Seven Ways to Make Happy Hour Work for You and Your Guests

By: Joanne Sasvari

Everybody’s Happy

It’s 3 pm at Bartholomew’s Public House in downtown Victoria, and happy hour has just begun. The pub will offer discounted drinks and food specials till 6 pm. Slowly, then quickly, the room begins to fill, a cheerful murmur of voices rise in the air, and the mood lifts with each Damn Good Gin & Tonic or order of fried pickles served. Here, at least, happy hour is doing what it is meant to do: make everyone happy.

It’s hard to believe now, but in this province, happy hour was only made legal in 2014, following the comprehensive BC Policy Liquor Review that brought our laws into the 21st century. Prior to that, bars and restaurants could offer “appy hour” deals on food but were not allowed to promote discounted alcohol.

How Things Have Changed

What we now know as happy hour is a marketing initiative to tempt customers with good deals at slower times of day, specifically, between work and dinner. But that’s not how it started.

The idea of a pre-dinner aperitif dates as far back as the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, when they paused before dinner to enjoy a medicinal beverage to aid digestion. By the mid-19th century, it had evolved into the concept of the apéro (in France) or aperitivo (in Spain and Italy), a convivial gathering of friends, as a way to wind down from work and transition to private life.

As for the term “happy hour” itself, it, too, was originally about socializing rather than discounted liquor. As early as 1914, sailors in the US Navy enjoyed a weekly happy hour to socialize with each other. It wasn’t about liquor at all, until Prohibition came along, and the naval slang was applied to social gatherings in speakeasies and private homes.

“The most successful happy hours are about honouring the tradition of socializing.”

Even now, the most successful happy hours are about honouring that social tradition. Sure, when costs are rising as fast as they are now, it may seem unappealing to offer any discounts at all. But research shows that, when done right, happy hours attract new customers, generate buzz about your establishment, and make money—in fact, a 2018 Nielsen study found that US bars and restaurants make 60% of their weekly sales during happy hour.

7 Ways to Host a Great Happy Hour

  1. Time it Right

For most bars and pubs, happy hour fits in the lull between workday’s end and the beginning of the dinner rush. But that may not be the case for your own establishment, so be sure to evaluate when your busy times are (and aren’t).

Just a few things to consider:

  • Do you want to have a happy hour on the weekends or weekdays only?
  • What about late-night happy hours, which are becoming increasingly popular among younger consumers?
  • How long do you want your happy to last? One, two, or three hours? No matter when you start your happy hour, be sure to set an ending for it.
  • Do you have enough staff to handle extra volume?
  1. Know Your Customers

Before you start slashing prices, consider who your regular customers are and what they are looking for, advises TouchBistro. The software company behind the POS system suggests looking at what sells when, and creating happy hour specials around popular, high-margin options. For instance, members of the business community may be looking for cocktails and wine to enjoy while networking rather than pitchers of beer and a blaring football game.

Also, since your happy hour customers will almost certainly be the people who live and/or work in your neighbourhood, consider spreading word-of-mouth by connecting with other nearby businesses, such as a local brewery.

  1. Be Creative

In a competitive market, cheap drinks alone aren’t enough to get people into bars, and certainly not enough for them to come back. The online magazine suggests playing to your pub’s strengths—for instance, if cocktails are your thing, get creative with specialty ingredients or go all in on classics. Don’t be afraid to try a few different concepts to see what works.

TouchBistro also suggests adding live music, entertainment, or trivia games to make your happy hour more engaging—yes, it’s an added expense, but according to the music licensing organization SOCAN and the research firm LEGER, half of Canadians say that “live music makes them likely to eat and drink more and invite their friends to join them.”

  1. Tempt Them with Food

Happy hour isn’t just about drink specials. According to the US National Restaurant Association, more than 40% of guests are actually drawn in by the food. Some ideas from TouchBistro: creative food and drink pairings; small plate versions of popular lunch and dinner entrees; shareable snacks; and theme menus such as Taco Tuesday.

  1. Offer Non-Alcoholic Options

A growing number of people—especially young people—are choosing not to drink alcohol, at least some of the time, so offer them something beyond soda or fruit juice. The availability of high-quality, zero-proof beer, wine, and spirits is exploding, so there really is no reason not to provide all your guests with something delicious to sip.

  1. Offer Real Value

Guests are watching their budgets closely these days and are highly sensitive to perceived value. Even if you’re providing a great deal, the experience should still be the same quality they could expect any other time. As reports, if you’re supplying guests with good products, atmosphere, and service, bargain drinks won’t be the only reason they’ll patronize your pub—and you have a golden opportunity to turn occasional guests into full-paying regulars.

  1. Maximize Profits

Even if your happy hour means more traffic and volume of sales, discounting food and liquor means that you will be making less profit on each item. That said, there are ways to make sure it’s a good deal for your establishment, too.

For instance, don’t invest in special ingredients, but re-purpose what you already have on hand, especially if you’ve overstocked on something or would otherwise be throwing it out (as long as it’s food safe, of course). TouchBistro suggests upselling by encouraging customers to spend a little extra by making well drinks with a specific liquor for just a dollar more, or cross-selling by recommending dishes from the regular menu to pair with a happy hour drink. And always, be sure to keep track of your sales and adjust if something isn’t working.

Most of all, don’t forget that happy hour isn’t just about cheap booze. It’s about giving your guests an escape from the day-to-day. A great happy hour simply needs to make people feel happy. And that means you, too.