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As 'Mom 'n Pop' Bar Businesses Experience Upswing, Opportunity For Industry Abounds

Posted On: 3/25/2003

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U.S.A. - For decades it seemed that mom and pop, independent neighborhood taverns were disappearing. From the 1970s on, the type of location that provided the mainstay of many music and amusement routes was steadily replaced by regional and national chains, sports bars, and yuppie bars. Mom and pop bars were also battered by strict DUI enforcement, or literally knocked down by urban renewal projects. But this downward spiral has apparently ended. According to experts who keep a close eye on the American tavern industry, neighborhood taverns are doing well these days'and some of the reasons are surprising.

"Sept. 11 had a huge [positive] impact on mom and pop taverns: people wanted to stay closer to home, with many choosing to frequent neighborhood taverns," explains Amy Lorton, executive editor and vice-president of publishing of Nightclub & Bar Magazine (Oxford, MS). The publisher sponsors The International Night Club & Bar Trade Show (March 24-26, Las Vegas Convention Center). Lorton reported that in the wake of terrorist attacks 18 months ago, "This trend [of more patronage] continues and sales are up for neighborhood bars and clubs. The majority of our show attendees are owners of mom and pop bars, clubs, restaurants and retail outlets. With such a large increase in our attendance, it shows that mom and pops are doing well."

Other key trends identified by Lorton: the drive toward a much-heralded "zero tolerance" policy for DUI appears to have faded away in most states. Meanwhile, anti-smoking campaigns continue to ratchet up across America , although Lorton noted that pro-smoking groups are increasingly organizing to fight proposed smoking bans, and even when they pass, enforcement is spotty. Supper clubs and Latino-flavored locations are on the increase. And, the trend of recent years for customers to drink less, but spend more on higher-quality beverages, remains steady.

The number of establishments that are licensed for on-site liquor consumption in America remains fairly stable at around 300,000 locations, the editor said. If anything, there appears to be a slight growth curve, Lorton noted, particularly for super clubs , defined as a single location that combines a restaurant, sports bar, bar, and nightclub all under one roof. Coin-op games and music equipment "remains very important, especially with the increasing number of super clubs , the majority offer coin-op," said Lorton. "We also are seeing an increasing number of rooftop bars at hotels."

Looking at bar customer demographics, Lorton confirmed that recent years have seen a steady annual increase in the number of 21-year-olds, amounting to perhaps 5% annual growth in the market. She also said the bar industry is being impacted by "the huge growth of the Latino population in America, which is now [America's] largest minority. More and more Latino clubs are opening and even non-Latino clubs and bars are catering to this market," she stated.

As for beverage sales overall, the adult beverage industry has described the trend of recent years as steady sales despite lower per-capita consumption. Americans are said to be "drinking less but drinking better." Lorton said this trend remains in effect. "Beverage sales remain steady but for a different reason [than steady per-capita consumption]," she said. "Customers are buying quality (higher-end spirits and beers) over quantity."

The growth of the supper club niche reflects a larger trend within the tavern industry, Lorton said: in recent years, the food and beverage markets have increasingly merged. Restaurants have increased their bar business; bars are offering more food. "What is driving this trend," said Lorton, "is that Americans are reducing the number of times they go out , working more, playing less. It used to be standard that bars and especially clubs could count on busy nights at least five or six days a week. This no longer holds true. It is now more of a Wednesday to Saturday night business, with the weekends remaining the busiest. To keep business, bars and clubs are offering more food, lunches and dinners and morphing into a club for late night business."

The role of coin-op games and music in on-site consumption establishments is growing, Lorton asserted. "The days of taverns just offering a fine drink and maybe having a TV on are fast disappearing," she said. "Today's young adults need to be entertained."

Yet the editor sees a need for stronger relationships between tavern owners and amusement operators. "I believe there is not enough interaction" between the bar market and the amusements industry, she said. "Bar and club owners are not getting the information they need, especially on the mom and pop level. We receive calls on a weekly basis from [tavern owners] trying to find out how to buy a certain coin-op game, etc. Chains and larger operations are much more aware of what's out there."

Joint promotions between operators and taverns have resulted in a noticeable increase in tournaments in more and more locations, Lorton said, from billiards to interactive racing games. Classic video games, such as "Frogger" or "Galaga," have also become especially popular, and this trend is seen most clearly in bar and club chains.

At press time, pre-registration for this year's NC&B Show was up a stunning 50% over last year (the winter 2002 edition of that show drew 32,340 attendees who visited 900 exhibitors in some 1,500 booths). One week before the show opens, Lorton said show organizers had no indications that the looming war with Iraq would impact attendance. "However, like everyone else, we are concerned," she allowed. "More than half our attendees are from the West Coast, so many are driving or may choose to drive instead of fly. We haven't had any cancellations as far as exhibitors."

More information is available from Nightclub & Bar Magazine online at