Behind the Bar

How to Get Your Small-Town Bar in the National Spotlight

The exterior of a bar that says Ice Plant.
Photo by Joe Mills.

For a bar in a small town, off of the beaten cocktail path that leads to cities like New York, LA, New Orleans and Portland, it may seem that garnering media attention is an impossibility. But in the age of social media and all digital everything, owners of new bars in uncharted territory have more power than they might think.

We spoke with a DIY publicity maven and three bar managers about how to solicit the media attention your bar deserves.

Work your best angle

“When you’re brand new, it’s the easiest time to get press, because all editors locally would want to report on that. After that, you have to help find the story within your company,” says Amy Flurry, author of the DIY publicity book, "Recipe for Press."

After you’ve already garnered buzz about your bar’s big opening (or if your bar has long since been established), your best bet is to look for news pins that will appeal to the press. “Create some things for the menu that are very press friendly,” says Flurry. That could be an unusual technique or ingredient (like a unique use of a spice or a new way to aerate egg whites) or something seasonal and timely, like spiced cocktails in the fall or something red and romantic for Valentine’s Day. (If you’re hoping to promote a seasonal drink, it’s advisable to reach out to writers and editors in advance — don’t wait until March 15 to announce your St. Patty’s Day cocktail.)

Take the time to kick around ideas with your employees about what makes your place special — are you a part of an up and coming neighborhood? Are you working with other businesses in a way that’s interesting and mutually beneficial? Do you have one bartender on staff who is everyone’s favorite person in the neighborhood? These things interest editors. By simply talking about what sets your business apart, you’ll start to form your own narrative, and that’s not only compelling to editors, it helps build company pride and morale.

Of course, these are good things to consider while you’re still conceptualizing your bar. Built inside of a historic building that once housed an ice plant, Ice Plant Bar in St. Augustine, Fla. knew from the beginning that they wanted to embrace their city’s infatuation with history. (It’s the oldest city in the nation, for those who don’t know.) That has resonated with locals and visitors alike.

“The media wants to write about places that are unique to a place. Figure out what makes your concept worthy of media attention,” advises Ryan Dettra, the Ice Plant Bar business manager and co-founder.

Take media quality photographs

Even if you have a poet laureate on staff, the best way to communicate your brand is through imagery.

“Photography is critical,” says Flurry.

Most pitches these days are sent via email, and the first thing a writer or editor is going to look at is the photograph, which Flurry recommends embedding in the email, with a short, snappy and hooky synopsis of why he or she should write about your bar.

Having stellar photographs on hand is not just important for sending pitches, it also helps if an editor reaches out to you. When pressed for time, if an editor has to choose between two bars to feature and one of the two has great photographs to contribute, the editor will almost always opt for the strong photos, says Flurry.

A cocktail garnished with an orange twist. Ice Plant Bar keeps photos on hand that are sufficiently beautiful for any publication. Photo by Joe Mills.

This objective was also taken seriously by Ice Plant Bar from the outset, and it’s given them a chance to work with skilled members in their community. “We use several local photographers and we love the talent and creativity that comes out of the photos,” says Dettra.

You should keep media in mind and be strategic with the photos. “That photography should look like it already belongs in a magazine,” says Flurry. “So you would want to see — what are these magazines that you would want to be in, what do their pictures look like, and how do they photograph their drinks, and then try to mimic that.”

Great photographs are possible even if hiring a photographer is out of the budget. Most smartphones have the capacity to take beautiful photos — it’s just a matter of knowing a few tricks. And don’t limit the photographs to great shots of cocktails: bartenders who are serious about building their own career will benefit from having photos of themselves taken too.

Engage with social media

Social media offers a free platform to expose your bar to a wider audience than your local fandom, but it can be an overwhelming undertaking. Since hiring a publicity firm is prohibitively expensive for most small bars, it’s best to streamline your process — perhaps choose one employee to manage only one channel and to do it exceptionally well.

Flurry recommends Instagram. “It is a channel of choice for editors, and it also gets you thinking like an editor. It gets you thinking about what is your point of view, and how can I express that in pictures, and that's an amazing exercise — and editors look at those pictures.”

Ice Plant Bar has seen enormous success on Instagram, for which they’ve been recognized by both Imbibe and Saveur Magazine. A quick look at their stream yields a clear view of what they’re about — stunning images of cocktails, well-dressed bartenders and references to their rich history.

A block of ice being carved. Instagram offers brands a chance to tell the world what they're all about. In the case of Ice Plant Bar, they share stunning images of cocktails, well dressed bartenders and references to their rich history as a former ice plant. Photo by Kelly Conway.

“Instagram is a good bar's dream platform,” says Hannah Withers, manager of Maxine’s Tap Room in Fayetteville, Arkansas. “Cocktails can be so stunning and dramatic, or whimsical and flirty. It's my favorite tool to use in marketing.”

Social media also presents opportunities for collaboration and cross promotion. Share the love of your followers and build your own network by tagging the businesses you work with.

“We reach out to local tea companies for hot cocktails in the winter and local farmers in the summer, and make beer cocktails with local breweries we keep on tap,” says Withers. “We cross promote each other a lot.”

Be available, responsive and cooperative

Getting press coverage can be a game changer for any business — so when the opportunity presents itself, bar owners and bartenders alike must be prepared to take advantage.

“Bartenders need to understand that press is free if you can get it,” says Flurry. “And [writers and editors] are people who are on very tight deadlines … The people that you see get press often are people who respond quickly to editors and writers.”

Do yourself and editors a favor: be prepared to respond quickly and thoroughly, with great photos to contribute.

Find gratification in doing a great job, regardless of attention and accolades

Even if press coverage is invaluable to a bar’s bottom line, there’s integrity in making a kickass bar program regardless of who knows it. So, take pride in impressing the customers you hand a drink to, not just the ones who read about you online or in a magazine.

“Our proudest moments, in addition to getting readers’ choice awards, is when we serve guests from bigger markets, who tell us this is one of their favorite bars, and they wish they had one in their area,” says Withers.

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