Re-Thinking Happy Hour

In 2019, I was working with an upscale restaurant in an affluent suburb of Nashville. The restaurant was new, and the competition was very stiff. But even at a Per Guest Average of over $40, the restaurant had made a splash and was gaining guest counts.

One of the challenges, like many restaurants, was the traffic during the late afternoon and early evening hours. The initial inclination from ownership and management was, naturally, “happy hour.” I’ve never been a big proponent of happy hour; I’ve always felt that if a restaurant can charge $7 for something for a few hours, that probably means it’s not worth the $14 they are charging the rest of the time. Or, if the price is that steeply discounted, it could mean the quality and the service are also discounted. But, I agreed that we had to try something. So we put together a happy hour menu with some discounted beer, wine, cocktails, and a few appetizers we were confident would bring people back in.

It didn’t work. At all. Guests we did serve during our happy hour ordered “regular price” items at least 50% of the time, and were there because of the service – everyone had to see their favorite bartender – rather than the discounted products.

We had to re-think what we were doing to bring in new guests. Were our guests looking for a bargain? Or were they looking to us to provide something no one else was? My experience told me it was the latter.

So, I got to work re-writing an entirely different happy hour experience. I got with the Chef, and instead of looking at plate-costs and figuring how steeply can we discount this or that, we came up with some new dishes that weren’t offered on our dinner menu. And instead of taking another “$1 off drafts & wells,” I met with the bar manager and the vendors, and we designed a whole new drink menu designed to pair with the latest food dishes we created. Everything was designed to be fun, light, fast, and priced at a point where guests could mix and match as they pleased. More importantly, none of which were available anywhere else in the community, and none of which were served at any other time. Suddenly guests had a reason to come in during those hours we were trying to build traffic.

And it worked. Within a few weeks, our guest count during that time had doubled, and within two months, the restaurant was 75% full before our traditional dinner service even began. Sure our Per Guest average wasn’t near what it was for our full dinner menu, but it introduced the restaurant to new guests who, when they saw the restaurant, tasted the food, and met the staff, were excited to come in to experience the full menu for dinner. Now the restaurant was not only putting “butts in seats” during the slowest 3 hours of the day but building sales during regular lunch and dinner hours as well. Win-Win-Win.

All because we decided we weren’t going to cut prices by 50% and call it “happy hour,” instead, we asked, “what’s going to make our guests happy?”