10 things bars won’t tell you

1. “The booze business may be recession-proof, but we’re not.”

Super Bowl Sunday is a big event in the bar business. And these days, it’s a business that’s seemingly a smart one to be in for a host of other reasons: The thinking has always been that a rough economy equates to strong sales. But what may be true for manufacturers and distributors of alcoholic beverages isn’t necessarily true for bars, since consumers may opt to save some money by sipping at home. The spirits sector, for example, saw volume growth of 1.7% and 1.4% in 2008 and 2009, respectively, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

By contrast, bars saw their revenue plummet by a cumulative total of 10% during those downturn years — from nearly $20 billion in 2007 to $17.9 billion in 2009 — according to industry researcher IbisWorld. (Even today, the business is still far from its peak: Sales for 2013 are expected to reach $19.76 billion.) In simple terms, bars reflect the recessionary economy, says IbisWorld senior analyst Nima Samadi. “Any time the market tanks, people are going to be tightening their pocketbooks,” he adds.

Five things your bar won’t tell you

But what’s even more troubling for the industry is that there are a host of noneconomic factors that could also be contributing to the downturn. Alcohol consumption has been trending downward over the past three decades, going from 2.76 gallons per capita in 1980 to 2.26 gallons in 2010, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. And indoor smoking bans throughout the country have had a major impact, say industry experts, since bar patrons have traditionally welcomed the opportunity to enjoy a cigarette and a sip side by side. There’s even some thought that the rise in recent years of various niche bars, from brewpubs to modern-day speakeasies, has hurt the business, since they’ve taken away from the everyday neighborhood bar that remains the cornerstone of the industry. For example, some mixology-oriented bars may not be all that welcoming to beer drinkers. The specialization is “alienating so many people,” says Steve Calabro, a bartending authority and creator of the Bartending Bootcamp website.

Still, some bars say they not only have survived the rough economic times of the past few years, but have also done very, very well. And more than a few bars have opened to great success during the period. Take Cowboy’s Saloon, a Western-themed bar in Davie, Fla., that opened in 2011. “In our first year, we topped over $3 million in revenue,” says owner Anthony Perera, adding that sales are still going strong. What’s behind some bars’ success? Here’s one possible explanation…

2. “Our cocktails will knock you out (with their prices).”

Just a few years ago, it was fairly rare to find a bar that charged more than $10 for a cocktail, say industry professionals. But today, $10 to $15 cocktails are common, especially in expensive metro areas. And the tab can go even higher: In a 2012 survey of New York bars and restaurants, New York magazine’s Grub Street New York blog found cocktails priced at $18, $20 and even $25. On the blog, Felix Salmon predicted that “it’s only a matter of time” before the $20 cocktail — albeit a “made-with-care cocktail” — becomes the new norm in the city. “Bar owners are capitalists, of course, and will charge whatever the market will bear,” he wrote.

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But many bar professionals cry foul at that idea. For starters, some say they are firm about holding the line on prices. These days, “nothing should cost over $10,” says Jeff Anon, the chief proprietor of Berryhill Baja Grill, a restaurant and bar chain based in Houston. But others say that it’s important to keep in mind the factors behind the pricing of a pricier cocktail, from the location of the bar (yes, patrons are helping pay the rent with every sip they take) to the quality of the ingredients in the drink (top-shelf liquors and fresh-squeezed juices naturally add to the cost) to the time it takes a bartender to prepare the concoction. “There is an element of labor to many cocktails, particularly those inspired by pre-Prohibition cocktails,” says Anna-Lisa Campos, a veteran New York restaurant beverage director. The point, adds Campos, is that many of today’s sips are “different from your ‘run and gun’-type drink like a vodka and soda.”

Still, bar pros admit there’s sometimes a problem: As prices in the $15 to $20 range become more common, drinking establishments often charge those amounts but fail to live up to the standard such a high bar tab represents. “Some bars are charging expensive prices for a cocktail because they can get away with it, yet they still give poor service or a drink that is not deserving of a high price tag. Sometimes they don’t even use fresh juice,” says Jacques Bezuidenhout, a bar professional who’s a brand ambassador for the Tequila Partida brand.

3. “Alcohol alone won’t sanitize these premises.”

