It's always 5 o'clock somewhere. But when it's 5 o'clock at your bar or restaurant, you want to be prepared. Happy hour events are popular tools to get guests through the door during times and days that are typically low-traffic. Drink deals or discounts on food items are usually the incentive, but there are plenty of creative ways to draw in guests during the fallow period before prime time.

While happy hour isn't season-specific, summer is a great time to put a little extra effort into guest traffic. If you're lucky enough to have a patio space or outdoor seating area, happy hour can help maximize table turns in that section. Whether summer is boom time for your restaurant or you're on a quest to boost sales, pilot a happy hour to see the impact on your sales.

From the happy hour menu to deals to special events and marketing, here are some ideas to attract a crowd and ensure everyone leaves happy (and comes back soon).

What is happy hour?

There's nothing new or innovative about social drinks after work. Happy hour promotions became popular in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, when young professionals would flood bars and restaurants to take advantage of drink specials. There was also a backlash against happy hour—some associated the events with excess drinking and debauchery.

Massachusetts succeeded in banning happy hour in 1983, a statute that exists to this day. Bars and restaurants that serve alcohol are prohibited from offering promotions like BOGO deals or "all you can drink" hours, nor can they host games or contests where alcohol is a prize.

Alongside Massachusetts, happy hour is illegal in 7 other states. 25 states have some sort of restriction on happy hour, and only 20 states have no restrictions whatsoever. Depending on where you operate, there may be some restrictions around the promotions, duration, and times of your happy hour event. Consult a professional and make sure you're aware of state and local laws. Otherwise, your happy hour could turn sad very quickly.

With a bar POS or brewery POS system, you can add pricing events to take the guesswork out of discounts (and make sure that happy hour really does end at 6 pm).
photo of man and woman mixing beverages
Prioritize simple cocktails for your happy hour menu. Photo by Crew / Unsplash

Happy hour ideas for bars

Your bar might serve food, but people come for the drinks, ambiance, and camaraderie. Here are some tips for a successful happy hour to bring in more revenue (and fun).

1. Low-cost house cocktails

For bartenders, speed is everything. You don't want your bartender getting tied up with a queue of unique cocktails. Incentivize happy hour guests by offering deals on specific cocktails that are simple to make or can be easily batched. Think beyond the typical well drink by adding a creative twist. Think a "dirty" rum and coke (Coca-Cola, heavy cream, coconut syrup, lime, rum) or a cold brew tini (cold brew, vodka, coffee liqueur).

2. Beer pitchers

During happy hour, pitchers are a bartender's best friend. Less fussy than cocktails and great for groups, beer pitchers are the perfect candidate for discounts. Offer workweek deals on pitchers to bring in the post-work happy hour goers.

3. Collaborate with local businesses on a pop-up

Happy hours are about increasing sales, but you also want to get customers excited about supporting your bar over the bevy of other options. If your bar is drinks-focused and has no or a limited food menu, collaborate with a local restaurant, chef, or catering business on a pop-up. You can access their loyal guests and social media following. They find a place to get their brand out there and serve delicious food.

Work with the restaurant to devise a simple pop-up menu that's feasible, given your bar's kitchen or workspace. It's always fun to add a gourmet twist to traditional bar happy hour foods like mozzarella sticks and soft pretzels, and a taco station never disappoints.

4. Rotating beer specials

Craft beers from local breweries are premium products, meaning you can get a high margin even with a discount. Highlighting a different brewery or type of beer each happy hour or rotating by the month can keep things interesting and profitable.

If your guests prefer more humble domestic beers, there's a deal for that too. Half-price bottles during happy hour can be enough to get the ale-inclined through the door.

5. Finger foods for all

If you want to ensure your happy hours are profitable, offer deals on food instead of drinks. Stick to typical happy hour food, shareable dishes, and high-margin items that pair well with mixed drinks and beer.

happy hour sign
Find the happy hour time that works for your guests and your staff. Photo by Samuel Regan-Asante / Unsplash

Happy hour ideas for restaurants

If you run a full-service restaurant, happy hour can help you achieve that elusive third table turn by getting guests in the door earlier. You'll want to be strategic about when you organize happy hour events. If your prime time is between 6:30 and 8:30 pm, make sure your happy hour is over by 6 pm at the latest so you're not offering discounts to guests who would happily pay full price.

It's not all about the benjamins—happy hour is a great time to try out new menu items before they hit your permanent menu, host special events, and cater to different guests who might become loyal new customers.

6. Half-price wine nights

Restaurants and bars often price wine at a significant markup. Discounting this price on a night when you're trying to drive more traffic is a great idea. It gives guests a great deal (rule 1 of happy hour ideas: the better the deal seems, the more customers you might bring in) without sacrificing an excess of high-margin wine bottles due to the deal's limited nature.

7. Free appetizers

Few things make restaurant customers happier than free food. It logically follows that some free food items will guarantee a very happy hour indeed. Treating happy hour guests to a complimentary appetizer is a great idea—however, you might want to add some restrictions depending on what that free appetizer will cost you. To ensure you recoup costs, add restrictions that require guests to order an entree or hit a drink minimum. Though odds are when guests sample the appetizers they'll want to stay for the main course.

8. Prix-fixe menu

The set menu, or prix-fixe, is a natural fit for fine dining concepts. But even if you're not serving lobster and smoked salmon, creating a fixed happy hour menu can add a jolt of inspiration to your happy hour menu ideas. A fixed happy hour menu is a great idea if your restaurant caters to theater guests or other event-goers. They get a delicious full meal while making it to their seats in time (and if they're super pressed for time, they can order ahead).

9. Discounts on menu items

Strategic discounts can extend past appetizers. Select a different menu item to discount for every happy hour of the week. This helps you cater to customers with different tastes, move the produce when it's fresh, and showcase more food on your menu.

