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Restaurants Hope Upscale Happy Hours Inspire Customer Loyalty, Bring Repeat Business


February 27, 2009

Sit down at the so-chic Max Downtown on Asylum Street in Hartford, and place your order.

Ahi Tuna Sashimi with cucumber salad. Kung Pao Shrimp with Asian vegetables and sesame vinaigrette, house-made Cajun potato chips and Black Angus beef sliders with cheddar cheese and house-made pickles. Total cost: $8.

Or head over to the stylish Dulce on Trumbull Street. Fill up on short ribs with mango chutney and french fries, a pepperoni stone pie and a plate of calamari. Thirsty? Add a couple of draft beers. Total cost: $16.

Welcome to fine bargain dining, "happy hour"-style.

As upscale and mid-range restaurants vie for a piece of a shrinking consumer leisure dollar, the creative juices are flowing. The answer to getting people in the door? Take the tried-and-true happy hour in the bar or lounge area, and make it about more than the booze.

"It's a win-win; you can't eat this cheap at McDonald's," says Peter Guimaraes, whose happy-hour food specials at Dulce also include grilled chicken breast and bacon sandwiches and hamburgers on Portuguese rolls with fries for $4 when served in the lounge area between 4 and 7 p.m. daily.

"Financially speaking, it's products like bread, chicken and potatoes, so we are not losing money by serving it at really reduced prices. And it gets people in here, a lot of people," he says, noting the lounge area can hold 65 people. "Maybe they come for happy hour and get a look at the place and taste our food, and that will bring them back again for dinner."

For savvy diners, happy-hour specials are too good to pass up, especially at high-end places that offer a tony setting at affordable prices.

"I remember when happy hour meant maybe a drink after work on Fridays and a bowl of nuts," says Lauren Lamont, who now stops by Max Downtown a couple of times a week to take advantage of the $2 Tavern Menu specials offered in the bar from 4 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.

"Me and a couple of girlfriends can come by here and split four or five $2 plates, which is more than enough for dinner for us, splurge on a drink, have fun in an upscale place and name-drop that we had dinner at Max's," says Lamont, a secretary at a downtown business. "I have eaten more at Max's since the economy went bad than I ever did before."

Consumers with a hankering to go out to eat these days and don't mind a bar setting or an early dining hour can pick a restaurant, virtually any restaurant in the area, and find unusually low-priced after-work drink and food specials. Restaurant owners agree it's not just about making money. It's about holding on to a customer base during bad times, with hopes that when the economy bounces back, so will a more profitable business.

And it's not just happening in Connecticut.

"The happy-hour concept has become a lot more popular during the recession because people on a budget are trying to get more for less," says Bill Guilfoyle, who teaches food and restaurant marketing and promotion at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. "Adding gourmet offerings at lower price points, or just giving food away like they are a many mid- and low-tier restaurants for happy hour is going on all over the country.'

"Owners are not really trying to make money with the promotions, they just want to get people in the door and appear busy," Guilfoyle says, noting that even places like the elite Craftsteak restaurants owned by celebrity chef Tom Colicchio are offering $10 specials a couple of days a week. "An empty restaurant is the worst thing that can happen to a place. When a customer walks into a restaurant that is empty, it says the place is dead and dying and then that customer says, 'I won't be coming back'."

Getting traffic in the door is a major reason the new Abigail's Grill & Wine Bar, the former Pettibone's Tavern, in Simsbury has ratcheted up its happy hour offerings.

"We are offering half-price small plates that range from $2.50 to $4.50 as part of happy hour," says Markus Lehofer, general manager at Abigail's, where the bargain hours in its upstairs lounge are Monday through Thursday from 4 to 7 p.m. and Fridays from 4 to 6 p.m. Chicken wings, calamari, garlic/Gorgonzola bread, quesadillas and a trip of bruschetta are just some of the offerings for the those looking to eat on the cheap. The place also offers $3 beers and wines and $5 drink specials.

"We didn't want to miss the boat on this when we saw how many restaurants were offering happy-hour food specials. We have a fireplace, put in some couches and comfortable furniture, and a big-screen TV. We want to create a nice atmosphere, offer a financially attractive deal for diners and create a place where you can hang out for less than $20. We aren't making a lot of money from it but it is bringing people in."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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