More than 125,000 Americans are hospitalized every year for foodborne illnesses, according to government tallies. Which means consumers have plenty of reason to be concerned about food handling. But they may be surprised to realize that their concerns should extend to a place known more for drinks than food. Many bar insiders say safety and sanitation can be an issue — and that bars sometimes fail to put into regular practice the safeguards that are common throughout the restaurant industry. Among the areas of concern cited by insiders: glasses that are not cleaned, sanitized and dried properly; garnishes that are left within reach of guests (it can result in dirty hands finding their way into the olives); and cutting boards (used for slicing lemons and limes) that are all but ignored for days on end, if not longer. “The average bar probably cleans its cutting board once a year,” says Jon Taffer, an industry veteran and consultant who hosts the popular “Bar Rescue” program on Spike TV.

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Garnishes like lemons and limes need to be washed thoroughly and handled correctly (meaning they shouldn’t come into contact with bare hands), says Anne LaGrange Loving, a microbiologist associated with Passaic County Community College in Paterson, N.J. Indeed, nearly 70% of lemon wedges used for drinks in various establishments had some type of microbial growth with “the potential to cause infectious diseases,” according to a 2007 study she led. The study did not find any “reported outbreaks or illnesses attributed to lemon slices in beverages,” but Loving says the possibility still remains — and that even if the slice comes into contact with alcohol, there’s no guarantee the alcohol will kill everything.

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To be sure, bars are often subject to government inspection. In New York City, for example, bars receive a letter grade for cleanliness just like restaurants, even if they don’t serve food. “We inspect everything covered by the health or sanitary codes,” says Veronica Lewin, a spokeswoman for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. But bar professionals say it’s not just about following codes for the sake of making the grade. “It’s common sense to wash everything after you use it,” says Christopher Erck, owner of two bars (The Worm, and Swig) in San Antonio, Texas. And what about those cutting boards? Frank Martucci, a bar professional based in Rhode Island and national vice president of the United States Bartenders’ Guild, readily disputes the idea they go uncleaned. “I’ve never seen a problem with a cutting board,” he says.

4. “That pint may be a few ounces short.”

At a time when many bars indeed charge $10 or more for a drink, patrons may be especially concerned about getting their money’s worth. As it turns out, they have reason to be. Drinking establishments employ all sorts of methods to short-change customers, say industry insiders. Among the examples they note: shaking a drink for a long time (the ice turns to water, adding volume); short-pouring the alcohol by not using a measuring jigger; and stocking a bar with “cheater” glassware with thicker bottoms or shafts (think 14-ounce “pint glasses”). The latter method garnered national headlines when Oregon-based beer blogger Jeff Alworth launched the Honest Pint Project in 2007 and started certifying bars that poured the expected 16 ounces; his campaign resulted in the Oregon state legislature considering a law to make the “honest pint” a state standard (it failed to go through the state senate). In this regard, the United States may be behind the times; in England, the “imperial” pint, holding 20 ounces, is the government-regulated norm.

Of course, many bartenders say pouring the correct and expected amount is a matter of good business: If a patron suspects he is being cheated, he is less likely to return. “What we strive for is to get guests back in the door again,” says Frank Martucci of the United States Bartenders’ Guild.

5. “Want a true measure of quality? Peek inside our well.”

If there’s one thing that separates a quality bar from an everyday one, it’s what’s inside the well — that is, the out-of-sight place they keep the spirits that are used for standard drinks. In these mixology-minded times, many bars are making the well a point of pride and stocking it with mid-shelf brands instead of no-name ones. The idea is to “provide our clients with a cheaper, good-quality alternative for a cocktail,” says Yosi Benvinisti, managing principal of Bounce Sporting Clubs in New York. With vodka, for example, Tito’s Handmade Vodka, an award-winning American brand, is increasingly becoming a popular well choice among higher-end establishments, bartenders say.

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But it’s not just about the well. Some bartenders say the back bar — literally, the area in back of the bar where the name-brand bottles are lined up — can also offer clues as to how seriously the establishment takes its spirits. If there’s a row of flavored vodkas — what Calabro, of the Bartending Bootcamp website, jokingly refers to as a vodka “rainbow” — it can be a sign the establishment is not putting as much effort into its cocktails, since using a flavored vodka (say, an orange vodka) can sometimes be a shortcut to using the actual flavor (say, fresh-squeezed orange juice). (Defenders of flavored vodka make the case that they can deliver alcohol and taste in a particularly appealing way — and even a site like Drinkhacker.com, billed as the “essential blog for the discriminating drinker,” has bestowed high ratings on several, such as Hangar One Maine Wild Blueberry Vodka and Van Gogh Rich Dark Chocolate Vodka.)

