Why is the speakeasy bar concept growing internationally but not in the US?

July 16, 2014 | by Darrel Suderman

What are ‘Speakeasy Bars?' Are they suspicious underground bars? Are they exclusive QSR clubs for Members Only? Are they another version of a Guest Loyalty Program? And why are they growing more internationally than in the United States? The true answer may be “all of the above."

I recently met Felipe Giraldo, president of a popular wings restaurant chain called WINGZ across Columbia, South America. Felipe recently converted one WINGZ restaurant in Bogotá to include a “Speakeasy” bar which has become wildly successful with the young adult nightlife crowd.

What is a Speakeasy Bar?

Generally, Speakeasy Bars are bars behind closed doors offering exclusive cocktails and food menu items in a restricted environment that is only accessible to a few. All the cities of the world have their secret place and now Bogotá also has its own.  

Many believe the "Speakeasy" concept has origins back to the first decades of the 20th century, in the city of New York during prohibition. In that era NYC was governed by the dry law, a controversial measure that prevented the manufacture and consumption of alcohol. To demonstrate that all law is born to be broken, hidden bars began to appear behind closed doors, which over time evolved into night restaurants. Felipe Giraldo told me that he operates with this modality in which a client requests an alcoholic beverage (and unique menu items) without arousing suspicion – and the waiters suggest a place customers can speak alone and not draw attention.

The location of these places is spread by word of mouth or rumors to those places that are allowed to cater to existing leisure and night pleasures. Using the loyalty of its customers as the main tool, the bars were located in real secret communities where clients themselves were responsible to invite new friends to become part of the mystery. For this, they used passwords or invitations that could only be distributed by customers since the bars relied on them. But not everyone has the same mode of access. There are those who require to enter a password or as in the case of restaurant Wingz is an electronic key which allows its customers to gain access to the place.

Another striking aspect of these places is their secret entrances. The unknown dimension of Wingz has access hidden within one of its restaurants by a metal door looks like a bathroom or a service door. The door opening then points to a staircase that leads directly to the site tucked away in a sort of attic where this new nocturnal activity alternative exists. A factor differential with respect to the other restaurants are cocktails and some dishes and presentations that can be found only there.

How do Speakeasy restaurants differ from Underground Restaurants?

An underground restaurant, sometimes known as a supper club or a closed door restaurant, is a social dining establishment operated out of someone's home, generally (though not invariably) bypassing local zoning and health-code regulations. They are, in effect, paying dinner parties. They are usually advertised by word of mouth or guerilla advertising, often on Facebook, and may require references to make a reservation. An underground restaurant is also known as a guestaurant, which is a hybrid between being a guest in a dinner party and a restaurant (according to Wikipedia).

The attraction of the underground restaurant for the customer is to sample new food, often at low cost outside the traditional restaurant experience, which can be expensive and disappointing — underground restaurants have been described as "anti-restaurants." They also generally provide a more intimate, dinner party style experience. For the host, the benefit is to make some money and experiment with cooking without being required to invest in a restaurant proper. "It's literally like playing restaurant," one host told the San Francisco Chronicle, "You can create the event, and then it's over."

Customer loyalty program

According to Mr. Giraldo, his Speakeasy restaurant program is more of a customer loyalty program to reward his best customers. His goal is to continuously expand his Speakeasy customer base.

For more information our 3-day Advanced Batter and Breading Technology Workshop Oct.7-9 at JBT FoodTech in Sandusky, Ohio, contact me at dsuderman@foodbevbiz.com or 303-471-1443.

Our 3-day 10 PILARS OF FOOD INNOVATION workshop will be held in October this fall also. Both courses will be offered in the Philippines/SE Asia in January 2015. This course is based in three Harvard Business Press books that have been applied to the food industry. To pre-register or to volunteer your company as a host site, please contact me.

Topics: Customer Service / Experience, Trends / Statistics

Darrel Suderman
Darrel Suderman, Ph.D., is president of Food Technical Consulting and founder of Food Innovation Institute. He has held senior R&D/QA leadership positions at KFC, Boston Market, Church's Chicken and Quiznos and led KFC’s development team of “Popcorn Chicken”, now a $1B international product –invented by Gene Gagliardi. wwwView Darrel Suderman's profile on LinkedIn

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