Imagine a bar where you pay by the hour and drink as much as you wish. If you’re in St. Louis, Mo., wish no longer. In October, Open Concept launched, offering exactly this.
Guests arrive at Open Concept either having paid their $10-per-hour fee in advance on the bar’s website, or ready to pony up $10 and get their hour started. The clock starts ticking as soon as they buy their first drink. Everything’s tracked digitally, so using the guest’s name, the bartender can see how much time each guest has remaining to order beverages.
Guests at Open Concept can consume as much as they wish in an hour but can only purchase one drink at a time, receiving a text message when their time is up. Everyone must order their own drinks—no buying for friends. But if at the end of the hour the party’s still going strong, they can buy another 60 minutes by revisiting the hostess.
The idea for Open Concept was Michael Butler’s, who’s now the owner. He was a liquor buyer for Walmart many years back, right out of college, and more recently he’s been running fundraisers. “So, I combined my industry knowledge with my party promotion knowledge,” says Butler.
Beyond the obvious benefit of the ability to drink as much as you wish, Open Concept also offers guests other upsides: The speed in which drinks are delivered, for example, with no financial transaction taking place. To zoom things up even more, all cocktails—there are around 45—are made in batches. Bartenders don’t even add extras to drinks—there’s a flavor bar with items like strawberry puree, raspberry lemonade, orange juice, and Coca-Cola. So, the bartender might pour a shot of Pearl vodka, or other middle-of-the-road spirits, and the guests add their own extras. “You can make your drink as strong as you want and it keeps things moving quickly,” Butler explains.
There’s another drinking option for guests, too: They can upgrade to the $20-per-hour fee, for which they can order top-shelf liquors and some more choices in beer. To Butler’s amazement, about 30 percent of customers select this upgrade. “When we first opened, we thought it would be 10 percent to 15 percent of people, but some days it’s even one-third,” he says. Top-shelf cocktails are not batch-made.
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Most popular at Open Concept are liquor-based drinks. Beer does not sell nearly as well, and wine even less so.
Customers can tip in different ways at Open Concept. They can tip in advance when they buy their hour or they can do it the traditional way, using a tip jar on the bar. And guests have been tipping as usual, Butler says. However, he does pay his bartenders $10 per hour, a higher-than-usual rate “because our price point is lower and we can make sure they’re taken care of.”
Business at Open Concept has been much brisker than Butler anticipated. Before opening he did some social media marketing and some print marketing, but things ran away with themselves with lots of national media attention and 30,000 social media shares in the first week alone. “I expected it to catch on and for people to like it, but I didn’t expect us to have to turn away customers every weekend,” he says. “Our first week we turned away at least 300 customers and during our peak hours, if you haven’t booked online, you’re going to have to wait a bit.”
Open Concept does not serve food and Butler doesn’t intend to, so it’s busy pre- and post-dinner. But savvy customers plan their drinking carefully, he says, ordering their final drink just minutes before their hour is up so they can stay and nurse it. And that’s fine with Butler. Other people try to take advantage of his system but he and his employees keep a close eye on tables and bus them regularly so the drinks don’t stack up and it gets confusing.
Other than the method of payment, Open Concept is a standard for-profit bar, even if that profit margin is “definitely less than a regular bar,” Butler says. “But we want people to know we’re a value bar. The culture of Sam Walton is ingrained in me. I believe in high value, low cost. That draws in more people.”
However, his costs are less, too, though we won’t reveal any more than it being due to the way he manages his inventory.
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Butler hasn’t hit any legal issues with his bar, but when your mother’s your attorney, that eases the path a little. “I had a lot of conversations with her before I opened, and they assured me it was legal if I took all the correct steps.”
Next up: Open Concept in more cities. Butler anticipates college towns first, and he wants to move on it soon before anyone else jumps on his concept.