Beer bars, restaurants innovate to survive DUI crackdown

By Kim Ngan, Phuong Nghi   March 28, 2024 | 09:00 pm PT
Beer bars, restaurants innovate to survive DUI crackdown
People drink beer at a restaurant in Hanoi, 2019. Photo by Reuters.
Son Thuy, once a bustling restaurant in HCMC’s District 3, has seen business fall by 15-20% this year after authorities started to crack down on drunk driving.

To address this challenge, the restaurant began to take proactive measures by assembling a team of 200 drivers with motorbikes and cars to take home customers consuming alcohol.

"Around 20 of the drivers are servers at the restaurant. When we exhaust this pool, other staff [from the parent company] immediately come to support us," Son Thuy’s manager, Luong Huu Tri, says. "The team initially had 50-70 members, and then 200, as demand increased."

The time it takes to drive guests home is counted as part of employees' working hours and no one is forced to work overtime, he says.

The restaurant also reimburses the transport costs. It has even created a Zalo group that serves as a hotline to summon more drivers when needed.

Tri says the restaurant offers this service practically at all hours. "Meeting customer needs is paramount, especially as the business is losing revenues."

The decline in business is not unique to Son Thuy but reflective of the state of the liquor industry over the past year. In 2022 Vietnam topped Southeast Asia and ranked third in Asia in beer consumption. But since 2023 its beer and liquor market has witnessed an unprecedented decline.

Data from Bao Viet Securities Company shows revenues of listed breweries fell to VND45 trillion (US$1.8 billion) last year from over VND55 trillion in 2022.

At a conference in mid-March, the Vietnam Beer - Alcohol - Beverage Association said the beer industry saw an 11% decline in sales and a 23% decrease in pre-tax profits in 2023.

It pointed to the government's zero tolerance for drunk driving as one of the main reasons for last year’s massive drop in beer consumption, especially at eateries.

Analysts at SSI Securities’ SSI Research warn in a recent report that the downtrend might continue this year.

Hoang Tung, a food and beverage industry analyst, says the decrease in beer consumption is an inevitable outcome of the government's resolute efforts to combat drunk driving.

In this changing landscape, innovation is key to the survival of beer bars and restaurants.

They need to either be more creative in terms of services and products or be willing to shift to other models that are less dependent on alcoholic beverages, Tung says.

And they are doing exactly that.

In addition to the free pick-up and drop-off, Son Thuy also offers catering to boost sales as customers are hesitant to drink at pubs.

Though these additional services slice 5-10% off profits, Tri says footfall at the restaurant has almost returned to previous levels.

Since the beginning of this year Ta La pub on Pham Van Dong Street in HCMC’s Thu Duc City has also been employing creative strategies to attract customers.

Nguyen Manh Anh Tuan, its owner, says he spends VND10-15 million a month to provide free overnight parking for customers so that they can take a taxi home after drinking.

They can return to the pub later to pick up their vehicle, he says. "If a customer wants someone to take them home, we always have at least a few drivers here. They are staff members whom I sent for driving lessons."

He himself is ready to become a driver should the need arise, he says.

The establishment has also tied up with ride-hailing platform Grab to get customers discounts when they book a ride to and from it.

The pub is busy on the gastronomic side too, researching and frequently unveiling exotic dishes, many of which become popular on social media, to attract young customers.

A prime example of this is the mangosteen chicken salad that went viral at the end of last year, Tuan recounts.

The restaurant also creates its own signature dishes to be sold in limited quantities to get repeat customers, he says, and is proud of one particular dish.

"Our crispy pork roast is a must-try. We only sell 5-10 portions a day. I have seen many groups of customers come back here multiple times but still unable to get a taste of it."

A couple of weeks ago he also ran promotions such as offering free beer equivalent to the customer's age when they book the place for a birthday party.

After several months of carrying out these strategies, the beer pub’s revenues have increased by 10 - 15%, according to Tuan.

Tri says the anti-drunk driving policies have changed the way pubs and restaurants operate.

Even managers like himself have to double their working hours to do market surveys and research new solutions to navigate the business through the storm, he says.

"Change to adapt, adapt to survive. If a district has 30 restaurants, even if just one or two suddenly shut down, we must immediately strategize to avoid the same fate."

For the long term Tri says the restaurant is trying to improve its staff’s competence and help them keep up with new trends by sending them for short-term management and marketing courses.

"We recently signed a contract with a specialized school to teach [our employees] marketing, specifically how to use Facebook and TikTok for advertising.

"They will provide a three-month course first, and then employees who want to learn further can sign up."

Tuan echoes the sentiment, saying constant innovation is the key for restaurants and pubs like his succeed.

"I have a few friends who are considering selling their restaurants even though they have invested a lot of money in them," he says. "In today's business environment, to meet customer needs is the cornerstone of success."

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