Generating Sales during the Coronavirus Pandemic by Recreating the Bar Feeling at Home

by Jan-Peter Wulf

What can be done in times like these to combine the online and offline, digital and analogue worlds, to create a hybrid experience for cocktail fans? In Berlin, the entrepreneur Dustin Render has succeeded in doing just that: with tasting boxes and weekly interactive streams from the bar.

A ‘coronavirus-compliant’ meeting with Dustin Render in the fresh air of Berlin. He operates three bars on Torstraße street in Berlin-Mitte: ‘Sharlie Cheen’, ‘Emi Wynehouse’ and ‘Pawn Dot Com’. Three bars that are all currently closed. But not entirely: that is because on Fridays at 7:00 p.m., at least, there is always something happening behind the bar in the “Sharlie Cheen”. This is when bartender and business partner Marius Döring stands behind the bar mixing drinks while Render sits across from him as they exchange banter that is reminiscent of a late night show. And the whole thing is streamed live – for an exclusive audience watching on their laptops at home. In addition to a link to the Zoom call, each participant received/purchased a box in advance. Depending on the particular box (which might be filled with after-work drinks, three cocktails for rum lovers, or signature drinks), recipients might find multiple mixtures that have already been prepared in vacuum bags, as well as fillers, zests that have been cut to size and placed on a wooden skewer, miniature bottles of spirits, and even something to snack on.

“Like real bar talk”
Over the course of the roughly hour-long ‘call’, the drinks are tasted one after another, with the bar boss explaining the idea behind each mixture. They also involve the patrons directly, including by asking whether they can remember their last proper bar visit before the time of the coronavirus. Dustin Render explained: “After about an hour, we’re finished with the ‘official’ part of the session, but we leave the call open.” They do this because after an hour, lively discussions have generally got going in the virtual bar – “just like real bar-room talks,” as Render put it. The longest call continued until 2:00 a.m. in the morning.

The concept is a hit
Render and Döring began offering this combination of sending boxes and optional Zoom calls in February. Earlier on during the lockdown, they had only been serving company requests for drinks deliveries. “At that point, I still did not believe that it could actually work over the long term. We also did not yet know just how long bars and restaurants would have to stay shut,” said Render. However, the former club operator saw that the longer the lockdown went on, the more people yearned for entertainment.

That is why they quickly decided to transform the calls – whose form was originally similar to the conventional tastings with which people are familiar from (analogue and digital) industry events – into something much more casual. The aim is to share knowledge – just what is a ‘Milk Punch’, for instance – and, even more importantly, to have fun. Render: “It's really a lot of fun for our patrons.” When someone orders a tasting box and signs up for the call, they are generally looking forward to this rather novel experience, alone in the analogue world but digitally connected, of trying new drinks and talking with other people doing the same thing.

Companies, too, are taking advantage of this opportunity to create a feeling of togetherness after weeks and months of working from home. “The ideal number of participants is between 15 and 20. We’ve also done this for a company with 60 people, but we divided them up into two breakout rooms of 30 people each,” explained Render.

 

Four-fifths of the tasting boxes are sent outside the city of Berlin

The necessary equipment is quite modest: one camera, a webcam, microphones, a laptop (for which they received digitalisation funding from the third instalment of the German government aid programme for companies impacted by the coronavirus), and a premium Zoom account – that's pretty much it. The whole thing is ‘shot’ in the ‘Sharlie Cheen’, while ‘Pawn Dot Com’ currently resembles nothing so much as a packing station from which goods are shipped – a condition it shares with numerous restaurants and bars. Sales are processed through their own Shopify shop system, which they were able to set up quite quickly, and boxes are shipped throughout Germany using DHL.

 

They are currently sending out 30 tasting boxes a week, 80 percent of which are sent beyond the city limits, which means that – much like Galander, another company in the hospitality trade that is based in Germany’s capital city – they have been able to expand their reach considerably. Render said that “We are pleased with our sales,” and he shared some of the figures with us: They are able to generate approx. one quarter of the sales they achieved for the same period in 2019 by sending these boxes, and when combined with the government aid they are receiving, they are able to get by financially. This does not include support from their industry partners, in this case Beam Suntory, in the form of free goods. In return, sponsors enjoy greater visibility and the chance for people to try out their wares – in consumers’ homes – both in the form of mixed drinks and in miniature bottles. No small matter in a time where there are far fewer opportunities to promote their products. According to Render, “It’s also a great marketing tool.”

 

Media and corporate partnerships extend their reach

The innovative format has already drawn considerable attention in the press, and influencers – with whom they have always worked – have posted pictures of their drinks on their channels. “This helps keep our name out there after being closed for so many months.” Most recently, in April they collaborated with the ‘Berliner Morgenpost’ newspaper, which during pandemic-free times used to work with prominent restaurants to create a special meal for its readers every month, to offer their own spring tasting box featuring gin drinks – in this case served in bottles. Otherwise they continue to rely on vacuum bags, as these have performed well when shipped: they are lighter, less likely to break, and keep things fresh longer. Although many of the people ordering the boxes will already be enjoying their contents during the next online call. 

“Two to two-and-a-half steps is about right”„Zwei bis zweieinhalb Schritte sind gut“

To ensure that the whole process is enjoyable, Render believes that it is important to strike the right balance between advance preparation and work done live during the event: “People need to have something to do. It should be more than simply pouring a drink. Still, there should not be too much either. Two to two-and-a-half steps is about right.” For example: getting the ice ready and adding it to the drink, squeezing the zest and rubbing the flavours on the edge of the glass (an act that always seems to fascinate customers at the bar), or spraying coffee flavour onto the drink using the mini-atomiser that is supplied. Basically, doing a bit of bartending without making it the sole focus of the Zoom call.

 

“The hospitality trade is going to be the big winner”

Will they continue to offer this format over the long term? Render considered the situation: “At a B2B level, yes, because we're certainly not going to be enjoying any summer festivals or Christmas parties without masks or distancing during 2021. I certainly can't see that happening, at any rate. At a B2C level, we will continue to offer that alongside our normal business at first, but I can imagine that it will start to decline at some point. Perhaps by this summer we will be able to return to the ‘normality’ that we enjoyed last summer, which was actually quite good for us.” In fact, it was so good that they had to work with doormen for the first time to deal with the crowds and make sure that they were in compliance with the regulations. And how does someone with three bars whose core business is serving people good drinks in person and making them happy see the future? “I believe that in the long run, the hospitality trade is going to be the big winner. People want to go out for food and drink – they want to be social. I’m very optimistic!”

You will find all the information on the tasting boxes, Zoom calls and virtual after-work events for companies and other groups online at https://pawndotcombar.berlin/.