Bar during the holiday season, and one that goes into every single holiday with the same level of gusto.
Creating that same level of enthusiasm in the guests who walk through the doors anticipating the best time celebrating these days has to both entice regulars to return and new guests to explore the bar for the first time. Of course the hope is that it’s a successful effort and regulars keep coming back and the first time guests convert to regulars; and social media is a great tool for getting the word out.
Townley leans into it, increasing their social media during expected busy times so that anyone viewing the bars’ social media platforms has a clear idea of what they are doing, when it will occur and what to expect from the business whenever they are planning their visit. He says, “We also like to make sure we have message discipline from in-person and digital so that we are creating a clear and consistent message of what our brand is going to look like for first time visitors. This is also a good time to get people who may not be familiar with your business style to prepare for what they would order when they get into our space.”
In New Orleans, Newton’s approach is a little different. He shares, “I might make a passing reference to it, like referring to St. Patrick’s as, ‘our annual Finn McCool’s overflow party,’ referring to our good friends at the other end of the block, likely the most popular Irish bar in New Orleans, but we don’t increase the volume.” Keeping the volume steady is in line with Newton’s philosophy as a bar owner and good community leader that, “The two main drinking holidays, Saint Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo, are pretty racist in their current manifestations, which is one of the main reasons we don’t lean into them.”
One thing that is worth leaning into even when dressing up your establishment for a bar holiday, is smart inventory management and staying true to your concept. Townley advises, “It is very important that no matter what holidays and different events are going on in the area, that you never do anything that compromises the main idea of what your concepts are on a day to day basis.
So, while we will increase the amount of product that we order to prepare for special events, we also like to make sure that we don’t order too much of products that we would not use during normal service. It’s always easier to run out of specialty items during the course of the end of special events, than to have to create ways to sell items that don’t fit conceptually into your business.”
Keeping that business afloat year round, and riding the wave on those big busy days simply requires having a good high-volume game plan set up in advance while maintaining consistent operations. And knowing your market. Because he is operating in Birmingham Townley looks at it like this, “In the terms of an old football coach that I had when I was young, ‘You never know how you’re going to react, until you get hit.’ The service industry is no different, and the increase in business is definitely something that takes a little different approach than your typical everyday service. As in most businesses, our level of experience is always different from one of our team members to the next. So I always plan on doing my best to keep everyone calm, and keeping an eye on less experienced employees and encouraging/helping them as needed. It’s hard to prepare people for a busy chaotic shift, without them having experienced it before. If I’m managing or hosting, I also plan to touch tables more often and open dialogue for guest feedback, as often during times of increased business, we have the ability to entertain guests for the first time, and I find their information to be unbiased and extremely helpful in helping our teams grow.”
Because of his city’s reputation for being a good time all the time Newton sees that there’s nothing really different necessary — aside from inventory and maybe a few more staff people on hand — about running a bar program on these exceptionally busy days. He conclude, “That’s pretty much it, just more people making worse choices. We’re used to large numbers of people making bad choices, though; so, it’s just a degree of scale.”