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Still, some bar professionals say not to read too much into brand names or other supposed quality markers: After all, a bar with a lower-grade well is also a bar that probably charges less — and that may be exactly what some patrons are seeking in a watering hole. A lot of it also comes down to the degree of sophistication in the community where a bar is situated, says Gary Koh, a veteran bartender who’s worked throughout the country and is now based at the A-Town Bar and Grill in Arlington, Va. “I think the awareness of consumers in that area will dictate the types of spirits a bar owner chooses to use,” he says.

6. “Beware the 1996 merlot that’s sat over our oven since 1999.”

Of course, there’s more to bars than cocktails. In fact, as wine consumption and production increases in the U.S. — America is now the biggest wine market in the world, with Americans drinking 13% of what’s produced globally, according to Jon Frederikson of Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates, a California-based wine-consulting firm — many bars are beefing up their wine programs and offering a broader range of selections. But some insiders admit many bars are far from the best place to order a glass of vino (one noteworthy exception: wine bars). For starters, the average bar rarely takes the same degree of care in storing wine at the proper temperatures that serious restaurants do. And once a bottle is opened at a bar, it can be left out for hours, if not a day or two — without the refrigeration or vacuum pumping and sealing that can keep the wine fresh-tasting for a little longer. (It should be noted that not all wine experts agree about the benefits of the vacuum method, however.) “I’ve seen places where sometimes bartenders don’t know when a bottle was opened, and short of tasting the wine themselves, they just serve it to the guests and see if it comes back,” says Bill Tobin, owner of Tiki’s Grill & Bar in Waikiki, Hawaii, and past chairman of the Hawaii Restaurant Association. “If nobody complains, they assume the wine was OK.”

What about beer? Even though it’s long been a bar staple, it’s not necessarily a guaranteed bet, either. Beer buffs say the big problem areas are draft lines that haven’t been cleaned (many bars even hire an outside specialist to do the job) and glasses that haven’t been washed or rinsed the right way. Ray Daniels, who heads a worldwide certification program for beer servers, notes that “beer-clean” glasses shouldn’t have the slightest hint of detergent residue and may require a low-sud cleaner as a result. But regardless of the underlying problem, the result can be a cold one that doesn’t taste right or lacks the proper foamy head.

Still, many bars counter that they take pride in every beverage they serve — beer and wine included. (Many state and local governments also address the sanitation issues, especially draft lines, through their bar and restaurant inspection programs.) And as Carl Anderson, food and beverage director at the Modern Honolulu resort, counters that neighborhood bars can sometimes be the best source of wine simply because they’re so busy. They “go through their wine stock fairly quickly, so a guest is more apt to not get a bottle that has turned,” he explains.

7. “Serving food doesn’t magically turn a pub into a gastropub.”

By their very definition, bars are in the drinks business, not the eats one. Despite the rise of the foodcentric gastropub concept in recent years, many bars are trying to position themselves as jacks-of-all-trades, so to speak. The problem? Many still do a mediocre job with food, say industry insiders. Among the issues that Brian Duffy, a chef who serves as a culinary expert on Taffer’s “Bar Rescue” show, points to: a reliance on food-service industry products that lack the taste and appeal of made-from-scratch menu items (he’s not a fan of frozen burgers) and a tendency to be too ambitious, given the skills of the cooking staff. Duffy also says many bars fail to filter and change their fryer oil on a consistent basis — and it’s not hard to sniff them out, literally. If a patron smells that greasy smell when they walk into a bar, that’s an obvious clue. “Turn around and walk out,” Duffy advises.

Many bars do get it right, however. (On the top of Duffy’s list? The gastropubs Meat & Potatoes in Pittsburgh and Waterloo & City in Culver City, Calif.) And other bars say their food is as good as their drinks — and that the business is changing for the better in a culinary sense. “We see the industry, as a whole, moving from the greasy sliders and fried food to a more a proper menu,” says Roger Bailey, head bartender at Filini Bar & Restaurant in Chicago. It’s also worth noting the accolades that many bars — especially gastropubs — have received: In Chicago, The Publican earned Best New Restaurant honors from Chicago magazine. And in New York, gastropub pioneer April Bloomfield (The Spotted Pig, The Breslin Bar & Restaurant) has been nominated for a James Beard Award, one of the culinary world’s highest honors.

8. “We might have a gambling problem.”

