Downtown alcohol: Evenflow or well run dry?

With a slumping economy on the mind of most consumers, one venue in Athens may still have its cup running over.


The nightlife in the Classic City appears to be on its customary spring course, as many bars are reporting average profit and turnout for the always anticipated slower spring season.


“The bars are doing better in my opinion,” said Sean Johnson, a bartender at Flanagan’s. “We’ve had no drop-off in people coming through the door, and our alcohol sales are right where they need to be.”


A quick trip down Clayton or Broad Street on Friday or Saturday night indicates there is no shortage of patrons living it up.


 “We’re always slow in the winter months, because of the absence of football but there’s still people out,” said Jackie Thomason, a bartender at Allgood. “Our numbers will be back up after spring break, it’s the trend we’ve seen for years.”


The alcohol industry has been commonly referred to as recession proof, standing the test of financial crisis while others businesses such as hotels and restaurants struggle.


“Although consumers have less money to spend due to rising gas prices and other economic pressures … Alcoholic beverages are withstanding the economic slowdown very well, compared to other categories that might be considered indulgent or non-necessities. To many consumers, alcoholic beverages are an affordable luxury,” said Danny Brager, Vice-President of Client Service for beverage alcohol for Nielsen.


Whiskey is seen as the current drink of choice, as the spirit saw a 1.3 percent volume growth in 2008, totaling $5.4 billion in total revenue, according to the U.S. spirits industry. Rum, tequila and vodka also grew, averaging a 3 percent volume growth.


For some bars the downturn in the economy is said to be barely noticed, and the clientele demographic has yet to change.


“People who are sad want to drink the same way people are happy do,” said Jessica Barnes of Flanagan’s. “We see the same crew here at Happy Hour, and have the normal nightlife scene regardless of what’s going on in the outside world.”


On the surface all appears normal, as most bars and drinking spots coast until the Classic City comes alive with football in the fall. But are these crowd numbers intoxicated with artificial enhancers?


“Alcohol sales aren’t up, and bars aren’t making the money you would think,” said Matt Runyun, who works at Taco Stand. “Yeah, there are people still here, but look at all the $1 draft specials. Bars are practically giving beer away to get people in the door.”


Runyun, who graduated from the University in 1977, has a keen sense of the downtown rhythm. His sales tactics observation is spot on, as Flanagan’s, Allgood, Bourbon Street, 8e’s Bar and Buddha, among others, offer reduced priced drinks during the week.


 “When you see a Corona selling for 75 cents, then you know there’s a problem,” Runyun said. “I’ve seen Bud Light pitchers going for $1, but I know for a fact it cost the bar $2.10 to pour it. They just love to have the people and the atmosphere.”


Students and towns people alike continue flashing identification and rolling into clubs and bars for good deals, but at times no money ever makes it behind the bar.


“We have nights where it’s a really nice crowd, but everybody is sitting on their money,” said Trey Lambert, a worker at The Winery. “It’s almost like our bar is a huge social gathering where nobody spends money.”


Adding it up, some bars are coupling crippling specials with a crowd already frugal with expenditures.


“When Mom and Dad take away the credit cards most of these kids don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to drinking,” Lambert said.


 Still, other bars blame the spring semester, citing football as the missing flavor that stirs the drink.


 “Yes, we run specials every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but we always do that in the spring,” said Graham Burkhalter, who works at Buddha Bar. “Wait till August; we’ll be back with the profits.”


The kicker for most establishments is making it to August, a feat Runyun isn’t certain most bars will accomplish.


 “I wouldn’t be surprised to see 10 or 15 bars make an exit before the summer,” Runyun said. “They’ll just paint the door different, hang a new sign and somebody will try again.”


In these trying times, with bars reaching for straws to get by, the Athens-Clarke County government has stepped up to make sure bars enforce rules that could cost them money.


“I’ve heard there are more stings and undercover cops trying to catch bars bringing in underage people,” Barnes said. “We know we have to make sure we stay legit.”


Said Runyun: “If you make the government mad, they have a way to hurt you until you get back on their good side, which can take a while. They’ll have the fire marshall come out more often, or undercover cops posing underage to catch you.”


For now, downtown success is a mixed bag. Many downtown areas are citing success, while others are sipping on people and pouring out the profit. Will there be anything left in the bottle come August?


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