Q&A with Jeremiah Batucan: ‘There’s no place more social than a bar’

Interview by Gregory Furgala

CRFN took a moment to chat with the Nightclub & Bar Show’s Jeremiah Batucan, who moderated the bar roundtable discussion at the 2019 Canadian Restaurant & Bar Show. Batucan shared his insight into the bar and nightclub scene, sharing details from the NC&B’s 2019 Bar and Beverage Report and offering his take on what people — staff and customers both — want from a constantly evolving industry.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

CRFN: Can you explain what you do with the NC&B Show?

Jeremiah Batucan: I am the director of conference content and industry relations at the Nightclub & Bar Show, which aside from being a mouthful, means I’m focused on ensuring that the show’s education sessions, speakers and content is both timely and relevant to the challenges and opportunities of bars, nightclubs and restaurants and the way they’re approaching the nightclub scene. The second half of that is we’re obviously always trying to look for partnerships, mutual ways to work with partners, other event and media brands, and just trying to push this industry forward.

CRFN: What drew you to hospitality?

JB: I just think it comes down to being interested in people. I think everyone has an interesting story if you ask the right questions. I bartended all through college, and through all these other jobs I actually kept a job at the bar. It’s just getting to meet people every day and listen to their stories. It was always something that came to me naturally.

CRFN: How does that experience behind the bar inform what you do now?

JB: Almost to a fault, we try to make sure we have the right data. It’s based on what the numbers are telling us in terms of reception and feedback from our audience, and then pairing that with a little bit of gut. We try to avoid what I call the “hippo” — the highest-paid person’s opinion — just guiding us down a road.

With bartending, the day I turned 21, I became a bar manager. I was super slick with Excel. I love running through the numbers, and trying to figure out how to get my liquor costs below 20, 19 or 18 per cent, and everything I did was run through that, and I used the same principles when I worked with, say, a Marriott Hotel account.

“In the bigger markets, you see bartenders whose work isn’t just serving drinks, but social media and trying to be an ambassador”

CRFN: Since joining the Nightclub & Bar Show, what trends have you seen emerge in the bar and nightclub space?

JB: Some of it is a circle back to basics. In the bigger markets, you see bartenders whose work isn’t just serving drinks, but social media and trying to be an ambassador. But not every place is a big market, so what do you do when you’re a smaller town and just don’t have that kind of reach? What’s a way they can approach it? So a return to service is kind of number one.

Bar owners and bar operators aren’t hiring bartenders anymore, either. They’re hiring people with interesting stories and interesting backgrounds — people that are nice — because you can’t really train someone’s inner being and how they treat people, but you can train them to make drinks.

Unemployment in the U.S. is at an all-time low, so staff retention is hard. I just read that the average turnover for young staff is a month or two, so how can you train and cultivate a new environment or culture when they’re only lasting that long? It’s a constant reminder of what most people are looking for in a job. They want to feel like they’re contributing in some way. The pay cheque is important, but they want to feel like part of a team and that they’re building something more.

CRFN: What trends do you see coming up?

JB: Food delivery is going to be huge. Some are forecasting that it’ll be at least 15 per cent of sales in the next few years, and when they’re taking 20–30 per cent of your margin, the restaurant is losing that. It’s also the foot traffic going into the restaurant — they can’t sell that extra drink, or that high profit margin beer or wine, so they’re losing on two fronts.

It’s exactly what I saw in the hotel space six to seven years ago with online travel agencies. Expedia, Priceline, and these huge mega accounts, are spending so much money. The hotels were giving the same percentage away to Expedia that restaurants are giving to DoorDash and UberEats, and they found they couldn’t pull it back because they made a monster so big that, if they weren’t on these sites, your hotel was going to be a lot emptier than you’d like. But the airlines never gave in. For booking online, the airlines would give a few dollars, whereas hotels were giving hundreds of dollars or 20–30 per cent, and I see the same thing happening with Uber Eats.

“It’s all about ‘me,’ and people want things to be frictionless”

CRFN: What’s having the biggest impact on the industry?

JB: Technology can be huge. Social media and its impact on our psychology, and just this generation as a whole. It’s all about “me,” and people want things to be frictionless.

How do you pull someone in? You have people that are more socially awkward because they spend so much time in these digital channels rather than interacting in person. When you look at self-serve systems, mobile payment tabs or going to a handheld tablet and punching in a beer, and the waiter drops it off — they could’ve just come over first and asked, “Hey, how’re you doing? What’re you drinking today?” Instead, it feels very cold. What’s the real purpose of going to a bar if you don’t interact with the staff and each other?

There are some good things, though. I was just at a bar in Atlanta called Drafts and Dogs, and they do really cool cocktails on tap and offer really unique concoctions — I couldn’t even tell they were poured on draft. From a labour management standpoint, they save a tonne of cost not having to hire a bartender. It’s a win-win for the consumer and the business, and we might see more of that. That’s where technology could be a good thing. But again, technology hampers human interaction and social experience of most things in the world, and there’s no place more social than a bar.

CRFN: What do you want to tell people that are on the fence about going to the 2019 Nightclub & Bar Show?

JB: This year, we have more than 70 education sessions, everything from social media to bartending operations, we have six different workshops, we have marketing strategies that are guaranteed to drive your business. And it’s all in one. There’s no place where you can get this much education with that much product selection from walking around our trade show floor and understand what’s going on. That’s the biggest takeaway. It’s not just the education, not just the experience — this has it all, and it has it all packed in three days. And we’re going to make as much of it available to our attendees. It’s a constantly changing business, and if you’re not staying ahead, it’s hard to stay relevant.