Bars and restaurants can survive and thrive with these new opportunities

A screenshot from the Bar & Restaurant virtual conference. Left: Laura Newman & Larry "Mudd" Townley from Queen's Park; Top right: Moderator Jeremiah Batucan; Bottom right: Kyle Noonan from FreeRange Concepts

LAS VEGAS — The Nightclub & Bar Show was scheduled to hold its 35th anniversary show at the Las Vegas Convention Center in March. Then, the Coronavirus hit and everything screeched to a halt. However, organizers have postponed the conference to October, if allowed by local, state and national officials.

That’s when Questex created the Bar & Restaurant conference. The free event was held exclusively online last week. The goal was to help restaurant and bar owners to recover their losses and figure out how to survive and thrive during the COVID-19 pandemic.


“Welcome to an event where we’re really being focused on how bars, restaurants and nightlife venues can help survive this tragic pandemic that’s affecting us all,“ said Jeremiah Batucan, conference director of Bar & Restaurant. “We pivoted very quickly to this virtual model. It’s a deeper dive into driving customers back into our bars and restaurants in a safe and responsible manner while driving revenue. How much cash do I have on hand and how long can I survive?”

He brought up some of the staffing issues that restaurants and bars are currently facing.

“We are already hearing stories where it’s very hard to get employees back. It’s hard when there’s a federal bonus that gives you $600 per week for not working. Your incentive to come back is very challenging. If you don’t have a strong culture, that makes it more daunting. The good news is that it does not take a rocket scientist to change that culture.”

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Batucan said there are some additional revenue streams such as alcohol and cocktails to go. In addition, there are new technology options that can be considered. Don’t forget about adding new drinks and food items to your menu offerings.

Kyle Noonan is the founder and CEO of FreeRange Concepts. (Screenshot from the Bar & Restaurant virtual conference)

Kyle Noonan is the founder and CEO of FreeRange Concepts. The company operates multiple restaurant brands throughout the state of Texas. Their mission statement is to “Create Remarkable Memories.”

“We, like everybody, were kicked in the teeth a few months ago, about 100 days ago that the state of Texas shutdown,” he said. “We had to really assess what we’re doing and adapt and not get too rigid on the way things used to be. We heard the term ‘new normal.’ I didn’t love that term but I understand where it comes from. It means that things are changing and we all know that they have. Overnight, our industry was shut down. This was the first time in almost a century that the government has decided that an industry can’t exist anymore. The last time that happened was prohibition.”

He did an interview with ABC’s Good Morning America on March 21 inside his restaurant called The Rustic. They wanted to showcase how business was declining. But the restaurant was packed. He had to clear out the crowd to make it look emptier. Then, a few days later his businesses went to zero — just like a car crash.

“If you are rigid and married to the way things used to be, and afraid to evolve, you’re going to lose. If you are adaptable and positive, then we’re going to win. Part of my success is that I am completely unemotional about the way things used to be. I’m very excited about the opportunity to take new leaps and change the way I used to do it and to now the way I want to do it.”

With state approval, Noonan opened his restaurants on May 1 with 25 percent capacity. Then, on May 15 restaurants were allowed to open with 50 percent capacity. On June 1, restaurants went to 75 percent capacity and bars went to 50 percent capacity. Patios are open at 100 percent with social distancing.

“Out initial initiative was let’s establish a to-go program. Let’s establish the ordering system, the delivery system, third-party delivery system in order to execute that. What we found, which was surprising, we ended up tapping a revenue stream we didn’t know was there. To go, curbside, third party, that’s here to stay. In the state of Texas, they are allowing restaurants and bars to sell alcohol to go as well. It is temporary. We are modifying our websites, our mobile functionality, our internal design of the floor plan and the parking lots for pickup and delivery. It is the way a lot of consumers want to move forward.”

Laura Newman & Larry “Mudd” Townley from Queen’s Park discussed how to hold a successful to-go program. (Screenshot from the Bar & Restaurant virtual conference)

Laura Newman is the Bar Manager and Owner of Queen’s Park. It’s a cocktail bar in Birmingham, Alabama that opened in Nov. 2018. Queen’s Park offers 65 cocktails on its menu including spirits, wine and beer. They have annual sales of over $1.2 million.

