Is Happy Hour Becoming a Thing of the Past?

With financial losses and a dwindling after-work crowd, bars reckon with whether daily discounted drinks still make sense.

Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

The very phrase “happy hour” conjures so much promise and hope: a liquid reward waiting at the end of an especially sluggish workday. Something to anticipate. Something to celebrate. Something, perhaps, that could soon be a relic of the past.

As office culture has slid to a screeching halt in the pandemic-era, remote work has become an increasingly acceptable way to conduct business. And the downtown bars that roped in those white-collar sorts with a reliable afterwork ritual are reeling as a result. Is happy hour as we know it over? Or has it, like most of us, moved closer to home?

“As a guest, I love happy hour,” says Akinde Olagundoye of Mother’s Ruin in Nashville. “But as a bartender, there is a lot more nuance to this question. It’s a give and take. You hope that by discounting your product you will increase your traffic and total volume of sales. But if you have a bar that is always busy, you’re not doing yourself any favors by discounting products.”

Sure, there are these financial considerations. Places that do have to rely on happy hour might just resent having to sling cheap drinks. Plus, the cost of doing business has skyrocketed: rising price of ingredients, supply chain challenges, and massive staff shortages. Bar owners are reckoning with whether happy hour still makes good economic sense.

“As a guest, I love happy hour. But as a bartender, there is a lot more nuance to this question.”

“This is a tough one—it really depends on the market and concept,” says Patrick Abalos, a bar consultant with Not Too Sweet Ventures and director of operations with Night Moves Collective in Houston. “Happy hours do generate business on a consistent basis if operators are smart about their offerings . . . Some locations wouldn’t make it if they didn’t offer a happy hour window. It creates a draw.”

As a server at Garden Bar in Phoenix, Trish Renehan Vodrazka agrees. “All of us had major financial losses and we’re still recovering and being smarter with our budgets,” she says. “Happy hour brings in extra revenue for the operator and tips for the staff.”

For Vodrazka, happy hour is about more than just discount drinks. The tradition is one that actually provides a much needed reprieve on both sides of the stick. It’s a time when the locals come in to connect in a more meaningful manner—when they’re thirsting for what sociologists call the third place: spots where we gather that aren’t home or work. As those first two places become increasingly conflated, drinkers are showing up at watering holes in search of quality conversation as much as they are cocktails.

“I think we’ll start to see people coming by after working at home all day for their first burst of real socialization,” says T. Cole Newton, author of Cocktail Dive Bar and owner of Domino and Twelve Mile Limit in New Orleans. “The workplace-as-a-social-sphere has been the biggest loss of the work-from-home movement. This will look more or less the same to the bar, but guests will be using the space to meet a different kind of emotional need.”

Newton remains a staunch supporter of happy hour, as it provides a way to steer customers towards high-margin items during times when volume is lower. But his stance is at least partially informed by the positioning of his bars—out towards the residential outskirts of the city as opposed to its central business core. This is likely where the ritual is headed into the future, away from downtown and into the periphery.

“Here in Downtown Houston, after-work business has pretty much hit a standstill since most offices are remote now,” Abalos says. “We are starting to see some return to pre-pandemic business, but it will be a while if it does return to that same level.”

Abalos says that steak nights are big in his part of the country as an alternative way to lure people into the bar on off nights. Other bar operators acknowledge that karaoke, live music, and trivia nights have been another big draw, despite those events being outside the typical 4-7 pm time constraints.

“I think we’ll start to see people coming by after working at home all day for their first burst of real socialization.”

For the nostalgic sorts, such as Dan Dunn, spirits author and host of the What We’re Drinking podcast, happy hour isn’t a time of day at all. It’s a place. One that’s romanticized in the minds of many an imaginative imbiber.

“I’ve found the best happy hours to be at hole-in-the-wall bars, and unfortunately a lot of them have been permanently shuttered due to COVID-19,” he laments. “I’m talking about places owned and operated by guys with names like ‘Smitty’ or ‘Cooch,’ that are open every day between the hours of 6 am and whenever the last regular shambles out the back door.”

Indeed, there is something intangible about the happy hour atmosphere, a calm and intimate vibe that is hard to recreate during peak hours. In some ways, it serves a social need more so than an economic one.

“As a bartender, it’s fun,” Newton says. “It’s when the most hardcore regulars pop in and we watch Jeopardy together. It’s still mellow, so we can have real conversations.”

In an increasingly virtual world, real conversations sound just as refreshing as the first sip of that after-work cocktail.

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Brad Japhe is a freelance journalist with a wicked case of the get-up-and-gos. He’s usually found at the junction of food, booze, and travel. Follow him @Journeys_with_Japhe.