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Listening to the Wrong Customers

March 28, 2014

Owning a restaurant or a bar is a hard. Honestly, I don’t know how even the owners of successful places can sleep at night, because it’s a terrifying business. Long established ventures close up shop all the time.

When one is in the thick of grinding out a living amidst an increasingly competitive landscape and shifting consumer tastes, it has to be incredibly difficult to keep your eye on the ball.

I’m terrible at sports metaphors. In this case the ball is the brand. It’s the thing that sets a business apart from its competitors. Without some kind of brand identity restaurants and bars would effectively be a commodity – one would be just as good as another. But almost every place has a brand identity, whether they know it or not. This isn’t something that a business has to cultivate. Even without a strategy in place, over time a brand will emerge organically.

“The dirty one that’s really cheap”
“The swanky one with the hot servers”
“The one that’s been around forever and is filled with regulars”
“The place where all the jocks hang out and drink Budweiser, loudly”

There is an advantage to getting ahead of this and crafting a specific brand identity. It helps to provide a consistent image for an establishment, and doing this effectively gives the owner a yardstick by which to measure a myriad of difficult decisions.

Today, I want to talk about an established business which recently made a decision off brand.

Why do I care? Really, there are two reasons. The first is ideological. For some reason it just gets under my skin when a brand turns away from its own established identity. Maybe that comes from spending too long in the advertising and branding trenches. But it’s a palpable feeling that I just can’t shake, nor can I simply let it go. The second is more pragmatic. There is only one German beer bar in the Capital Region. It would be a shame to see it become just another bar with a German name.

Wolff’s Biergarten opened up with no immediate competition nearby in a strip of warehouses on the north side of Albany. They were doing something different and bringing in kegs of German beer that nobody else in the area had. The place looked like a German beer hall and it had a simple menu of wursts and other well themed foods. It’s still a place to go to watch international soccer matches, celebrate Oktoberfest, and play darts on real dart boards.

Is it my favorite place ever? No. But I am most definitely a fan.

It was successful from the start. So successful that other bars started to open up in the neighborhood and now that warehouse strip is a bar hopping destination.

Given that Wolff’s is a beer hall, there have never been any spirits.

The bar hopping crowd finds this a drag. I understand how frustrating it must be to watch customers leave your bar to go to the one across the street for a round of shots. So. What do you do? Do you “listen” to your “customers” and create a shot program? Or do you stay true to your brand and maintain your identity?

I’m not saying that established brands cannot change and adapt to marketplace conditions. They can and they should. Like anything else, brands can stagnate and get stale. But the evolution of a well crafted brand should be carefully managed.

The new shot menu at Wolff’s includes Jim Beam, Cazadores tequila, picklebacks and more. Sure, there are some Germanic sounding spirits like Jagermeister, Black Haus, and Rumple Minze. But the lost opportunity was to bring on a spirits program in line with the brand’s identity.

Yes, German schnapps may be unfamiliar to the bar hopping crowd. But so were the German beers at first, and those have been a smashing success. Plus you can’t tell me that those who are able to choke down a pickleback or a shot of Jager are going to flinch at the taste of real schnapps.

One could argue that despite this change, the character of the place is going to remain largely the same. Perhaps. But where does it end? If customers start asking for Budweiser or cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, the bar has already demonstrated a willingness to make sacrifices to the brand.

Providing your customers exactly what they ask for is more perilous than it may seem. People are notoriously bad at knowing what they want. Plus, they don’t have a long term vision of your establishment in mind when they are making such suggestions. Things like pickleback shots may fill a short term need, but if it means that Wolff’s becomes “just another bar” in the warehouse district then it will invariably have been a long term loss.

These decisions are not easy. But this one looks like it was made carelessly, which is surprising given how much work has gone into the place overall. I wish Wolff’s all the best and hope to see its spirits program rise to the level of excellence the brand represents.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. EPT permalink
    March 28, 2014 9:58 am

    You’re on target Daniel. They probably won’t stop at “shots” which is in my opinion not smart to begin with. Cocktails will soon follow as as the fairer sex accompanies the guys. Is that bad, just to be a bar…bottom line is what’s in the cash register.