“On March 16, we were closed prior to quarantine. Later that afternoon, the state announced closure of all bars and restaurants indefinitely. On the 17, when we were moping around at home, the state surprisingsly made a new announcement which was that bars and restaurants could now beer, wine and spirits to go. On March 18, we reopened to the public to donate all of our tips to our staff. We had a really great turnout. We sold the first to-go cocktail in the state of Alabama. The next day, the state said that going forward all liquor sold had to be in seal, original packaging.”

Newman and her team went out and bought a large supply to mini bottles to be in accordance with Alabama state law. She discussed setting up a successful to-go program.

“We’re essentially opening a brand new bar. We created brand new systems immediately. We also reconfigured our space physically in terms of the layout. Because we didn’t have any guests coming into the space, we were able to move stuff around to make really great cocktails really fast. A lot of the best practices were really invented by our employees and staff. We also did a quick line-by-line walkthrough of all of our expenses and made some budget cuts figuring out what we could live without. We’ve also focused on selling our highest profit margin items. In a to-go situation, this includes figuring our costs of new items such as plastic to go cups. We wanted the public to know we were creating cocktails to go and that they were delicious. Finally, leveraging our online presence and free forms of marketing.”

Queen’s Park was able to rehire 70 percent of their staff immediately. The managers decided not to take their salaries and just live off of tips. 

Newman and her team came up with digital menus that featured QR codes. The first was for drinks on the patio and the second was for cocktails to go. They streamlined the menu and only offered the top-selling drinks for the time being. Queen’s Park also offers cocktail kits with all of the ingredients so that customers could make the drinks themselves at home.

Scott Hempstead is the senior director of on-premise at Boston Beer Co. (Screenshot from the Bar & Restaurant virtual conference)

Scott Hempstead is the senior director of on-premise at Boston Beer Co. They produce Samuel Adams beer, Truly Hard Seltzer, Twisted Tea, Angry Orchard Cider and other brands.

“Consumers are certainly coming back,” he said. “There was some speculation on what extent the restaurant business will recover from this. We’re bearish here at Boston Beer coming out of the gates. We’re seeing customers coming back a lot faster than we thought it would. It’s a great thing. People are getting very comfortable getting back in the environment they were in before. I think there’s a lot of pent up demand from being in your house.”

Hempstead said he works closely with Nielsen Consumer Survey and offered some data. Forty percent of on-premise visitors have been in bars in the last two weeks. Of those, who have returned, most people are visiting more than once. In addition, 69 percent of consumers reported buying brands they know and trust.

“There’s going to be new processes, new things you can expect when you go out to eat. Customers and guests at bars and restaurants are going to have different expectations that you need to plan for and adapt to. If customers notice the chefs are not wearing masks, they might not come back to your restaurant. You really want to think of different ways to sell. Cocktails to go is working. This is a really cool thing. It is a way to create some sales if that particular guest doesn’t want to sit in your bar or restaurant.”

Hempstead explained there are a few other things bar owners and restaurant operators can do. First, bars and restaurants should offer top-selling brands for consumers. Secondly, they should offer on-trend offerings in the on premise. For example, growlers to go and premixed cocktails to go. Finally, bars and restaurants should offer contactless/cashless payment options, the ability to pre-order and food and drink menus available on phones.

“eCommerce got here really quick. If you don’t have online ordering for your restaurant and you have not figured out how to display your menus digitally, and come up with new ways to communicate with your guests, you need to get your act together. At one of my favorite restaurants, you still have to call in your order. When you get there, you have to break out your credit card that you hand over to somebody touches it and then they process it. Then, you have to punch something into a keypad or they hand you a pen that 100 other people have touched in the last day. Those days are over. You’ve got to get your act together to figure out digital payments, digital ordering, the way you display your menus and how you promote your brand.”

Hopefully, these tips can help restaurant operators and bar owners not only stay in business but survive and thrive during this difficult time.

The Nightclub & Bar Show is tentatively scheduled for October 19-21, 2020 at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

For more information and to register, visit

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