That's right, Chicago - that toddlin' town where Al Capone and bootleg liquor are part of the civic mythology , is drying up. A recent Associated Press story reported: "The city that once boasted as many 7,600 taverns in the early 1900s has just over 1,300 today."
Mayor Richard Daley has been closing up taverns just as fast as he can. Especially targeted, it seems, are the neighborhood "joints"' the kinds of places where coin-operated music and games are most welcome. Chicago wants upscale places , the chains, the high-toned establishments that spell "money"' places that, too often, are tough nuts for the amusements industry to crack.
Over the years, many inventive and creative manufacturers have tried to dream up products that would be welcome in upscale venues, and a few have managed to sneak in. The industry has seen countertops and jukeboxes in certain branded locations from TGI Friday's to Bennigan's, Buffalo Wild Wings, and even the bar at Red Lobster. You don't read much about these victories, though, because one of the secrets of success is flying under the radar. Manufacturers, distributors and operators who manage to crack a branded chain often fear that shouting about their achievement will cause a backlash that could lose them the account.
Industry leaders are convinced that we have only scratched the surface of our potential market penetration in upscale taverns, branded restaurant chains and the like. What will it take to make our products welcome there? Based on the successes so far, the formula seems to require several components.
First, a sleek and jazzy product design is a must. Clunky cabinets are out; slender LCDs are in. Chrome is best; silver and black is okay; but the best cabinet of all is one that's invisible or non-existent. Second, the product should preferably be one with a recognizable brand name attached. The brand may be the location's, or it may be a license.
These first two trends are on view at an Irish tavern favored by VENDING TIMES' staff in New York City. There, every table is equipped with chrome-fitted, hi-tech monitors attached to the wall, so patrons can watch live horse races while they dine, yet there is no visible cabinet at each station. Instead, bets are made at a standalone unit. The brand? New York OTB (Off-Track Betting).
Third, the product should accept high-denomination bills or, better yet, credit cards. Operators tend to walk around with wads of cash in their pockets, thanks to collections. For this reason, many operators seem unaware that cash is steadily disappearing from the consumer market. Plastic is king. Today millions of consumers charge or debit absolutely everything they can; many rack up frequent flier miles in the process.
Fourth, the product needs to have a killer application. It should not be cluttered with I-can-do-everything-your-PC-can-do functions because that will lead to unnecessary confusion among patrons.
Fifth, the product should come with a promise that the operator will send someone every three days to clean it off with Windex, whether it needs cleaning or not. (It will.) Successful crane operators visit their machines that often. Operators of hi-tech machines in upscale tavern locations may have to learn the same routine.
Meanwhile, back in the Windy City, the mayor is backing a new ordinance that would make it easier than ever to close bars. The AP quoted John Kelly of Kelly's Pub as saying, "The neighborhood bar used to be the country club of the community. They've kind of gone by the wayside." The story noted that many other cities are also eliminating mom-and-pop bars.
Well, that's not news to this industry, but we've spent decades moaning and groaning about it. Isn't it time to come to terms with the new generation of taverns, bistros, sports bars and the like, and figure out better ways to do business where America wants to drink these days?