Experienced A-V contractors share their insights and tips for the restaurant and bar installation market.
With venues that are themed, franchised or part of a chain, there may be some uniformity as far as appearance and the type of clientele. Independent venues are all different. Russ Dubrow, president of Electronic Technology in Los Angeles, said, “I’ve found that most independents ask for sound, TV and music – no specifics. They depend on me for the particulars. Sometimes I’ll try to get them a special deal on a new product if they’re willing to be a first-time guinea pig.”
Ted Rothstein, sound designer and president of TR Technologies in NYC, said, “It’s important to understand the business structure of independent venues, say typically an upscale, new one. Many of them are set up with one general partner and a bunch of silent partners or investors. More money needs to be raised all the time, and few projects generally come in on the budget – they generally go over. With a restaurant chain or franchise, their accounting practices are usually more standardized or at least consistent; everything can be more accurate.”
“Understand money parameters of independent venues, besides what you initially agree on as a budget,” said Barry Scott, CEO of New York Sound & Visual, Scarsdale, NY. “Deal directly with the owner, not anyone else, and don’t extend credit because even if he eventually pays up, it costs time and money to collect.”
Don Jacobs, owner of Midnight Express in Brooklyn, said, “With an independent venue, the last thing I ask about is budget. First, I find out how the system is going to be used. Then, I’ll generally present them with two or three price options from deluxe to cheap and dirty. That way, I’ll get an idea early on as to what they’re willing to spend.”
Stuart Allyn, president of A/W Sound & Vision Ltd., Irvington, NY, said, “With a new venue, hopefully the architect, sound designer, lighting designer and restaurant designer are all brought in at the beginning. Unfortunately, this doesn’t usually happen, and when we come in, it’s usually to correct what has already been done, whether it’s acoustics, sound, or buzz from the lights. Generally, bar owners don’t understand A-V, don’t want to understand sound, and don’t want to spend money on it. All they know is when something doesn’t work.”
Everyone with whom I spoke preferred bar and restaurant chains as clients rather than independent venues. Money was a primary reason, although not the only one. Equally important were the mechanics of the project’s administration.
Rothstein said, “The advantage of working with a chain, besides the greater financial picture, is that once the installation is up and running satisfactorily, the work speaks for itself. In other words, there’s a good chance that they’ll call on you for future upgrades. Chains also tend to have budgets that can be cross collateralized with other budgets, so there’s less chance of them running out of money the way independent venues often do.”
Said Scott, “I’ve found that chains usually specify what they want, and they may use input from their own A-V staff.”
Because a predominant characteristic of a chain is overall uniformity, many, if not all sites, will get upgraded at the same time, not just one. “When that occurs,” said Dubrow, “they’ll naturally look for the cheapest possible way to get things done because of the volume of work.”
Themes and Variations
Such themed amusement parks as Disneyland, Sesame Place, and Hershey Park have been part of American family vacations for years. The restaurants and watering holes within the parks usually reflect the park’s themes. Such themed restaurants as Hard Rock Cafe, Planet Hollywood and Harley Davidson Cafe, operating independent of a theme park, however are a bit newer. Some are independent venues, but most of them are chains.
Rothstein’s client list includes the Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood (where he’s also done video screens, logos and animated signage), Euro Disney entertainment Complex and many other themed restaurants. “The decor and ambiance are so important in a themed venue that you generally want speakers and technology invisible,” he said. “Controlling the music environment in a themed club should be failsafe. I’ve developed the TRDJ system, a computer that IDs the venue’s CDs into a database according to musical style. This way, the owner or bar manager can program via a touchscreen appropriate music selections, like a smart jukebox. Because this doesn’t produce a mixed tape as a separate product, it’s legal.”
Said Scott, “In a themed venue, you try not to have the technology visible; most places want to hear it, not see it.”
You can’t always get what you want if you’re unwilling to spend the money. The professionals I contacted were unanimous on this. A few have had luck educating venue owners by presenting a wide array of options.
Dubrow said, “The last project I worked on was budgeted for $750,000. The owner wanted incredible music and gave me a free hand; that was pure luck. Otherwise, I’d recommend giving them a class A price and a generic B price. Show them where parts of the budget can be maneuvered.”
Rothstein said, “Your original prospectus should be full-blown, and you can trim from there. Give a wide variety of options.”
Scott said, “You must look at the client’s objective and their needs – background, foreground, satellite, live, recorded or TV. Where might they go in the future? And make sure you can take them into the future – that the system you set up is expandable. Also, if you offer them rentals on an as-needed basis for gear they may be unwilling to buy, they’ll remain an active client.”
Allyn said, “I deal with high-end clients in a series of meetings where we’ll ask for any drawings or photos they might have, and then we’ll put together a scope of services outline with fees.” He agreed with Scott in that you should “try to get the client to anticipate what they may want in the future – for example, pre-wiring for video conferencing to a sister restaurant, live music or karaoke.”
Operations and Servicing
High employee turnover is common in bars and restaurants, even upscale ones. When recommending gear that will be operated by large numbers of people in less than optimum conditions – dirt, smoke and dampness – keep it simple.
Dubrow said, “get as many things out of the system as you can. Print an easy-to-read script and slap it all over the equipment. You can be creative with service contracts if you’re a small company by combining them with barter, or if we’re adding new gear with the client’s old stuff, I’ll warranty ours but not theirs. Sometimes, we’ll get a service contract on their gear.”
Allyn offers service contracts to some clients, but tend to stay away from then in bars and restaurants because, as he puts it, “the stuff gets very abused even under the best conditions. I’d rather deal with any problems on a house-call basis.”
Similarly, Rothstein said, “I prefer a house-call basis. I tend to use standardized components and brands. Any replacement parts can be handled by restaurant personnel.”
Many new restaurants and bars have been built into spaces that previously existed as something else; abandoned lofts, warehouses and banks have been quickly converted as surrounding areas are revitalized. Along with all the spaciousness, however, may come land-mark-status architecture that cannot be easily altered, impossibly high ceilings and inadequate wiring and electrical support. There may also be a pre-existing A-V system of some kind that the venue cannot, or may be unwilling to, eliminate.
Rothstein said, “Find out beforehand exactly how much reconfiguring you’ll be able to do without a hassle – the architect should research the status of the building. You have to inform the client that pre-existing A-V system might sound all right in a high school auditorium but not for what he’s planning. Discuss the needs to change the basic system.”
Working in the restaurant and bar installation market may seem a daunting task. With these tips and guidelines at your disposal, however, the path for success should be clear.