My long term readers know I am a big fan of Theme Bars - bars that offer a unique niche and provide something different based on a theme. Unfortunately, most of the bars that proclaim to be Theme Bars aren’t and it’s disappointing. Having several large screen TVs located throughout a bar does not make a bar a Sports Bar.
Years ago, one of my very first client’s was a couple from Michigan who had gone to Jamaica for a vacation. They fell in love with the Caribbean: the weather, the ocean, the sandy beaches but most of all a little Tiki bar they visited each day.
After returning home they decided to buy a local bar and create their own Tiki Bar. They quit their jobs and cashed in their 401Ks. Their goal was to bring all that fun and excitement of the Jamaican Tiki bar back to northern Michigan. Now three years later they were wallowing in debt about to lose everything.
Upon receiving their call I flew up to Michigan. After meeting with the couple and seeing their bar; it was clear why they were in trouble. Other than having impressively painted “TIKI BAR” on the front window, the only other ‘theme appeal’ was a dozen eloquently framed pictures - of their now almost 3 year old Jamaican vacation mounted on the walls. Nothing felt Jamaican or Tiki – in their bar.
Both had to take part-time jobs and they worked 90% of the bar shifts. Neither knew how to make Caribbean style drinks and there was no coconut crème, pineapple juice or fresh fruit anywhere in the cooler. Tap beer, shots and mixed drinks like whiskey old fashions were their staple. Country western music bellowed out of their juke box – but damn they were proud to own the only Tiki bar in northern Michigan.
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit an old colleague while on assignment He asked if I’d like to grab a bite to eat and took me to a place called Gilligan’s – named after the famed Gilligan’s Island TV show. Boy O Boy was I excited; I had never been to a bar with a Gilligan’s Island theme.
As we pulled in the parking lot there it was - the big sign “Gilligan’s”. I couldn’t wait to get inside. Upon entering Gilligan’s shades of the Tiki Bar flashed through my head. The decor of Gilligan’s was nothing special: a semicircular bar area, a few scattered tables, a juke box, a couple of large screen TV’s behind the bar, a pool table and a dart machine.
When the server came to take our orders I asked “Why do you call this place Gilligan’s?” He proudly pointed to three pictures hanging on one wall. The first picture was of the Skipper and his little buddy, the second, a group shot of the castaways, and the last photo was of the Professor and Gilligan working on a contraption while Ginger and Mary Ann watched. He then flashed a big smile and said “look above the doors”. Oh my God he was right, it was amazing. One restroom door had a sign that read Mr. Howell and the other had a sign that read Mrs. Howell. If my legs weren’t under the table I think I might have floated up into space from all this Gilligan excitement.
Before leaving I got to meet the owner and asked him why his staff didn’t dress like Gilligan in 'would be sailor attire' or why his hostess didn’t dress like Ginger or why he didn’t wear a cap like the skipper. “That stuff cost too much; besides the employees don’t like wearing that crap”. Humm I thought! Here was another splendid opportunity for a bar owner to create something special, unique and different - a theme bar no one else in the area had … but he didn’t.
Great theme bars are money makers – customers and profits seem to just roll in. But a theme has to be developed and be consistent. Remember beer, booze and food can be purchased anywhere but finding a great theme bar where you can really have fun and spend lots of money isn’t.