Maybe you can’t put your finger on it, but you’re losing customers and you need to fix it. Or maybe you want to reinvent your bar with a big bang – an event that explodes you onto the scene.
The same principles apply either way. People have to want to come to you.
You might feel you don’t want to reinvent your bar – your look and feel is your main selling point, so why change? Which is fine, but even if you’re running a 50s-style diner, your customers will still view it through 2010s eyes. 50s-style diners were modern, in the 50s: it’s more than just making sure it doesn’t look and smell like it was last decorated in the 50s too. You need to be up-to-date, even if your reinvention is confined to your practices and your service infrastructure – the bits that your customers don’t really appreciate but would immediately notice if they were lacking.
Whatever you’re going to do needs planning. If you’re going to fling open the doors on a brand new look, nothing will kill it off quicker than promising the earth and failing to deliver. And while a complete reinvention might pull in more customers, it might also alienate your existing clientele, who feel they’ve lost somewhere that was comfortable and familiar. So, evolution, rather than revolution, may be the key.
Reinvention starts with the customers. What do they like (or not)? What would attract the people you want? Ask them! Get feedback – locally in the bar, or more widely in the community (which will also be your opening publicity salvo). Boost interest and incentivize your respondents with special offers.
Your staff are your front line and they will probably hear and notice things you don’t, so get feedback from them too. This also makes them more engaged in the business, even if they’re only there to work through school. You want staff who are so into it that they will be like the Starbucks barista who deliberately learned American Sign Language on behalf of a regular deaf customer – and staff like that are grown, not hired. (The customer in question then shared the experience on Facebook and at the last count it had been re-shared more than 2,500 times – the kind of PR you can’t buy but can only earn.)
And be prepared that maybe your customers don’t want a change. There will always be gripes and grumbles but it could be they by and large are happy as you are – especially if it’s your second (or third, or fourth …) relaunch in the last few years. Regular customers are creatures of habit by definition and prefer stability. Still reinvent if you want, but turn down the volume.
So, those customers. Who are they? Are you broadening the demographic? Narrowing it? Expanding up and down the age range? Or do you simply want more customers? If it’s that last option, that itself should inform the demographic you’re after. In most cities, the best way to swell the customer base is appealing to the young – more disposable income, fewer responsibilities to keep them away. But in some communities it will be the older customers who can boost an establishment’s fortunes. Maybe they want a place to escape from all those pesky young folk! If you’re going for a mixed demographic, remember that different age groups can feel overwhelmed or threatened by each other. Your design can subtly reflect this – a zone that draws in the young’uns, and an area for the oldsters to settle, so that neither of them feels in the other’s face.
It’s rare today to see a bar that doesn’t advertise its free wifi, blurring the difference between home and office. But maybe you could make a big deal that you don’t offer wifi (or video games, or TV screens) for those customers who actively want to leave their distractions behind. The rock band Queen, on their early albums, would list the instruments played and then proudly add, ‘… and no synthesisers!’ The deliberate, calculated lack of something common and ubiquitous became a feature in itself.
Once you have them, cultivate them. Where are you, the manager, in all this? Lurking in the back office, or out at the front, meeting and greeting and serving alongside your staff? Be a name and a face, and make sure your staff are too. The more familiar and recognized your staff become, the more your customers will feel comfortable with them and the more they’ll feel inclined to make your bar their watering hole of choice.
The engagement doesn’t have to end when the customers leave. Even older customers can usually get the hang of being on an email list, or following one or two social media pages – and one of them should be yours. Enter new followers in a monthly draw, or run competitions with special offers that are only available online. And make your page the first place where your staff are introduced: the names behind the faces and the faces behind the scenes. Have them post, too: the chef on tonight’s special, the waiters’ own thoughts on your menu items.
And it’s only a small step from there to ordering online. Your staff can only be in one place at one time, and people might be coming to your bar for the human interaction – but at the same time, with the kind of online ordering systems available today there’s no reason why the ones who want to can’t go straight to the bar or their table and have their order served, without having to wait to catch anyone’s attention.
The whole point of reinvention is lost if your offering doesn’t also change. What’s on your menu, and the prices, need to reflect off your customers. Don’t offer filet mignon paired with Silver Oak to a clientele that mostly consists of students; white collar upper management customers probably won’t want fries with everything. You can find your own balance.
Even a simple redesign of the menu can send a message (there are plenty of talented designers around) – both the look and what’s on it. Customize the dishes and drinks to create your own brand identity. A burger in a bun with a bit of cheese will always be a cheeseburger, but one with a particular combination of sauces and salads will be your style of cheeseburger. Encourage your chef to develop a signature range – but find the balance so that even the most rarely-ordered item can be served as well and as promptly as your signature dish on that one occasion a month when it does get ordered. And to wash it all down, as well as the staples – industry-standard brands of beer, wine, cola – can you accompany it with something new? Guest beverages from local breweries or vineyards that other bars in your neighbourhood won’t have?
And what else can your customers get that isn’t just bar-related? A bar already blurs the lines between home and work, so blur a few more lines too. What deals can you strike with other local interests? A shelf of offerings from the local bookstore? A notice board for community events? Why aren’t you hosting those events?
Reinventing your bar is no light undertaking, but done properly it can be the moment your golden age began: the moment your bar didn’t just become the place where everybody knows your name, but where everybody wants to be.