One of the best barometers of the drinks business may well be the people on the front lines: the bartenders. These men and women see first-hand the traffic coming through the door and personally observe the demeanor and decision-making process of those across the bar from them.
Technomic’s fourth-quarter 2011 BarTrender survey yielded nearly 600 responses from professionals working as bartenders or directly responsible for preparing adult beverages. These bar pros are reporting some positive trends:
• In December, business was average to above average across all segments. In casual dining full-service restaurants, 68% of bartenders reported business was average and 24% cited above average business in December. Sports bar bartenders also reported positive business trends at year end (33% average, 65% above average) and hotel/resort bartenders cited a strong December, with 29% saying business is average and 43% claiming above average business.
• Year-over-year, traffic is improving, according to these barkeeps, with half reporting increases and 41% citing consistent traffic. Declines were reported by 8% of survey respondents. Traffic in casual dining was observed to increase by 45% of bartenders in that segment, with 43% citing no change in traffic from 12 months ago. The majority of bartenders in upscale/fine-dining establishments and sports bars saw significant increases in traffic — 68% and 60%, respectively.
• Tips appear to be on the rise; 33% of total respondents report increases in tips compared with six months ago, while 54% said tip amounts are holding steady. The highest percentages of lower tips, however, occur among bartenders in fine dining and hotel/resorts, where 29% and 23%, respectively, are seeing tips dwindle. This likely is caused by price sensitivity among those guests.
• More than half (57%) of BarTrender participants expect business to improve during the next six months.
While optimism appears to be returning to the ranks of the front lines, bartenders continue to be concerned about the impact of rising costs and consumer frugality on their business.
How do these bartenders’ observations and expectations compare with other industry metrics? Technomic is projecting 2.8% nominal growth (factoring in 2.5% menu price inflation) for total restaurants and bars in 2012, anticipating 3% nominal growth in full-service restaurants and 2% in bars and taverns. In real growth terms, we see total restaurants and bars achieving a 0.3% increase this year — the first real growth since 2007. Among the challenges facing the industry, the impact of rising gas and food costs on consumer dining-out habits continues to rank high.
Technomic will continue to track what bartenders are seeing and experiencing through our BarTrender survey. Their cautious optimism indicates that, just as we’ve advocated, those multi-unit bar and restaurant operators who continue to deliver on value and experience will see performance improve in 2012.