One Step Ahead

27 Aug. 2020
What comes next is crucial, says Stephan Hinz

« In January, we started prepping for twenty big exhibitions. We stocked more than 8000 bottles of wine and spirits. We were right in the middle of production when everything was cancelled. We are expecting 700 events every year, in 2020 we’re at less than twenty. We’re losing 94% of our business ». Thus starts our conversation with Stefan Hinz, the Bar Innovator of the Year at the first Havana Club Entrepreneur Awards. We have heard many horror stories about bars this year. But the drinks business is more than day-to-day bar operation, as Stephan Hinz’ case reminds us.

« We started the year quite nicely, and expected a bit of growth, between 3 to 10% », he recalls. « In February, though, we got the first signs of the pandemic and it looked like the opening we had planned in Asia wouldn’t go ahead. We thought this could come to Europe so we reconsidered two large investments we wanted to make. Good we didn’t go ahead… » With bars, events, consulting, training, ice machines, recyclable straws, what have you… Stephan has numerous lines of business and quite a good thing going. It’s a 360° business, in a way, but, alas, focused on one industry. « Our clientele is always the beverage industry, whether it’s bar owners, bar professionals, consumers… In Germany our industry was hit harder than cafés and restaurants. We were the first to have to close our venues and we will be the last to open ». 

With events banned or severely restricted, in-person training very complicated and no bar in a position to buy a new ice machine, glassware or straws, the impact was brutal. « I spent six years thatching every penny, trying to put money on the side. Those six years will be gone in a matter of months », he tells us. But Stephan is a very resourceful person and put a lot of energy in finding solutions. The one thing he is probably the proudest of is that Little Link, his flagship bar, only closed for one day. « It’s massive », he underlines. In just 24 hours, the bar was turned into a cocktail counter for take-out. « We had to rethink everything and be creative. A carpenter made us a nice counter / window and we were ready to go ». Three days later, they looked at delivery: Stephan decided to refit two cars they use for events and turn them into branded cocktail delivery vehicles. 

Great care was also taken in what was being offered to locked down customers. « The most important thing was to look at our rules, our way of working, our approach to hospitality, to sustainability » and make sure everything they did was in line with their philosophy. The Little Link team put together conceptual packages for birthdays, for example, or for people getting married without their friends and family. Hospitality packages, as Stephan call them, to make up to 12 drinks. This summer, Little Link has been allowed to reopen with an extended outdoors seating section. The good weather helps, and the bar is now financially sustainable. 

But Stephan is already looking ahead. « I didn’t spend a single day sat on my backside, crying. Right now, you shouldn’t handle today, you should think about what’s coming this summer », he says. Part of it is out of his hands — if the government doesn’t allow bars to build infrastructure to extend outdoor drinking into the winter, they will struggle massively. « There are now so many ‘ifs’ around our businesses and for each ‘if’, you need an answer ». Stephan and his teams have provided part of those answers developing apps. One to register guests, for example, given that the government could hold a bar responsible if it becomes a cluster of infection. But also education apps or best practices apps. This takes time and costs money, but Stephan decided to share them for free with the wider industry. The demand is there, he reckons, given the number of downloads, information requests or feedback they have received.

Unsurprisingly, Stephan expects the coming months to be trying. « It’s the biggest crisis our industry has faced, but we need to look beyond COVID-19 and realize that there’s this huge economic crisis right behind ». He remains, however, optimistic. « This is an opportunity to improve. We can become better professionals, working as we all are on the finer details of our operations, on budgeting, on everything. There will always be options, there will always be good bars and good restaurants. People will still want to celebrate. Up to us to offer the best food and the best drinks at the best price. »

François Monti