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Happy Hour: The Ultimate Guide

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If you own a bar or restaurant, “happy hour” is a phrase you’ve heard at some point. Whether or not you’ve hosted one of your own is a completely different story. 

Happy hours have been around for more than a century, and are still a popular way to attract new bar customers. People often come for the discounts and stay for the food and nightly entertainment. 

So, what is happy hour after all? Why are they so prevalent in bars, and how can you make yours worthwhile? Let’s start with the basics of happy hour and why they’re so important in the hospitality industry

What Is Happy Hour?

Happy hour is any period during bar and restaurant slow hours that is usually accompanied by drink deals or discounts. Most restaurants’ and bars’ slow hours are between 2 or 3 PM and 6 to 7 PM, when most people are still at work or school. 

Consider this: when are you normally socializing or sharing meals with friends and family? If you answered lunch, dinner, or late at night, you’re right on the money. These times during the day comprise most people’s social plans.

So what about the rest of the day? That’s exactly what happy hours are for.

Why Do Bars Have Happy Hour?

A happy hour increases a business’s headcount and profits between the two highest sales periods, which are dinner and lunch. Happy hours are one of the oldest limited time offers (LTOs), which prompts customers to make decisions quickly.

What Are Happy Hours Used For?

Happy hours are first associated with learning how to increase restaurant sales and secondarily with learning how to increase bar profits. Achieving both at the same time is even better. Hospitality businesses already have low profit margins, so whenever customers aren’t buying food and drink, net profit slows down or disappears for a while. 

This is why launching a happy hour soon after opening your business, and testing themes and activities, is so crucial. It encourages customers young and old to drop in, it’s a great way to liven up your establishment, and it incentivizes repeat business. 

Successfully launching or maintaining a happy hour is something to be proud of. It also means your supply will be depleted faster. If you need an easier way to stay on top of inventory, we have you covered.

BinWise is an all-in-one bar inventory management system and barcode scanner app for inventory that eliminates tiresome manual counting. Our software’s bar POS integrations, streamlined invoicing, and reporting tools provide all the data you need at a moment’s notice. Book a demo now to see how BinWise can help you.

With the basics under your belt, you’re probably thinking about when you can hold a happy hour. Relevant happy hour timing is critical to success, because this determines how likely people will be to show up. In the next section, we’ll look at when happy hours take place and how you can maximize its effects for your business.

What Time Is Happy Hour?

Happy hour is any single hour or period of time between about 2 or 3 PM in the afternoon to 6 or 7 PM at night. Late afternoon is when most people are finishing their workday or school, and this creates a drop in bar and restaurant sales. 

You can hold a happy hour that’s four to five hours long, but it’s better to keep it shorter. Most happy hours are literally one hour long, or two to three at most. This is for several reasons: 

  1. Shorter happy hours prompt urgency and scarcity in customers’ minds. When people only have a brief opportunity to do something, they’re more likely to do it. Concise happy hours are a perfect example of this. You can offer 30% off all food ordered, which is a psychological pricing technique, or a lighthearted competition to win free beer. 
  2. Brief happy hours meet people’s expectations. A happy hour that’s one or two hours long fits people’s expectations, because most people only drop in for a drink or two. If they see that your happy hour is the entire time between lunch and dinner, they may be confused as to what the point is.
  3. Short happy hours keep your supply levels healthy. While you should strive to have a profitable bar on a daily basis, you should also maintain accurate par stock. Par level allows you to fulfill customers’ orders without wasting money on excess inventory. You can also use a perpetual inventory system to discover the popularity level of drinks at your bar.

As for happy hour inventory, calculate roughly how many drinks you’ll need with a simple formula. It looks like this: 

Number of anticipated happy hour drinkers x 2 x 0.86 x 2 = total drinks needed

About 86% of bar-goers drink alcoholic beverages, and it’s important to account for some drinking more than average.