  2. Bill permalink
    March 28, 2014 10:05 am

    There’s value in being true to your roots/brand. You can’t be everything to everyone. IMO adding shots and other elements that detract from being a German Biergarten is bad for business. You can get shots anywhere. They should focus on their core and excel at it. Otherwise, yeah, it’s just another bar, in which case there’s no compelling reason to go there over someplace else.

  3. March 28, 2014 11:10 am


    (PS – I agree)

  4. Randy K permalink
    March 28, 2014 11:17 am

    I agree in theory, however, I do love me some picklebacks :)

  5. March 28, 2014 11:36 am

    Hooray for picklebacks. Question: where does all that pickle juice come from — and what happens to the pickles?

  6. March 28, 2014 11:42 am

    I agree with your sentiment Daniel. I really dig the biergarten. But, I don’t think adding some hard liquor to pacify a few whiny customers is necessarily a bad thing. What matters is the question you asked, where does it end? While I would love to see some authentic schnapps, you know as well as I do that stuff that doesn’t taste like turpentine is really pricy. The average drinker isn’t going to shell out for it, nor are many of the average drinker going to appreciate it anyway. That said, they should be serving the good stuff alongside the cheap stuff just as any decent bar puts bottles of 18 yo scotch up on that high shelf. They should at least stock some Goldschläger and Barenjäger.

  7. March 28, 2014 1:19 pm

    I don’t mind them having booze I guess… But marketing “shots” specifically is tacky. I appreciate the novelty of the whole shot-ski thingy they are talking about and that could be novel/fun in the same way as the b-day boot promotion. But the idea of watching a bunch of 22 year olds pound jaeger with bellies full of sausage and beer is not my 33 year old self’s idea of a pleasant night out.

    They are also probably going to have to hire some security which might eat up the shots profits. I feel like a fuddy-duddy saying it but I do think this would make me less likely to visit the place. On my rare visits I sort of enjoyed what they had going on without having to deal with the usual bar-nonsense. However, I am sure that a younger and wilder individual will happily pick up the business they will lose in me due to the change. I don’t think this is going to impact the ownership’s bottom line much.

  8. March 28, 2014 3:43 pm

    I have never been to the Biergarten, oddly enough, because I’m seldom in Albany at an hour when it’s appropriate to have a beer. So can’t comment on this kerfulffle.

    But you’re right about being terrible at sports analogies. Keeping your eye on the ball is something you do at the absolute last second; it’s entirely reflex and tactics. What you’re describing is something more akin to reading your scouting reports.

  9. March 28, 2014 6:35 pm

    I don’t have a stake in this, given both my peanut allergy and my belief that German beer is in general substantially inferior to both Belgian and American craft brews, but I don’t see any problem with Wolff’s serving spirits. I believe the Olde English and Merry Monk have always had spirits, but they remain specialists in a particular beer style.

    I do agree that focusing on shots in particular is tacky.

  10. DEN permalink
    March 29, 2014 10:39 pm

    I see where you are coming from, Daniel, but I think the introduction of shots is a non-story. Part of Biergarten’s brand, and the brand of is sister bars, is indeed catering to a crowd that is into feats of drinking prowess. I am talking about the birthday beer boots and the corresponding feats on the Olde English and Bombers birthday drink tour. Offering shots is not unexpected for me. Are people wasted on shots worse that people wasted after a beer boot? Maybe the professional bouncers should weigh in here.

    A more interesting critique of Biergarten might be to take an actual look at the evolution of its beer list (which was actually once broader than just German brews). My take on it is that their beer selection has settled into the favorites that sell best and therefore does not rotate much. You used to be able to get Houblon Chouffe on tap there and a couple other interesting Belgian brews, but now they carry stuff that you can get many other places (Pilsner Urquell, Stella, Spaten) and offer too many Pilsners and Lagers relative to other styles. Last time I was there, there were even some American names on the draft list. Not that there is anything wrong with breweries like Brooklyn Brewery, but I would like them to take a fresh look at the tap list.

    Ultimately, I agree with your suggestion that this is a business decision. The money is going to come from people who don’t really care what type of beer is on offer. They’ll continue to make money because it is still unique to the bar scene here, and the staff understands good customer relations (e.g. the wonderful Mark Graydon), and it is actually a decent sports bar in disguise as a beer hall.

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