Even in what may seem the darkest hours, there are ways to boost trade and income. Edmund Weil offers some welcome advice.

Last November, in the wake of Liz Truss’s disastrous premiership and the accompanying interest rate rises, I wrote on these pages about how the UK bar business was in for another rough ride. Rising costs, reduced guest spending power, and changing consumer habits presented new challenges for the industry. A year on, and it feels as if little has changed. Officially, the fiscal powers that be predict another year of sluggish growth and continued economic headwinds for the UK. Anecdotally, many operators speak of reduced sales and struggles to get early evening and late-night crowds through the door. I’ve visited two of London’s most critically acclaimed bars in recent weeks for a nightcap to find them less than half full.

In short, it’s a bit ugly out there. Some bar owners are talking openly about trading through Christmas and then throwing in the keys to their venues. Who can blame them? There is nothing as soul-crushing as putting everything into your business, doing everything ‘right’, and struggling to break even. When the dream of bar ownership is weighed by the millstone of stress and financial liabilities, it can feel more like a nightmare.

This article is not for those people. This is for the determined, the wilful, the downright stubborn among us. The operators who may be struggling but who have thus far kept their business on an even keel, but who may be thinking: “We survived 2023, now how the hell do we get through 2024?” Having a great product is rarely enough on its own to make a bar successful in the long term. Here are a few nuggets we picked up as we weathered 2023 with two new bars in our stable (Nightjar Carnaby and Swift Borough).

Scrutinise all your costs

This seems like the most obvious suggestion in the world, but you would be amazed at how many businesses go under with thousands of pounds of disposable monthly overheads. Look at everything – from the big items like re-tendering wholesale business (we’ve audited almost all our suppliers this year and saved significantly on cost of sale) – to software subscriptions, IT, marketing and cleaning contracts. Can you bring some of this in-house? How many of your overheads are ‘luxury items’ from easier times?

Look at the marketing budget through new eyes

For a long time, our approach to marketing was simply to amplify the excellent press and word-of-mouth that seemed to bring an endless stream of guests through our doors. We built huge social media followings and close relationships with drinks brands, creating beautiful photo and video content to showcase our bartenders and cocktails to the world. Moving to multiple sites for our concepts during the pandemic was something of a rude awakening in terms of marketing. Believe it or not, 120,000 Instagram followers from across the globe do not automatically translate to bums on seats in your new bar on a Tuesday night.

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Over the past year, we’ve increasingly shifted our focus to the less glamorous side of marketing – namely the SEO side. The UK wet-led market is fighting over a shrunken share of disposable income, and a lot of the money being spent (certainly in the capital) is from tourists. Try finding your bar on Google Maps. Does it pop up immediately or do you have to zoom right in? What happens when you Google ‘great cocktails in (your local area)’? It turns out there are multiple levers you can pull relatively cheaply to boost your bar’s online profile, such as website wording, links from popular websites, replying to reviews and much more. We engaged an SEO agency to educate us this year, and the effects (especially on our newer openings) have been dramatic. 

Invest in the right kind of training

Meaningful training and staff engagement initiatives are traditionally the preserve of businesses with some breathing space. It’s often the first thing to fall by the wayside when money or staffing is tight. This is a time to look for training that promises a tangible return on investment.

To give a practical example, our bars share a core offering of wet-led, cocktail-focused table service. Because of the cost of living crisis, we’ve noticed an increase in guests coming down and having only one drink or choosing house wine and beer instead of cocktails. Unlike in a restaurant where all patrons will eat and drinks are an ‘optional extra’, our revenue depends almost entirely on how much our guests choose to spend on their drinks. As a result, our biggest training investment this year is in upselling. Our average patron drinks just over two cocktails per visit. So influencing a guest to stay for one more cocktail increases spend per head by nearly 50%. In this instance, we’ve engaged a seasoned hospitality trainer with a great track record to mystery shop our venues, speak with managers, then transform their experience into a training and incentive programme, the success of which we will clearly be able to measure in sales and spend per head figures. 

Hustle, hustle, hustle

Sometimes your best efforts on site still aren’t enough to get you beyond break-even. This is the time to turn rainmaker. Use your network to win business: consultancy work; offsite events; brand activations; private hires. There’s no shame in working personal or even family contacts if you have faith in your offering and what you can deliver. Likewise, sometimes a random interaction can lead to an opportunity. Some of the most interesting and lucrative work we’ve done – from the cocktail menu for a billionaire’s super yacht, to the cocktails for a three-day society ultra-wedding in Bali – have come as a result of chasing down opportunities that seemed fanciful at first glance.