Spoiler alert: You don't pivot just once

Pivoting has become a buzzword. In the pandemic economy, businesses pivot or die. Gaming companies now sell surgical masks, airlines offer flights to nowhere, and hotels have become co-working spaces.

And don't even get us started on everything now going digital.

But how does the bar business, that prides itself in providing great on-premise hospitality and experiences (in addition to being perceived as non-essential), find a place in this new normal?

Surviving circuit breaker

"It was not easy for a taproom to survive circuit breaker, and that's a fact," said Kevin Ngan, who owns Haji Lane craft beer bar Good Luck Beerhouse, when asked how his bar survived the worst of it during Singapore's circuit breaker lockdown.

The Singapore government had mandated that on April 7, all bars had to stop on-site operations, though those carrying restaurant licenses were still allowed to offer takeaway and delivery options. That circuit breaker period lasted for about two months.

Haji Lane became eerily quiet during the circuit breaker

"We were lucky we were agile enough. Many taprooms out there were struggling with this transformation and some opted to close, while some opened but have no idea how to get it going," he continued.

The struggles for a bar selling draft beer, he explained, were not really about going online. That's the easy part. "For our website, we know we can quickly switch on e-commerce capability. What we were more apprehensive about is, will people buy beer off us to begin with?"

During the circuit breaker, Good Luck Beerhouse began selling their draft beers in 640ml bomber bottles, tapped upon order. The proposition is that, compared to a bottled or canned beer, it is fresher than those you buy off the shelf.

He elaborates: "We are a taproom, our proposition is serving beer cold, fresh off the tap, as opposed to a bottle shop that already sells beers pre-packaged. We knew quite quickly it isn't a purely digital game we're playing, but it's about building a proposition for the end-consumer."

They succeeded, and got enough sales such that they could at least tide over the lockdown without cutting anyone. "We got a lot of recurring business", said Ngan.

"Around 70% of our business was recurring sales from the same few people. This tells me that the concept of buying draft beers for takeaway is viable, and good enough that people would do so again and again."

Pivoting overnight and again

For casual observers, it'll look as if Good Luck Beerhouse began offering their tapped beers for delivery and takeaway, seemingly overnight. Social media posts pushing their new product came out hard and fast, and the beers came in packaging that looks well thought out and professional.

Good Luck Beerhouse's takeaway and delivery tapped bottled beers

However, Ngan admits that the pivot didn't exactly happen overnight, but that everything was actually planned ahead of time so that when the worst did happen, they could be in a position to capitalise on it immediately.

"Back in January, the writing was already on the wall. Many thought it would go away, but I'm a bit more kiasu, and also from some of the government's signals, I know it wasn't going to be rosy. So we were working quickly on getting onto digital even before the circuit breaker was announced."

This means that when the time came, all they had to do was flip a switch, so to speak. And they did.

But that wasn't the only pivoting they had to do. As on-premise F&B was allowed to resume in Phase 2, albeit with a slew of safety requirements, things changed yet again.

Though digital delivery infrastructure is now in place, consumer patterns changed once more, with people eager to head out for a physical bar experience.

"Obviously, the digital part is no longer doing as good as during circuit breaker," reveals Ngan, when asked what his Phase 2 plans are. "Everyone's rushing out to their favourite bars and the same guys who used to buy our beers online are now drinking at the bar."

Still, that doesn't mean the online bit has to go. "Our perspective is, our digital capability isn't going away. There's no reason why anybody should cut down on their digital presence, and for us, we look at it as incremental sales for the business," he adds.

Kevin Ngan, tapping a beer at Good Luck Beerhouse

They have also built a reservation system that makes better sense given the new normal requirements. While walk-ins were encouraged before the pandemic, the bar now hopes to rely more on reservations, with features like redeemable reservation deposits, so crowds can be better managed, confirmed and traced.

Bars are inevitably social spaces, and people come to mingle. But at least with this system in place, it gives customers just that little bit more peace of mind when heading down.

Not just about own survival

Even in the midst of constant change, Good Luck Beerhouse found the time and wherewithal to do their part for those hit even harder by the crisis.

In June, they launched Beer for a Cause, where 100% of proceeds for all beers purchased through them via an all-local beer catalogue will be used to help Lee Ah Mooi Old Age Home, an elderly home that has been severely affected by the pandemic.

Through this campaign, they're supporting local breweries and helping beer labels sell more too, while also giving them a chance to lend a helping hand and generate goodwill.

All about supporting local beers

While it didn't make complete business sense, Ngan, who also co-owns a few other businesses in the alcohol arena—including a brewery, beer label and bottle shop—argues that people matter more.

During the circuit breaker, he allowed other cocktail bars to leverage his bottle shop's e-commerce capabilities for free, while also launching a new beer in line with global charitable initiative All Together Beer, which lends aid to hospitality professionals hit by the crisis.

"So what is one piece of advice you would give someone in a similar position as you?", we asked Ngan.

Without hesitation, he answered: "Take care of your people, and whatever comes your way you'll be able to ride it through."

"Covid or no Covid, it's just another day. With good people you can adapt better. As a business owner, the ongoing thing you gotta do is to take care of your people. If not, you're just setting yourself up for failure."

Keep up with what's happening at Good Luck Beerhouse here.