Wednesday, January 20, 2010

How not to do it (1) - These are NOT the free drinks you're looking for

As I mentioned here (and here), new Sanlitun club Le Zazou was trying to boost custom during its first two weeks or so of 'soft opening' by offering FREE drinks.

I immediately expressed my scepticism as to whether this would turn out to be as worthwhile an offer as it first sounded.

Indeed it was not!

For a start, the promotion was hemmed round with restrictions. It only applied to their main bar (not the restaurant or the disco area [not sure if they even have another bar in there; it wasn't in operation the couple of times I looked in]); it only applied to vodka-based mixed drinks "made with Absolut vodka" (I'll come to that in a moment); and it didn't even apply to all the vodka drinks, only to a short list of 'special' cocktails - a distinction which the bar staff didn't do much if anything to bring to punters' attention. Even this somewhat limited offer could not be fully relied upon: I'm sure I'd originally seen it advertised as running from 8pm to midnight, but when I first tried it I was told that it didn't in fact kick in till 9pm. I heard from a couple of other people that there were one or two nights when they weren't running it at all (out of vodka??). And on New Year's Eve - without warning - they started issuing tickets to limit each customer to a single drink.

How stingy is that?! It's a textbook lesson in how to make a bad impression on people, even as you're trying to woo them with a promotional freebie.

And that wasn't even the worst of it.

Oh no. Most of the 'special' cocktails were not very special at all. Perhaps made with Chinese tastes in mind, they were all very low in alcohol and hideously syrupy. After my companion and I had done our duty by sampling each of them (and, after my first unhappy experience, I'd been doing my best to get the barman to "hold the syrup!" on subsequent mixes), I switched to vodka-tonics - the only other free item on the menu.

And, as if they weren't weak enough already, most of the 'specials' were being mixed in advance (maybe some hours in advance? in anticipation of a 'rush' that never came!) - allowing melted ice to dilute them even further, and any alcohol that might have been in them originally to evaporate.

There was little or no alcohol in any of the drinks anyway. My companion cannily switched to ordering the only cocktail that they didn't have pre-mixed and so had to make to order. She had several of them, indeed maybe a dozen or more during the three hours or so we were there. They had no visible effect on her whatsoever. I probably had at least 20 vodka-tonics (on top of half a dozen or so cocktails) - which should have been enough to put me into a coma, if they'd had anything like a decent pour in them. I felt scarcely any effect at all.

I was watching the barman carefully as he made my drinks. He was pouring in fairly generous slugs from a bottle labelled Absolut. I can only conclude that the bottle had been heavily watered down. (Although the bottle had no top on it, and no pourer - so evaporation might have been a bit of a problem.)

And that's if it was even Absolut vodka in the first place. Although I was scarcely experiencing even the mildest of tipsiness when I went home at 12.30, I awoke the next day with a quite ferocious headache (something that never happens to me with proper drinks). I therefore infer that what very little alcohol they served me that night was poisonously fake.

A few little pointers for you, chaps;-

1) If you're going to do a FREE drink promotion, you can't afford to be penny-pinching about it. Make sure that you have enough booze (and enough bar staff) to keep all your punters reasonably well satisfied. And if you do have to place limitations on the offer - range of eligible drinks, hours in effect, special rules for 'big nights' like New Year - advertise them WELL.

2) All drinks should be made to order (get some big shakers or mixing glasses, so you can make 4 or 5 at once, but don't pre-mix them; if you're mixing drinks by the vat, and letting all the ice melt into them, they're not 'cocktails' any more).

3) Use FULL POURS. It's essential to your future credibility. Don't try to "save money" by stinting on the alcohol-per-drink. You're supposed to have written off the expense as a promotion anyway (if you weren't getting it free or very cheap from the manufacturer/distributor in the first place). Quite apart from the very negative impression made on customers, it will probably be counter-productive anyway: heavy drinkers will just drink quicker and order more - ultimately consuming just as much vodka (and more of everything else).... and overwhelming your bar staff. People drink strong drinks slower. Cf. my example that night: with a decent slug of vodka in those drinks, I would have been content to drink them at a rate of 2 or 3 per hour.... rather than 8 or 10 per hour.

