Share Plate: Hostages of Happy Hour?

Trot into the bar of any dining establishment that teeters on the edge of casual and fine dining on a Monday through Friday between the hours of 4pm-7pm, and you’re at ground zero of a daily battle.

Happy Hour.

It should be simple, right? After work drinks and a snack at a great promotional price. But you can’t get a reservation, you can’t get more than one drink at a time. No additional promotions. Happy Hour in the bar, but not on the patio. Or the Dining Room. Or to-go.

And your server’s smile is getting strained as she answers each successive question in the negative.

Suddenly the happy hour has become…. Cranky Hour. What’s the deal?

I asked around my network of fellow restaurant managers to get a picture from behind the lines.

Some Restrictions May Apply

 I think that the spirit of what happy hour can be is great.  You finish work, and you spend an hour or two with some friends to unwind without hurting your wallet.   Weekday happy hours should be…the intermediate, or warm-up to something bigger, without being a major commitment for the evening.  It was a win-win for both guests and restaurants… What it has become in the economic downturn, and what restaurants are trying to free themselves from, is the aberration  that it has morphed into.” — former general manager, current restaurant consultant

Bar Bites Menu from Drago Centro-- winner of Best Happy in LA in Los Angeles Magazine

From a restaurant standpoint, Happy Hours are designed to be a pre-dinner promotion, not replace dinner. In a downturn, they also enable restaurants with higher overhead costs to offer lower priced options in a particular area of the restaurant. The bar is a great place to do this, because you always need a bartender during service, so you  need to keep him busy. At the bar, restaurants typically don’t have high linen costs, the level of service is more casual, so you have fewer staff on the clock to make it run smoothly.

Bars are also usually at the front of the restaurant, so by encouraging guests to sit there, the restaurant looks busier to passers-by who will then want to duck in to see what is so popular.

Which is why no restaurant (other than the Outback), offers Happy Hour items in the dining room. The promotional price that most of these items are offered at is simply not sustainable. If a restaurant opens the doors to promotionally priced items all over the dining room, it’s a slippery slope…. that could lead right into bankruptcy.

Which is also why Happy Hour items also don’t make sense to package to-go. If you’re selling a chili-dog at $4 at the bar, there is really no profit margin on that. The to-go box costs an additional $0.25, the bag $0.45, napkins, plastic forks/spoons, any sauce that you want on the side needs its own container; it’s a losing proposition. But it’s impossible to explain all this detail to guests on the floor during service, so it’s more efficient to just say ‘ sorry happy is not available in the dining room/ to-go/ after 7…”

The battles of wrestling with guests about what time happy hour ends, whether or not they can have happy hour apps if they don’t order drinks, and feeling like a jerk when I tell people they can’t take it to go or have their kids at the bar, have turned me away from supporting happy hours until people can learn to enjoy them responsibly again”

Happy hours are also designed to draw in new clientele. And they do. But according to a downtown bar/ lounge manager

“Guests that come in may not be of the target clientele due to the price point.”

Similarly, another Silverlake general manager weighed in:

I hate [Happy Hours] because of the crowd they bring in.  People want to get drunk and somewhat full quick…we want our guests to enjoy what we offer.

But there are supporters.

Izakaya from Chaya Downtown's Beer Garden menu

Like one Downtown Beverage director:

“I am a big fan of Happy Hour, it has been responsible for marketing what we do to an entirely different group of people.  It really helps keep a buzz going and it benefits what we do in the restaurant because of the exposure.  I go through great lengths to make sure that we offer quality drinks, wine, and food at great prices.  Many outlets use Happy Hour as an opportunity to use subpar products, I believe this eventually works against them. ”

And another downtown dining room manager—

“Happy Hour is a careful dance you have to dance. It’s the age old Groupon or not for a business. Why would you discount something that people are willing to pay full price for? But in downtown it’s expected. So what are you going to do? Make some deals with your liquor reps and give the people what they want!”

And what about sticking to the rules?

“We keep the Happy Hour very clear, no substitutions of any type on cocktails
for example.  We do not have the time restraint so we do not have to deal
with that.  If someone is not “Happy” with our policies it is their own
problem but we do not have much issue with it.”

Best Practices

So, what are we left with?

Happy Hour menu from Figaro Bistrot

As a guest, the way to get the most out of happy hour is to follow the rules. If the posted signage says “in the bar only,” don’t arm wrestle your server to get happy hour drinks in the dining room. Getting up from your table and getting the drinks yourself is expressly banned in most places, but in the places that tolerate it, it is certainly noted and reviled.

From a restaurant standpoint, it seems to behoove you to have your restrictions to the promotion clearly stated and stick to them.

Avoid potential mis-understandings by offering a completely different menu for happy hour than is available outside of happy hour. It doesn’t make sense to guests to offer a Manhattan at $5 at 6:55pm, then charge $10 for the same drink at 7:00pm.

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