Why Kalamazoo bars fail

The reason behind the quick failure of most of campus’s commercial establishments, particularly those in West Pointe Mall, can be summed up simply: high maintenance costs driving owners into closure. Even the bars seem to die and spring up like dandelions. Out of the five bars on campus, only Y-Bar and Waldo’s have been around for any meaningful length of time. Grotto and Library are relatively new, with the latter being only a year or so old, and I think Grotto was only opened as early as 2006.

Sadly, the telltale signs of commercial failure are already looming above Grotto and Library. Grotto has glaring maintenance problems, evidenced in the poor plumbing that plagues it week after week, while Library’s gotten so desperate that they’ve started a “teen night,” with all the MIP and serving-to-minors risks that brings with it. To make matters worse, Grotto’s been dropping its prices while Y-Bar has raised theirs.

                                          What Library looks like Friday nights. Owner is on the right.

So what’s the problem?

*Deep breath*…

It’s that campus bars are trying to do too many things at once. In a place like Kalamazoo, where citizens aren’t exactly bursting at the pockets with dead presidents, you need to limit your establishment’s mission to serving one type of client. When you build a swanky, aesthetically pleasing (and costly) place like Grotto, that’s intended to function as a restaurant and a “nightlife” bar at the same time, you’re not going to bind a single demographic to your establishment. That’s a losing formula.

When a chain competitor, like Buffalo Wild Wings, is showing UFC fights and making a killing off its $59.99 pay per view purchase in the form of food and beer sales, Grotto and Library are serving drinks for stingy college students at $2.50. When Y-Bar is inspiring a shitshow with their DJ, Grotto’s whimpering by with weak, family-friendly garbage playing off their jukebox. As an anecdotal example, I recently picked the brain of Wayside’s manager (the balding Asian dude) and the subject of the profitability of the Wednesday college night came up. He said, and I’m paraphrasing here:

“What do you think? We’re serving drinks for one, maybe two dollars at a time. Do you think that’s making us money? No, we just about break even, and we scrape even closer in winter when we pay for heating.”

                                          Wayside manager pictured here (w/ bouncers)

Mind you, Wayside is one of the oldest, biggest bars in Kalamazoo. So old that my 60-70 year old relatives used to party there in the 1970s, so they know a thing or two about staying afloat in this town.

Even Y-bar is relatively old, having opened up in ’98. Wondering why Y-Bar does so well it can raise drink prices while other establishments flounder? Because it only has one identity: shitshow. They don’t serve food, don’t televise bloodsports, and aren’t schizophrenic with their mission. They focus on doing the dance club thing the best they can and they have a  loyal social bloc that goes in a few nights a week because of it. Grotto and Library don’t have loyalty because they’ve done the opposite. They want to be pizzerias and night spots and social hubs all at once. There’s nothing special about them, and that’s why the only way they lure people in is with cheap drinks. Lower your prices and those clients are yours.

So if you’re going to open a bar on campus, what should your strategy be to ensure long-term profitability? I’ll sum it up in a few steps:

1. Know your role: Have a vision. Who will go there? College students. What do they want out of your establishment? To get fucked on the cheap with their friends. Don’t try to serve students, professors, and their parents all at once. Pick a target demographic and stick to it.

2. Don’t spend money on expensive property or aesthetics: I’ve never gone to a bar on student night thinking “Wow, what an awesome wallpaper design! I can’t wait to come back here to drink shitty beer and smack the asses of passerby females”! I’m certain that you could purchase a 30x50x15ft dungeon, get a DJ, serve $2 drinks and people would line up around the block to get in. Not only that, but kids would assign it qualities like “charming,” and “hardcore.”

3. Be creative: Creativity does not mean spending money. It means using what is available to you in novel, unexpected ways. If there was one aspect of the nightlife market to exploit in Kalamazoo, it’s this. Managers are unimaginative and do the same things week after week. Have something as simple as a themed night once in a while and you can easily gain notoriety on campus.

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