4) Make bloody sure the booze you're using is kosher. It's bad enough to leave your punters dissatisfied with weak drinks; it's very poor form to poison them as well. (Just because you're running a loss-making opening promotion, doesn't mean you can sink to the kind of brutal cost-cutting measures we see at the likes of Pure Girl and Tun.) I was under the impression that Absolut was actually sponsoring this promotion - although in this country, alas, the involvement of the manufacturer is no guarantee that the supply won't get contaminated somehow. However, even if Absolut was not directly involved in this, their name was being plastered all over the promotion, and the crappy drinks were being poured from their bottles. It's not only Le Zazou that took a huge hit in credibility from this shambles, but Absolut too - and if I had anything to do with promoting the brand in China, I'd be absolutely bloody seething about it. I wouldn't be too happy about short pours, badly made drinks, and open bottles; but watering down and/or contaminating the product with cheap fake booze - that really calls for some punitive action from Absolut, I'd suggest.

Oh yes - one final thing. On the night my friend and I went, it was very, very quiet. The bar staff were under no kind of pressure at all. There was thus no excuse at all (well, there never is; but certainly not in circumstances like that) not to refresh the ice and lemon in my glass regularly. After the same dry, stale sliver of lemon and nearly-melted heap of ice had been dropped back in front of my nose for the 6th or 7th time, I emptied it in an ashtray (after I'd drained the "vodka", of course; I wouldn't want to make a mess - only a point). Unbelievable.

I didn't just catch them on a bad night. Everyone I've met who went along during that opening fortnight was similarly outraged by the awfulness of the place. It's pretty much dead in the water as a business when it's scarcely even officially 'open'. It will take some kind of miracle from the management now to redeem those dire first impressions.

You know what, guys - if you were worried you couldn't really afford to do a proper 'free vodka' promotion for two whole weeks, you shouldn't have bothered. You would have done much, much better to run a 'cheap vodka' promotion, but ensure that the drinks (and the service) were really good. But that's China all over for you: no-one here ever seems to understand the concept of selling on quality; 'profit' seems only ever to be understood as the minimizing of overheads, not as the maximizing of turnover (and foreigners who've been here a while often get to be just as bad as the native Chinese; it's as if there's some kind of neuropathic contagion in the air). Sigh.


Anonymous said...

Seriously? You go to a bar, have 20 free drinks, then whine about them? You get what you pay for, be happy or man up, and pay for a drink.

Froog said...

Read the post, shithead.

I would have been happy for the opportunity to pay for a drink.

Selling booze cheap, discounting it, or giving it away FREE does not give anyone the right to water drinks down and/or use dangerous fake crap instead.

A customer is still a customer, even when he's not paying: still consuming the product/service, still being wooed as a potential return - paying - customer, still being 'recruited' as a possible recommender of the bar to others.

Froog said...

And you don't "get what you pay for" in this town. The whole point is that a bar that gives you shit drinks like this during its opening promotion is almost certainly going to carry on giving you shit drinks when you have to pay full price for them.

Also, on a point of economics - there's no such thing as a free drink; somebody's always had to pay for it. In a promotion like this, you should take the view that someone (either the bar's owner or the sponsor/booze manufactuer, or both) has bought the drink for you. You still have a right to expect value-for-money, even though the money paid was not your own.

I gave them three or four hours of my time as well. That's worth something. And all the cunts did was poison me.

Matthew said...

Reminds me of when they opened the bar street near me. Only half the places were open at first, with almost no customers and no specials. The top floor bars went out of business quickly. Then the bars that stayed open raised the prices because they didn't have enough customers.

My friends and I went down the street to have Tsingtao for 5 kuai at the restaurant instead.