The neighborhood bar or the neighborhood betting establishment? These days, it may be hard to tell the difference between the two. Seven states have approved the use of gaming machines (like video slots) in bars, with Illinois being the latest to join the list — in 2012. (The other states are Louisiana, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota and West Virginia.) And that’s on top of the illegal gambling that goes on in bars: In the past year alone, authorities in such states as Delaware, Illinois and Indiana have arrested or issued citations to bar owners for issues ranging from having unlicensed gaming machines to taking Super Bowl bets. Add it up and it can equate to billions of dollars of bets annually (in Illinois alone, the gaming expansion, which also includes machines in restaurants, is expected to add at least $1 billion a year to state coffers).

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But not everyone is cheering on those bars and bettors. Opponents to gaming say it’s a hidden tax on the poor — and that allowing machines in bars only serves to make it easier for people to lose their money. Plus, they argue, bars are probably the worst place to allow the placing of bets, since drinking can affect decision-making. “You can end up gambling away your paycheck,” warns Anita Bedell, executive director of the Illinois Church Action on Alcohol & Addiction Problems organization, a group that opposed the expansion of gaming in the state’s bars.

Some in the bar industry take a different view, saying that gambling is a mainstream form of entertainment in America and spreading it to the local watering hole just means that those who like to place the occasional bet won’t have to travel as far to do so. If anything, Daniel Clausner, executive director of the Illinois Licensed Beverage Association, says legalizing gambling in bars reduces the possibility of illegal gambling and “takes pressure off police.” But either way, Clausner says, it’s providing a much-needed boost of revenue for bar owners in his state (they take a cut from the share of gaming profits).

9. “Don’t drink and drive, for your sake — and ours.”

Bartenders say they try to ensure their customers leave their establishment in a reasonably sober state, even if it means cutting them off after a certain point. But they’re not necessarily doing so just out of concern for the patron: In 38 states, bars or bartenders who serve liquor “to a drinker who is obviously intoxicated or close to it” can “be strictly liable to anyone injured by the drunken patron,” according to Law.com. And Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) advocates that all 50 states adopt such laws or statutes — often referred to as “dram shop rules” (a dram is a pour). “If you’re in the business of serving alcohol, you’re in the business of doing it responsibly,” says MADD National President Jan Withers.

But the bar industry, which has generally opposed dram-shop rules, counters that there’s only so much that’s in a bar’s control. “Often it can be difficult to determine whether a patron has been drinking prior to coming to your establishment,” says Daniel Clausner of the Illinois Licensed Beverage Association. And just as important, Clausner adds: A bar can’t stop a departing patron from going to another bar, so who’s to say which bar is ultimately responsible? In any case, bars and restaurants continue to emphasize how they carefully monitor drinking. The National Restaurant Association also offers a ServSafe Alcohol training program for bartenders and servers — with classes in person or online — so that they can better understand “how alcohol affects the body, how to recognize signs of intoxication in guests and how to deal with difficult situations, like refusal of service.”

10. “We want to take over your neighborhood, if not your entire town.”

For years, visitors to barcentric cities like Key West and New Orleans have done their share of “bar crawling,” visiting any number of establishments in the course of a few hours. But bars are banding together to create and promote such events in their towns. As the trade journal Nightclub & Bar magazine reported in December 2011, the idea behind the events is “to grow a fan base” for a locale, which, in turn, helps bars “gain traction” and bring “sought-after demographics” to the area. (Two notable examples of organized crawls the article cites: the costume-party-style Where’s Waldo Bar Crawl, in Charlotte, N.C., and the Fat Tuesday Pub Crawl in Billings, Mont.) On top of that, there are tour companies that also put together crawls in partnership with local bars: In Key West, for example, tour operator Key West Promotions offers up to 40 bar crawls a month — for around $30, patrons get a two and a half hour tour that includes stops at five bars (with a cocktail at each). “We like to think of it as a win-win-win — the bars do well, we do well and customers get a great value for the money,” says Erik Adams of Key West Promotions.

But not everyone takes a rosy view of these events. In New York, one crawl resulted in incidents of intoxicated participants vomiting and relieving themselves in public; complaints from locals naturally ensued. And Mothers Against Drunk Driving makes the point that any promotion or event that encourages more drinking — from bar crawls to happy hours — is a bad idea. Still, crawl organizers make the point that they try to rein in the drinking. Adams of Key West Promotions says that his tours limit the time at each bar to less than 30 minutes. “It helps keep people from overindulging,” he says.

View more information: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/10-things-bars-wont-tell-you-2013-04-05

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