Ever since Louis Glass first installed the very first nickel-in-the-slot music machine in San Francisco's Palais Royale Saloon exactly 120 years ago, taverns have been the most important locations for street operators. But the bar market has been under a ferocious assault for the past 25 years.
First came wave after wave of urban renewal with rolling crackdowns on liquor licenses. Today, there are fewer bars in mid-city Chicago than existed 100 years ago, despite a much larger population. Then came waves of ever-tougher DUI laws and enforcement. Seven states now require convicted offenders to install breath analyzer interlocks in their vehicles.
Next, the industry saw a demographic shift from a mostly working class population to a solidly middle class society – with a pronounced taste for upscale venues. Many neighborhood bars gave way to glitzy chains that often did not accept coin-op equipment. Goodbye, Duffy's Tavern … hello, T.G.I. Friday's.
In 1994, California banned smoking in bars. By now, more than half the U.S. population lives in jurisdictions where the same restriction applies.
And 14 months ago, America plunged into its worst economy since the Great Depression. For many street operators, it seemed the bottom finally fell out of their businesses. Beleaguered routes in the Midwest, for example, were reporting that revenues had plummeted as much as 30%.
But to paraphrase the classic Mark Twain quip, "News of the death of the neighborhood tavern has been greatly exaggerated." There's plenty of good news, too, if you know where to look. From coast to coast, classic neighborhood bars are still opening, and succeeding, every month. Classic pay-for-play equipment – the jukebox, pool table, videogame – plays a crucial role in these neighborhood tavern success stories, too.
If you visit downtown Wilmington, DE, these days, you'll find the nightlife is jumping thanks to three popular new bars opened in the past month alone. For example, a simple neighborhood joint called Famous Jack's Tavern is targeting "the average, everyday drinker." Major entertainment includes a digital jukebox and a 2010 Golden Tee Live with dedicated oversized monitor. (Nearby, the same owner has also successfully reopened Bank Shots, a pool hall and sports bar.)
In Minneapolis, the Lyndale Tap House has "found a winning formula" and is "buzzing with business," according to local press reports. It's an unpretentious place where the bar itself is the main attraction, stretching from one side of the room to the opposite wall. The menu features basic pub fare. A jukebox and photobooth provide music and entertainment services.
In Framingham, MA, a new family-owned tavern has arrived amid all the lookalike chains. Locals enjoy the authentic atmosphere of O'Connell's Pub, a family-friendly Irish pub and sports bar. Entertainment includes two touchscreen terminals, a bowling videogame and digital jukebox.
In addition to prominent coin-op staples, what these places have in common are owners who live in the area, know the people and genuinely want to provide affordable fun and food. The food, if they have any, is cheap but good (entrees cost $10 or less). The beverages are good and affordable ($3 beers, $4 drinks).
Another common element in these neighborhood tavern success stories is simple but powerful "theming." Famous Jack's features photos of, yes, famous people named Jack (Jack Nicholson and Jack Kennedy, among others). O'Connell's Pub celebrates Erin Go Bragh, starting with the exterior's emerald green siding and awning. Don't forget the leprechaun hat on the logo and the collection of Irish flags inside – right next to all the local sports team banners and framed photos of beloved Boston sports celebs.
Importantly, the strong connection between location owners and tavern patrons is often expressed through the coin-op equipment. An amusing example was recently seen at Fox & Hounds, a classic tavern in Washington, DC. Hardly a new location, Fox & Hounds made local headlines this fall when the owner asked his jukebox operator to remove the digital machine and put back the location's old CD box. Why? Because the CD box restricted the music choices to programming that was popular with the staff and regular patrons. (With the downloading box, it appears, too many transient customers played five-hour blocks of Madonna, annoying the regulars.)
VT does not recommend this solution, especially since the CD juke is making less money than the digital machine. As we have reported many times in these pages, professional operators use the digital programming capabilities of downloading jukeboxes to enhance the patron-pleasing, customized playlists that contribute to a location's unique atmosphere. Still, Fox & Hounds offers a powerful reminder that custom music programming remains a key to successful jukebox operation.
As we close the book on a challenging year for the U.S. economy, and for the amusement and music industry, it's encouraging to realize that – in the words of the old song – "the fundamental things apply, as time goes by." People will always love a good neighborhood tavern. Music, pool, darts and video, among other staple amusements, will always be a crucial part of the successful entertainment mix in these classic locations.