Trivia night increases revenue for bars, restaurants

On March 30, Brooklyn Brewery is hosting a Thursday trivia night.

Noah Sheidlower | CNBC

Megan Fitzgerald has always been a fan of trivia, but as director of brand experience at Talea Beer Co. in Brooklyn, she wasn’t sure it would be a good fit for a brewery founded by women.

In February, she begged her friends to come to Talea’s first trivia night, fearing only a few players would show up. Instead, more than 70 patrons joined.

When people go out, “they want something enriching and engaging, and they want more than just taking a picture or hitting a beer,” Fitzgerald said. “Trivia is easy and fun, good for large groups or couples, and you can usually find it down the block.”

After a few weeks of partnering with the NYC Trivia League to host Wednesday night games, Fitzgerald said Talea trivia nights bring in about twice as much revenue as other weeknights, excluding special events. The venue consistently attracted about 20 trivia teams, boosting food and beverage sales during the two-hour game. Bar staff also receive more tips, he said.

Bars and restaurants across the country are adding trivia events to their weekly or monthly schedules to bring in more guests and generate higher profits. New trivia brands have popped up in big cities and small towns, with some long-standing companies returning to pre-pandemic numbers. However, the pace of recovery has been slow as the industry faces staffing challenges, according to trivia company executives and restaurant owners.

While some bars develop their own trivia questions, others partner with trivia or entertainment companies that charge a flat fee to provide the questions, infrastructure, and hosts. The main idea is to attract teams competing for awards, grow business or use the extra space on a night that is usually slower and create a new base of regular customers.

“Trivia is profitable for us because it’s profitable to do it during slower times,” said Nick Marking of the Tap Yard in suburban Milwaukee, which has generated roughly 30% more revenue during trivia nights at five locations.

“The shows give you a certain amount and then prizes, so you have to see if it’s worth it to be trivia in the long run, given that your profit margin in the bar world is 15% to 25%.” Marking said.

The NYC Trivia League, which hosts trivia at more than 100 venues in New York City, recently surpassed the number of weekly events since early 2020 and the lockdown of the Covid-19 pandemic. The league charges a flat fee for bars and is free for players.

Irving Torres-Lopez hosts Trivia Nite at the Brooklyn Brewery.

Noah Sheidlower | CNBC

Cullen Shaw, one of the league’s founders, said teams are bigger than they were before Covid – about 3.5 people on average – when many bars barely had trivia nights. Shaw, who hosts trivia nights at The Gaf East on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, added that the league’s transition from pen and paper to a digital platform has allowed for more efficient games.

“We fill the place, and I don’t think it’s going to happen if they just have a basketball game or a hockey game and hope the crowd comes in,” he said.

The growth of “food entertainment”.

Shaw said the NYC Trivia League has recently brought in places that never thought of themselves as trivia bars, adding a dozen to the lineup this year alone. Retention rates are rising in 2023, and the league has become more selective with venues and hosts.

“I’m sure there are a million trivia apps out there, but there’s something about group competition, something about community when like-minded and competitive people come together in one space to play a silly game, but everyone understands the rules,” Shaw said.

According to Datassential’s “trendologist” Mike Kostyo, the rapid growth of trivia nights is part of a broader move toward “food entertainment,” a combination of food and interactive activities. Kostyo added that catering has been beneficial for many bars and restaurants because it does not significantly increase labor costs.

“You have more customers at your location, so you need more back-of-the-house, front-of-the-house staff, but it’s not something you need to hire someone to manage. That’s usually done by outside vendors. trivia software,” Kostyo said.

According to a Datassential report last year, 82% of Americans have been to at least one restaurant, and more than 50% of those diners said they were “very interested” in revisiting such an experience. Eighteen percent of respondents said they would visit diners more often if they had regular trivia nights.

“On a trivia night, we easily double our sales from the night before,” said Will Arvidson, Brooklyn Brewery’s tasting room manager, who said the venue typically draws about 150 people to a Thursday trivia event. “It’s sometimes difficult for us to seat people, but we find a way out.”

Brooklyn Brewery has been hosting trivia nights with the NYC Trivia League since 2019.

Noah Sheidlower | CNBC

Victoria Dawes and Kristina Cheng, who recently got together at Brooklyn Brewery, admit they’ve been playing bar trivia for nearly a decade and it’s more popular than it was before the pandemic. Both said they set aside time each week to connect with friends and show off their random knowledge.

