September 7, 2020

For many, happy hour offers a much-needed morale boost at the end of a hard day. It lets friends and coworkers gather to unwind, share a laugh, and get to know each other better. And with so many people working from home due to COVID-19, meeting up with one or two friends to share a drink on a patio can provide the connection we’re all craving.

Once bars and restaurants realized they could attract customers with deals during this formerly quiet time of day, it was a race to see who could offer the lowest prices.

As consumers have gotten more sophisticated, it’s no longer enough to just rely on discounts to make happy hour profitable. So here are four happy hour ideas that you can use to spread the word and make the most of this valuable time slot.

Add Food to Protect Your Bottom Line

If you and your competitor across the street are both offering discounted draft beers, why should customers choose you?

Sweeten the deal with happy hour combos. While we may think of fast food when we hear “combo,” this method can actually work very well for high-end restaurants. A fine dining restaurant with a raw bar, for example, could offer a champagne and oysters combination during happy hour. That’s a beloved pairing, and it will make guests feel like they’re getting a great deal.

Another way this can work is to offer smaller versions of appetizers at a lower price point than on the dinner menu. By reducing the serving size, you can protect your food cost. And you also bring your restaurant’s happy hour within reach for young professionals that may not have as much disposable income as your dinner clientele.

For casual restaurants, packages are a great enticement for groups of friends or coworkers to pay you a visit. A bucket of ice cold beers along with a tray of assorted appetizers for one easy price? That makes “Where should we go for happy hour?” easy to answer.

Pricing a menu and managing food costs are part of the curriculum in various degree and diploma programs at Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. With this background, chefs and restaurant owners may find optimizing their menu profitability to be an easier task.

Four friends drinking and toasting spritz at cocktail bar with face masks

Reverse Your Happy Hour

The purpose of happy hour deals is to get guests into the bar or restaurant during the slow “pre-dinner” time. But there’s no reason that the concept has to be limited to those hours.

A reverse happy hour applies the same concepts to the time block after dinner, to encourage late night sales. This is especially effective if your restaurant is located near other nighttime activities, like a theater district. While the theaters may be closed right now due to COVID-19, some states are beginning to reopen. An evening happy hour may be just the thing to encourage your customers to come back!

If you’re going to go this route, make sure it starts late enough in the evening that you’re not “poaching” your own full-price dinner sales. If your reverse happy hour starts before 9pm, you may lose dinner reservations to the thrifty diners who prefer to wait for the cheaper prices.

Another version of this idea is “all day happy hour” on your slowest business days, like Sundays or Mondays. As always with happy hour, pay very close attention to your bottom line. A 50% discount on drinks means you’ll have to sell twice as many to earn the same revenue. So you’ll need a solid plan in place to attract more customers to your new specials. One way to do that?

Invite Influencers

While we’ve all heard stories of entitled influencers who demand free food or special treatment in exchange for “exposure,” the truth is that many local influencers are truly dedicated to their community’s food scene. And with many restaurants experiencing reduced sales during the pandemic, they are often eager to help promote their neighborhood eateries.

Influencers also hold major sway with their audiences. In one study, 83% of people reported purchasing a product because of an influencer recommendation. Local influencers with fewer than 100,000 followers generally see higher engagement from their fans than the huge social media stars with millions of followers.

They also need content for their social media feeds. That’s where you come in!

When you are ready to market your new happy hour specials or hours, the influencers need to hear about it. Inviting either individuals or groups of local foodies to try your food and drinks is a great way to get free marketing and start some chatter about your restaurant.

Don’t Neglect Your Current Customers

When we talk about marketing and promotions, so much of the focus is on new visitors. But it can cost five times more to get a new customer than keep an existing one. So what are you doing to promote your happy hour to your current fans?

Within the restaurant, you can promote happy hour with:

  • Table tents
  • Signs behind the bar
  • Chalkboard art
  • On the menu
  • In the bathrooms
  • On the guest checks
  • On takeout bags

Focus on digital promotion as well. People are spending more time than ever online, since the pandemic has us all going out less.

Make sure your happy hour deals are on your website — preferably on the homepage where they’re easy to spot. Do regular posts on social media to remind your followers about your offerings. And if you’ve been collecting email addresses, this is the perfect time to put them to use!

Finally, remember that many people are still not comfortable attending an in-person happy hour at all. But you can set up a special happy hour promotion just for them.

Many states have legalized to-go cocktails during the pandemic as a way for restaurants to boost sales. Spread the word that your to-go drinks are available at happy hour prices during limited hours. Encourage your customers to spend happy hour with you — even if they have to do it from afar.

Keep It Legal and Safe!

Culinary school graduates understand how important it is to keep up with regulations like HACCP and their local health code. So they’ll understand that happy hour has its own set of rules to follow.

Laws regulating happy hour differ drastically from state to state, and can even change from county to county. Massachusetts, for example, bans selling discounted drinks for less than a full calendar week. So happy hour specials are out.

And in Virginia, happy hour is allowed, but “reverse happy hour” is not — at least not between the hours of 9pm and 2am. Other states and counties have rules on the amount a drink can be discounted, and even on the way happy hour can be advertised.

So before you make any changes to your restaurant’s happy hour policies, check in with your local alcoholic beverage commission to make sure you don’t make any missteps.

As the novel coronavirus continues to shift consumer behavior and restaurant occupancies, it’s more important than ever to maximize your profitability where you can. By attracting more guests during your “down-times,” you’re getting both more exposure and more revenue with very little investment beyond your time and brainpower.

To learn more about culinary entrepreneurship or managing a restaurant, consider Culinary Arts, Baking & Pastry, or Food & Beverage Operations programs from Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts!

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This article was originally published on June 29, 2016 and has since been updated.