First Call

Some area bartenders are text messaging their regulars, encouraging them to stop in

February 20, 2007|By John-John Williams IV | John-John Williams IV,sun reporter

With a few button taps on his cellular flip phone and a vague, catchy message, bartender Sean O'Donnell can almost guarantee that he can double his business on a given night.

O'Donnell has been using text messages for the past year to attract patrons to his bar in Mount Vernon, Grand Central Station.

"I try to make them witty or funny," O'Donnell said. "That way if they can't come, they can still get a laugh out of it."

Bartenders are using text messages to attract their regulars and tell them where they are working that night. The practice, spotted in New York City during the past year, has recently popped up in Baltimore, especially in niche bars such as Grand Central Station, which is popular with the gay community.

Bartenders say a good text message can keep the tip jar flowing and help fill an establishment. Marketing experts see it as the latest nontraditional pitch to a more tech-savvy clientele.

"It is more effective because it is original. It stands out," said Judy Harris, an assistant professor in the department of marketing and eBusiness at Towson University, who described text messaging as guerrilla marketing at its best. "It also can get in consumers' faces much more than [conventional advertising in the mass media]. It talks directly to the consumer."

The messages can be direct: "Come see me in the lounge @ central. I got shots for us!"

Funny, as in the case of a text message sent out a day after Grand Central Station was robbed at gunpoint: "Today's special. One dollar Coors light silver bullet."

Or suggestive: "Come see me at Central working disco bar tonight I'll make it worth while."

O'Donnell sometimes borrows phrases from pop culture for his text messages. Last fall, when the reality TV show Project Runway would fill Grand Central Station's upstairs "video bar" with nearly 100 people, he would send out messages that played off the signature phrase of the show's host, Heidi Klum: "Come see Project Runway. Are you in or out?"

For special events, O'Donnell will also use My space.com and send out Evites.

"I also tell people and make up fliers," O'Donnell added. But text messages are his most effective method of communication.

O'Donnell estimates that tips can increase from 30 percent to 45 percent on nights that he texts customers. He said he is careful not to over-text them.

"It'd be redundant," he said. "They would be sick of it. So I pick a special night."

David Naill Jr., another bartender at Grand Central Station, started using text messaging a year ago, after observing several bartenders adding to the number of customers through this method.

"I'll make at least $100," said Naill, as he poured Bailey's Irish Cream and Jameson Irish Whiskey, key ingredients for a drink called an Irish Car Bomb. "When it's slow, it definitely works."

He added: "I have more customers, I have a higher [cash register] ring, and I have more money. It brings people in the bar. Even if they don't buy anything, a body is a body."

While bartenders such as O'Donnell and Naill are increasing their payout at the end of the night with text messaging, some others in the field frown on such methods.

Le-Shanta Savoy, assistant director of Baltimore Bartender School on North Charles Street, said she would never advise her students to send out text messages to customers.

"I think that is too personal," she said. "If you are going to interact with people, I think that you should give them a business card. I would never tell a student or graduate to do anything like that. ... Text messaging, that's like picking somebody up."

Naill disagreed.

"I went to bartending school, and they never said anything against it," he said.

Bartenders in niche bars such as Grand Central are more likely to use text messages because their clientele community is smaller, which tends to blur the social and professional relationships between bartenders and patrons.

"Half of these people are my friends," Naill said as he pointed to a dimly lit crowd of 50 people jamming to Beyonce. "As a bartender, you make a lot of friends. You tend to start hanging out with them. You get them to start coming into your bar."

The interaction makes it easier for bartenders to obtain the phone numbers and e-mail addresses of their patrons.

Bartenders at Larry Flynt's Hustler Club in downtown Baltimore have been sending out text messages for the past three months.

"This is one of the best things I've heard of," said Mike Parker, manager of the strip club on The Block. "It's almost as good as MySpace."

Bartenders at Parker's club will usually send customers text messages to inform them of hospitality nights. They obtain their customers numbers from V.I.P card signups. The bartenders will include a secret password in the message so the customer can enter without having to pay a cover charge. Parker said he is working with a consultant in New York City to come up with other ways to use texting.

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