Guys like P.T. Barnum and Ben Franklin recognized early on that people could be easily fooled.
Barnum drew frenzied crowds to his bizarre presentation of "feejee mermaids" and such. Once, when the mob lingered too long inside his hall of attractions, preventing new paying customers from entering the scene, he nailed a sign proclaiming "to the Egress" near the back exit. Gullible tourists stepped out the door expecting to witness some new exhibit. Franklin tried a more modest charade: He often left a few lamps burning in his shop late at night so those passing by would imagine the young Franklin dutifully tending to business--even while the great man dined, slept or tarried with a mistress.
Many years later, someone we never studied in grad school and really don't care to look up now because it would cut into our drinking time invented the coupon. Like Barnum and Franklin, this person understood the basic American concern for value. We super-size meals not because fast food is so damn good but because it lends the appearance of more for less.
Thus our Burning Question this week addresses a couple of things fundamental to our culture. We seek spectacle, no matter how contrived. At the same time, Americans expend great amounts of time and effort in the hunt for bargains, whether or not we actually need the item on sale.
Dallas-area bars and restaurants almost overload our desire for both buzz and value, offering drink specials, tasting menus, ladies nights, all-you-can-eat deals and so on. Some, such as the Tuesday-night margarita special at Primo's, become institutions. Arcodoro & Pomodoro started a series of quite popular Thursday happy hours offering discounted Skyy cocktails. "It's $3 a drink, free food--you can't beat that," says Brian, sipping blue and red concoctions at last week's event. He was visiting the Italian bar-restaurant for the first time.
"With gimmicks, you're trying to attract a crowd that doesn't always go out," says Adam Salazar, bartender at Republic and other venues.
Yet some people consider special nights and other gimmicks as an inconvenience, or even a sham. Joyce, drinking at Arcodoro & Pomodoro, refuses to visit Primo's on a Tuesday. "Certainly I can afford a margarita there on a Wednesday rather than having slush spilled on me by the stand-and-model crowd," she says with some scorn. Matthew, poet laureate of Dallas nightlife, echoes her thoughts. "Ask around for the hottest [fill in the blank] night," he challenges. "You won't get an answer. It's an act of desperation, and nobody is fooled."
Certainly some events work while others falter miserably. Places like Stolik refuse to drop prices, even for happy hour. "The people we're afraid we'll attract are those looking for cheap drinks," says Will Morgan of Champps in Las Colinas, explaining the strategy. "There are a lot of promos," adds Judd Fruia, general manager at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, "but you have to identify the crowd. Does it fit the concept?" Instead of lowering prices, Fruia opts for the occasional high-end show of extravagance: 20-pound crabs for $850, for example, or $75 hamburgers.
Hmmm...just which way is the egress?
Ultimately, according to Morgan, bar and restaurant gimmicks suit two purposes. "There's one for when you're mixing it up for your regulars, and one for when you're dying."
In its first convulsions of death, a bar or restaurant will often resort to price-slashing events or theme nights. "The worst is service industry night," Salazar reports.
Not all price-cutting measures signify impending death. Champps in Las Colinas throws a karaoke party every Wednesday night, drawing elbow-bumping crowds. Ladies night at Cool River blends a circus-like atmosphere of free gifts, diamond giveaways, drink specials, live music and radio personalities (we happen to think highly of Mix 102.9's Anna DeHaro--cute, female...we're trying to think of any other qualifications that matter).
"Thursdays were slow until late," says Jack Freysinger, bar manager at Cool River. "Now from 4:30 on, we're busy. This is a case where the gimmick works."
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Creating a buzz on an otherwise off night represents the third purpose of a gimmick. "Cheap drinks on slow nights is rational," Matthew points out, "and there's a difference between subscribing to rational economic theory and a desperate act. You weren't going to make money that night anyway."
The industry often operates on narrow margins. In some cases, it makes sense to risk losses on one day in order to generate some future awareness. A solid establishment benefits from the occasional unique event or promotional night. On the other hand, gimmicks rarely save a dying establishment.
So why all the gimmicks? Our answer to this week's Burning Question refers back to Barnum squeezing in the few extra patrons and Franklin outlasting the competition with a mere show. Restaurants and bars often teeter on razor-thin margins.
Or, as Glenn Hartzell of Stolik points out (although it was probably a reference to our tip), "A lot of people don't realize it, but this is a business of nickels and dimes."