Happy Hour Ideas Based on Time

Sometimes you don’t need to reinvent the wheel; you just need to see what worked for other people. This is absolutely true of planning your happy hour time blocks. Take a look at these happy hour concepts based on different times of the day:

  • Steep appetizer discounts during late afternoon (3 PM to 5 PM). If there are big discounts on popular appetizers, people have a reason to stay later or show up earlier. Appetizers are usually inexpensive so you can still profit a little, and it encourages people to buy food when they’d otherwise wait for dinner. 
  • Discount some popular drinks on your lowest traffic day(s). Look at your beverage sales and find out which day or two have the lowest sales. Next, calculate the inventory consumption for your drinks and find a few popular ones. Discount one or two of them during your low traffic periods, while leaving enough profit on top of the drinks’ cost percentage. Your customers now have a good reason to visit your restaurant or bar more often. 

Locking in a good time for happy hour brings you one step closer to bigger profits. The next step is identifying some drinks that customers will love. 

You can use beverages that are already on your menu, create new ones, or use a combination of these approaches. No matter which route you take, using some popular cocktails is essential. Guests will be happy and more inclined to make bigger purchases.

Keep reading for what we’d put on our own happy hour drinks menu.

Happy Hour Drinks

Whether your establishment is upscale, laid back, or somewhere in between, you should offer drinks that match. Most bars and restaurants offer variations of at least some of the drinks you’ll find below.

Here are our recommendations on several happy hour drink types: 

Happy Hour Cocktails

You simply can’t beat popular cocktail recipes when it comes to happy hour drinks. Below are a couple cocktails with broad appeal that you can use any time:

  • Cranberry sparkling vodka. Offer your customers this tart, crisp drink at your next happy hour. Make it with a base of sparkling water or soda, one shot vodka, two shots cranberry juice, a splash of lime juice, some cranberries, and optional ice.
  • Greyhound. The classic greyhound is vodka or gin mixed with grapefruit juice. It’s a simple drink that’s easy to make and helps keep your cost percentage low. Great for people who love a fruity burst in their alcoholic beverage.

Wine Happy Hour

Wine is a much-loved beverage that works just as well for happy hours as cocktails and beer. Here are a few wine types that make for profitable happy hours: 

  • Rosé. Rosé is refreshing and light, yet comes in so many different flavors. Between dry and semi-sweet rosé are flavors you’re likely familiar with, like grenache, sangiovese, blush rosé, and vin gris. 
  • Red wine. Including red wine in your happy hour menu is a smart call, especially if your establishment is high-end. Red wines are stronger and sometimes spicier than their white and rosé counterparts. 
  • White wine. Those new to drinking wine tend to prefer white wine for its greater breadth of flavor and higher sweetness. White wines can be dry, semi-sweet, or sweet, and are great on their own or with meals. Include some riesling, chardonnay, garganega, or pinot blanc to offer guests variety. 

Happy Hour Liquor

Every high-demand, liquor-based drink depends on ingredient ratios. Here are a few happy hour liquor recipes to keep the patrons coming and the dollars flowing:

  • Martini. The martini is one of the simplest, yet most popular types of drinks at a happy hour. Make one with one part vermouth, three parts vodka, some ice, and a lemon or olive garnish. 
  • Moscow mule. The Moscow mule is one of the most popular liquor recipes of all time, and also counts as a cocktail. To make one, combine half a cup of ginger beer, one and a half ounces of vodka, half an ounce of lime juice, some ice, and garnish with lime. 
  • Aperol spritz. If you want to give your guests even more variety, include an aperol spritz. It happens to be one of the drinks every bartender should know. The aperol spritz is prosecco, carbonated water, and bitters. The aperol spritz was invented in Italy and makes a refreshing afternoon or early evening drink. 

