By Khalid Williams
“We just don’t know.” That’s the most popular and accurate answer to any question involving the future of our industry. The idea of a “status quo” is a laughable concept at best. From the wood stave producer to the wine room owner, we don’t know what the future holds. We never really did, but the comfortable delusion of predictability that we depended on is gone, probably never to return.
Nobody does. Be you the pauper or the prince, uncertainty is all around. It seems that the national mood was expecting Ashton Kutcher to run into our living rooms and inform us that the last 365 days were us being, in a word, Punk’d. Something far more subdued is our reality. 2021 is off to a start that’s, well, quite 2020 in nature. Even with a strong support system, family bonds, a thriving professional community and uniquely successful business ventures, the reality is that a large chunk of the market just isn’t there anymore.
We are a long way from finding safety in numbers. In on-premise, legendary bars still sit empty, and by the very best estimates, at least 17% are never to return. Thriving eating and drinking establishments that have thus far weathered the storm of unfortunate world events are feeling the sting of a slow January and February made worse by unfriendly weather. Capacity regulations are slowly being relaxed, but the potential for large-scale events, a reasonable tourism rebound and the consumer feeling safe both medically and financially are still many days ahead of us. Off-premise is still enjoying an unprecedented boom, but the sales are becoming decentralized due to a dizzying flood of online vendors.
These unsettling factors are cause for pause – and a pause is far overdue for all industry sectors. Ask anyone and they will tell you, of the businesses that were fortunate enough to still be standing and operating, that creativity is the oil in the well-appointed machine of success.
Takeout cocktail programs have provided an income stream not previously realized on-premise; it’s also streamlined operations as bartenders batch their most popular cocktails daily for to-go sales and pull from this reserve to serve in-house guests. The result is better quality control, less product loss and the ability to take a more granular approach to taking inventory.
Check Facebook and you’ll see some of the state’s most popular restaurant cocktails now being canned and sold in package stores. This would have been inconceivable in the past without major backing and large means of production. Local distilleries have the time and desire to take on contract production agreements, offering the possibility of mixologist-driven spirits that are truly unique. There are so many new conversations about the culture of inspired beverages and an ever-growing community of people that want to drink things that matter, made by people who care.
Your guests and patrons are absolutely ready for a virtual happy hour using a free conferencing platform. This can be leveraged by on- and off-premise concepts and with delivery services available. Send out 15 cocktail kits with prep instructions and engage in remote revelry. Have a cocktail with an infectious name and crowd-pleasing flavors? It can have its own hashtag in a matter of months. Big brands are offering unique opportunities to connect via social media through pictures, videos, audio and the written word.
A single story about a guest, an experience or just a Q&A with a star employee that highlights their creativity matters to these major players, no matter how small your bottle shop or how few cocktails are on your menu. Your little corner of our gajillion-dollar industry has got the world for a stage. If you are true to concept and do a modest amount of research and fact-finding on your most responsive audience, your voice will be heard and probably received well.
We are all stressed, but we are also all achieving things that were previously inconceivable. What this has produced is a level of inspiration and optimism that carries our industry forward and gives meaning to the word “service.” Still, in 2021, we just don’t know. Maybe this opportunity to reflect is exactly what we need.
Khalid Williams is a bar manager, spirits brand representative and program consultant specializing in marketing, engagement and data. His passion is for exploring the “why” behind consumer decisions. He loves old-world wine, new-world rum and Connecticut beer. Follow him on Instagram @thebarrelage.