Whether moving to retail, delivering bottled cocktails, or hosting virtual masterclasses, bar owners have had to find new means to stay afloat during the Covid-19 pandemic. Business owners have been forced out of their comfort zones to generate revenue in ways they could not have previously anticipated. IWSR explores which of these pivots have proved to be most successful, and which will remain in the mid- and long-term.
"I think the one thing 2020 has taught us is that you need to diversify your income," says Monica Berg, co-founder of London bar Tayer + Elementary, which opened in 2019. "All these lockdowns have also changed our behaviours, and how we will eat and drink in the future."
Bottle shops and cocktail deliveries
To mitigate losses incurred during lockdown, Tayer + Elementary received its licence to operate as a shop last year, known in the UK as an 'off-license permit'. The team subsequently opened its retail store, called Off Liceence, selling a range of bottled cocktails as well as a rotating selection of beers, wines and other items. The Off Liceence store operates as both an online marketplace and brick and mortar shop at Tayer + Elementary's Old Street premises.
"The Off Liceence has been a good way to keep in touch with the local community," says Berg. "By no means does it make up for a shut bar, but it minimises the loss and at least gives you a higher chance to make it through."
The team also began selling its own-brand RTDs through online retailers such as Master of Malt, The Whisky Exchange, and House of Botanicals, and through national retailers such as Selfridges and local shops including Shop Cuvée.
Offering RTDs has been part of Tayer + Elementary's business plan "since day one", says Berg, though plans have been accelerated during the pandemic, and the offering will continue after lockdown eases.
In response to new consumer habits developed during lockdown - namely, experimental home-drinking and increased demand for convenient pre-bottled options - the team behind London bar Homeboy is set to launch The Bottle Cocktail Shop, both online and as a physical store. The store will offer its own original-recipe pre-mixed cocktails, as well as a selection of spirits, wines, beers and hard seltzers, and will also collaborate with a number of highly-regarded cocktail bars around the world to create beverages.
The new business will have a heavy focus on education and will strive to make cocktails more accessible through an easy-to-navigate store layout and a colour-coded menu that will guide buyers through the different cocktail profiles. This will cater to audiences that, after becoming more proficient in cocktail-making throughout lockdown, have developed a desire to understand beverages and their ingredients on a deeper level.
In the UK acclaimed London cocktail bar Swift launched a cocktail delivery service last year. According to co-founder Bobby Hiddleston, Swift had not seriously considered launching this type of service before the pandemic struck, since "there was nowhere near the market for it than there is now, so it would have been difficult to make it financially viable".
However, during lockdown cocktail deliveries have been "really important" in allowing Swift to "create a stream of revenue" and "give hours to [staff members] who couldn't be furloughed," says Hiddleston. "It has also allowed us to continue to engage with our guests and regulars, where otherwise we would have lost contact."
As the UK eases out of lockdown, Swift will continue to offer cocktail deliveries since "there is still a number of people who will be very tentative to go out and return to 'normal', and we don't want anybody to feel like they are missing out by being safe," Hiddleston adds.
Virtual masterclasses and digital brand building
Other venues have experienced success in combining deliveries of cocktail kits with online masterclasses. London-based TT Liquor - a multifaceted establishment that includes a cocktail bar and spirits store, and offers a variety of cocktail and spirits masterclasses - launched a programme of virtual tutorials in response to lockdown measures.
The team aimed to make the virtual classes as interactive as possible, explains Stephen Thompson, director of mixology events at TT Liquor. "We wanted to offer our guests a solution to our existing cocktail classes with the same high standard we strive for, but we also wanted to offer the experience to new guests in the hope of [providing] security for our team and our existing business."
As part of the virtual offering, customers receive a box of ingredients and equipment before they are taught various mixology techniques and guided through cocktail creation. The success of the programme meant TT Liquor could bring its core staff back from furlough, and even needed to triple the size of its team towards the end of last year to meet demand. The business has also managed to expand internationally for the first time, says Thompson.
"The virtual classes have allowed us to grow our reach. nationally [and] internationally. catering [to] individuals and teams who are not just isolated in the UK but separated globally," adds Thompson. "Their long-term value will hopefully give us stability as we try and navigate reopening our industry."
Virtual classes both in the UK and international markets will become a core part of TT Liquor's portfolio in the long-term. The team will also expand its online offering to include a series of spirit tastings, says Thompson. "We are really proud of the standard of our virtual experiences and will continue to keep improving and tweaking [them]." TT Liquor has also used its virtual classes to promote its in-person events, in particular its planned schedule of UK-wide pop ups.
For Inception Group - which owns and operates experiential London hospitality businesses such as the Mr Fogg's, Bunga Bunga and Cahoots venues - it was essential to maintain an interactive conversation with customers via social media content during lockdown. "I think what it did was ensure that we stayed central to a lot of our current market's thoughts so when it became possible to book to return we were top of their list," explains Simon Allison, head of marketing at Inception Group.
During lockdown, Inception Group enhanced its digital brand building focus through online talks, tastings and other events. The success of this content, says Allison, has provided valuable lessons that will inform the group's long-term strategy. "We have always believed the customer journey exists far beyond the bricks and mortar of a site," says Allison. "Our best businesses are the ones where our patrons feel a sense of ownership and pride in what we do, they are ambassadors and more."
Allison adds that the pandemic has also "shone a light on what more we can do with digital and also the gaps where digital simply can't replace or mimic that in-person experience. Personally I have also noticed which of our brands we have the best connections with and others we need to work harder on."
Inception Group has also launched cocktail boxes, which Allison says will continue to be offered in the longer term. However, he acknowledges that competition among such products and services has grown exponentially over the past year, and demand may diminish as lockdown measures are lifted. "[The] best will survive and perhaps grow. but I think a lot of the offerings will wash away as demand and expectations change."
For bar owners and operators, there are a number of successful initiatives launched in response to lockdown measures that will remain credible business-drivers in the coming months and even years as consumer behaviour evolves throughout the pandemic and beyond.
In the UK, for example, IWSR consumer research data shows that between summer 2020 and winter 2020, significant increases were seen in comfort levels surrounding working in an office or travelling in a taxi / car-sharing service. However, comfort levels around socialising in small groups fell away significantly, primarily driven by the growing Covid-19 case numbers through Q4 2020. As the vaccine roll-out continues, consumer behaviour will likely evolve further - IWSR is currently tracking how the pandemic is shaping consumer behaviour over a 2-year period, as part of its global Covid-19 Consumer Tracker study.
As consumer sentiment and lockdown restrictions change, venues will need to consistently monitor demand, putting to use their newfound flexibility. In a post-Covid-19 environment, many will face the difficult task of both supporting consumers' new sense of self-sufficiency through offerings such as RTDs and tutorials, while also encouraging them back to their venues.