Happy Hour Beer

Want to take a sure shot for your first (or next) happy hour--pun intended? Make it all about beer. Here are two happy hour beer variations to consider: 

  • Beer-garitas. Yep, you read that correctly. A beergarita is a margarita that uses beer instead of tequila. Beergaritas are made with one cup of beer, two cups of water, one half cup tequila, one quarter cup sugar, some crushed ice, two cups of raspberries, and three tablespoons of lime juice. Put it all into a blender, mix it up, and you’re ready to serve. 
  • Pub nog. The best combination of a classic winter drink with your favorite beer is pub nog. Most pub nog recipes are the same as the classic holiday beverage, but with a barley beer instead of brandy. Once you have the milk, cream, sugar, and eggs, toss in some nutmeg and cloves for the final touch. 

Once you’ve picked a happy hour time, engineered your drink menu, and know which date you’re launching, most of your happy hour planning is done. The one objective left is choosing a theme, hosting a band, or whichever activity you want to draw people in with. 

It’s just your luck because we’ve compiled some of the most profitable happy hour ideas. Continue reading to find out what they are and start envisioning your bar holding one. 

Happy Hour Ideas

There’s no right or wrong concept for a happy hour; only what you're interested in doing and what your guests love. Get your marketing juices flowing with these proven happy hour ideas: 

Host a Paint-and-Sip, AKA Wine & Painting Night

For a happy hour event idea that’s more than just one hat- or jar-chosen participant, try your hand at a full-on paint-and-sip night. Buy a pack of cotton paper for watercolor painting, which is less expensive than canvas and acrylic or oil paint. Hand everyone a few brushes, a glass of water (to clean the brushes in), and a small palette of watercolor paint. Then pull up a painting tutorial from YouTube and let everyone go nuts.

Video Game Challenge

This one hinges on having a TV. Set up a video game, something simple like Mario. If someone beats a level without dying, they get a free drink. This is not only fun for the gamer, but for the crowd who cheers on the gamer. People love paying attention to the same thing and reacting to it as a group. Sports are a case in point.

Host a Pop-Up Restaurant

Similar to the above idea, but you’ll team up with a local restaurant. Invite them to come in and set up a mobile kitchen or catering table. Then let them serve happy hour bites for a few hours while your bar runs a few reasonable discounts.

Late Night Happy Hour

Weeknights from 5 to 7 PM isn’t the only time bars are actively trying to boost traffic. Happy hours after 10 PM are about trying to get people to stay in your bar, not show up in the first place. People who have already been drinking tend to relax into cheaper, easier drinks as time goes on. Drop domestic draft beer pricing and the house wine bottle price. And if you have some greasy appetizers, make it half price in the name of sobering up.

Music-Based Theme

Offer this for happy hour: $3 domestic drafts, $4 house wines, and bad vibes.

Wait, bad vibes?

Ah, you see, it’s all a part of your Angry Happy Hour. You play punk or metal music for 2 hours while selling discounted alcohol.

Try it with other kinds of music, too. Like a sad happy hour for blues.

Whiskey Shot with a Pickleback

This happy hour drink idea involves a pickleback! That’s a shot of pickle juice taken after a shot of something else. Chasing liquor with pickle juice is fun and delicious. Lots of people still think it’s a really weird thing to do, but the vinegar in pickle juice is arguably the perfect chaser. Give everyone a chance to experience the magic and price whiskey shots $2 cheaper if they’re ordered with a pickleback.

A Drink, a Shot, and Nuts

If you think about it, a drink, a shot, and nuts has everything. Here’s how it goes: you take the shot, chase it with a swig of beer, then you eat some nuts. Appetite sated by shot and swig, you settle into a leisurely cadence of sipping and crunching until your beer and nuts are no more. Extra points if this special is $5. Extra extra points if the nuts are spiced in-house.

The Best Happy Hour Is a Daily One

When you first launch a happy hour, don’t take it personally if attendance is less than expected. Happy hours are inherently social, and it takes time for word to spread from your regular customers to new ones. 

No matter what time of year you’re holding a happy hour, use this guide to generate more profits and keep things fresh. Customers love variety, and between all of the recommendations in this blog post, you’ll never run dry on ideas.