10. Drink specials

Restaurants can take a page out of the bar's book of happy hour menu ideas and craft a list of custom drink specials exclusive to happy hour customers. Offer deals on specific happy hour drinks and always pair them with some delicious salty snacks to get the party started. Having fun on a Tuesday? It's not unheard of.

sliced bread on white ceramic plate
Shareable apps can make any hour happy. Photo by Tim Toomey / Unsplash

Happy hour event ideas

Happy hour incentives don't have to be all about the food and drinks. Hosting happy hour events is another method for bringing in more business when your bar or restaurant is otherwise quiet. Of course, the happy hour specials are always a welcome addition.

11. Trivia night

Many bars host trivia nights, partnering with third-party trivia companies or even creating their own quizzes. Reward the winning team with a round of free shots or a gift card to a bar that they can use next time. Trivia night is a fun way to drive repeat business and get customers through the door (and drinks in hand) on a Tuesday or Wednesday.

12. Theme nights

Summer 2023 was all about Barbie, Beyonce, and Taylor Swift. Many small businesses found creative ways to speak to each respective fandom. Whether it's a popular movie release, a band coming to town, or just something going viral on TikTok, playing off that pop culture phenomenon with themed happy hour events. It doesn't have to be about the deals. You could decorate your bar or restaurant to match the happy hour themes or host a contest for the best-inspired costume.

13. Live entertainment

If you have the capacity and necessary permits, live entertainment can be a big draw. Hosting a local band or musician for your next happy hour event can get your customers to stick around for one more round of drinks or even a meal. Plus, tapping someone local means they'll probably invite their friends, who will add to the crowd.

14. Capitalize off of local events

You don't have to be located across from an MLB field or massive concert venue to get momentum from local events. As you're planning happy hours, get a sense of what's happening in your area and think about what will resonate with those attendees. If it's a big country music star, maybe your staff dons cowboy boots and pours a free domestic beer when you show a valid ticket. Note the time of the event. A successful happy hour usually starts 2 – 3 hours before. While you might usually shy away from weekend happy hours, this is the one time to consider deals on drinks or dinner for event attendees.

15. Host an art show

Not all customers are planning their dinner schedule around the big game. For the artistically inclined, consider hosting an art show for a local artist. Display their artwork in your restaurant, and perhaps offer a free drink with the purchase of a piece. If no one else shows, the artist's friends will be there (and they'll be at the next event, too. That's what friends are for).

16. Partner with a rec league sports team

Recreational sports are a hugely popular activity for young people in some cities. If your city has organized leagues, learn more about becoming a sponsor. The leagues might have different parameters, but usually, you'll give the team a good deal on drinks and maybe some free beer pitchers if they win the league. Catering to rec leagues is a great way to get regulars in on an off-peak night. Plus, those fried cheese bites always taste better after a game of softball.

17. Work from the bar

The increased popularity of working from home, or "WFH," has shifted working hours and changed office culture. Remote workers don't have to miss out on the crack of a cold beer when the clock hits 5 pm (or earlier on a Friday if you desire). Create an environment that's friendly for remote work by opening the shades and supplying outlets or extension cords. Don't leave all the fun for the coffee shops.

18. Singles mixer

People are feeling burnt out from dating apps and want to meet IRL. Make your bar or restaurant the ideal spot for a meet-cute by hosting a potential date night or singles mixer. Speed dating is out of vogue and energy-intensive, but you can still create a romantic atmosphere with some thoughtful ideas. Encourage people to mingle at the bar by sharing icebreaker questions with each drink that the patron must ask before the night is through. Or, host a "date my friend" night where BFFs pitch their friends as ideal partners (some even create PowerPoint presentations to prove their point).

Tiny's and the Bar Upstairs instagram
Tiny's and the Bar Upstairs shares details of their weekday happy hour.

Happy hour marketing ideas

After you create your happy hour ideas, you'll want to share details about the event far and wide to draw in customers. Here are some social media and other restaurant marketing ideas to promote your next happy hour.

19. Specials for loyal guests

At happy hour, everyone wins. But you can create opportunities for your most loyal guests to get something a little extra, like a free drink or glass of wine when others might get it half-priced or a free dessert of their choice. It's a great idea to combine your happy hours with your loyalty program to get customers redeeming their points during low-traffic periods for your restaurant. Select one that works in sync with your restaurant POS and apply rewards automatically. 

20. Spread the word on social media

Whether you're active on all platforms or you're just discovering your brand voice on social media, create posts sharing the details of your happy hours and what customers can expect when they come in. Make sure to post with enough advance notice so that guests can plan their week around attending your happy hour.

21. Collaborate with nearby offices

While office culture is in flux in many cities, people working in the office are still eager for places to gather after the work day is done. Promote your happy hour by spreading the word with nearby office buildings, by sharing fliers, or by encouraging office managers to let employees know about the great deals. And when it comes time for planning the holiday party, the office manager will know who to call.

22. Share exclusive deals

If you're trying to increase your follower count on Instagram, TikTok, or Facebook, start sharing social-exclusive deals that followers can redeem during happy hour. This could be a discount on a specific drink or even a free koozie from the merch store.

Urban Roast instagram
Urban Roast in DC promotes a Fourth of July happy hour.

Track your sales, and have fun

How to measure a successful happy hour? By the smiles on guests' faces, sure, but also by consulting your sales reports to compare sales. Keep track of what promotions move the needle. A signature cocktail might sound fun, but if it's not making you money then it's just a drain on your team's resources--it's not worth discounting. Find out what works best for your bar or restaurant. From the gimmicky to the highbrow, there's a happy hour for everyone.

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