“I feel like we’ve lost so much touch with each other, and trivia is a particularly fun way to re-establish a very normal interaction,” Dawes said.

The rise in dining out comes as inflation forces more Americans to scrutinize how they spend their money.

According to Datassential’s February Table Stakes Report, 39% of consumers say they’ve given up eating out, though Kostyo said cost-conscious people are looking for value dining places when they go out.

“A lot of consumers stay home all day and don’t really socialize, so they’re looking for these opportunities in the food service industry to reconnect with friends and family,” Kostyo said.

“But that doesn’t mean they’re coming back in droves,” he said.

On March 30, Brooklyn Brewery is hosting a Thursday trivia night.

Noah Sheidlower | CNBC

Teams can win cash prizes — up to $50 or $100 for first place at some bars — or shots, food or free merchandise. These possible winnings can encourage players to spend more and potentially offset costs for budget-conscious trivia fans.

Conrad Corretti, who said his trivia team usually makes the top five at Brooklyn Brewery and other venues, said he’s more likely to cut costs on other weeknights so he can spend “more liberally” on bar trivia.

“You show up with your group and you don’t really have to interact with other people, so it was a good activity to interact with people you don’t always see and have a good time,” she said.

The bumpy road to health

With so many new venues hosting trivia nights, Kostyo warned that more businesses are trying to plant their flags in the trivia space because bars “can overlap.” He found that more niche topics on trivia nights attracted specific audiences.

To attract more consumers, some companies, such as Geeks Who Drink, have hired new quiz masters and hired customer managers to develop relationships with venues. Trivia’s director of marketing, Bryan Carr, said the company started the “twitch” quiz, which continues today, and maintains a 15-person writing team to keep the creative content flowing.

It has long been a “slow process” to bring back locations and launch new ones, but the company has continued to expand its presence in cities including Denver, Chicago and Austin, Texas. It runs full-service pub quizzes in about 650 locations, though that number was about 1,000 before the pandemic.

“We try to provide venues with a great starter kit to make sure their event takes off, and we know it sometimes takes two to three months to really build that consistent following,” Carr said. “They can really see a big difference from when they had trivia before and then when they have these slow nights.”

At a trivia night, we easily double our sales from the previous night. … Although it is sometimes difficult to get people to sit down, we find a way.

Will Arvidson

Tasting Room Manager, Brooklyn Brewery

Joshua Lieberthal, founder of California-based King Trivia, which has locations in about 35 states, said he’s seeing more trivia nights today than before the pandemic. However, with tighter profit margins, many bars have been forced to take on “more” weekly events to stay afloat, which may explain why the company has gone from about 200 weekly venues in 2019 to about 325 now.

Still, about 30% to 40% of King Trivia’s pre-Covid customers are out of business, and the rebuilding process has been difficult.

“When things started up again, it wasn’t like you were getting your old customers back — it was starting from scratch,” Libertal said. “It’s amazing that even though we’re much bigger than before, we were more profitable before the pandemic than we are today.”

He said engagement and retention are more or less returning to pre-pandemic levels, thanks in part to the company’s expanded sales and customer service teams. Every week, though, Lieberthal said another client goes on hiatus or pushes back the release date due to staffing issues.

“Because everyone is getting paid more, because it’s hard to hire, it takes more people working behind the scenes to make it all happen,” Libertal said. “It’s an unfortunate reality that the tipping point in this industry is higher than it’s ever been, but thankfully a lot of places are showing it’s possible.”

For Wisconsin-based America’s Pub Quiz, founded in 2007 by Michael Landmann, everything from the staff to the cost of pencil cases has slowed the company’s growth rate compared to before the pandemic.

By 2020, the company had 205 locations in eight states. It’s now back to 175, despite having to start from scratch and contend with higher costs of business.

The company created an online system that could handle dozens more teams, but Landmann found that many locations couldn’t keep up with the growing demand. Others with large staffs could not find a suitable trivia host.

Tyson Sevier, general manager of Omaha, Nebraska-based Varsity Sports Cafe, which has partnered with America’s Pub Quiz for a decade, said places are often short an employee or two on a busy trivia night. It’s a far cry from the “staff horror stories” he says he’s heard from other bar owners in the city, he admits.

Still, trivia nights at the Varsity Sports Cafe cost $2,000 to $3,000 more than other weeknights.

“There are more and more people calling in wanting to play, so I think years ago there were only a few bars that had trivia, and now it seems like every bar has that interest,” Sevier said. “You have to do it now to be competitive.”

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