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NSeeking Advice: Winery With "Predatory" Customers

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FRVintner

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Hi All!

We're a little winery that just opened at the beginning of 2016 (I'll spare the details in case anybody looks us up & sees this) and, at first, we were getting a ton of great business. We were the hip new place in town with excellent decor, a great selection of wines, and a unique business model that set us apart from other wineries in the state. The others (of which there are very few) are typically run out of someone's barn/garage and have "by appointment only" tastings run by part-time owners/volunteers. Perhaps this should have been my first hint that this was a challenging environment, but we forged ahead with a new idea: we are a winery that functions as a wine bar, making small batches of very unique wine while supplementing with other wines from across the state. This includes draft cider, mead, sangria, etc. making us the BEST selection of local craft vinous beverages in our state.

What made this different is that, instead of the "free tasting" idea some people have in their head, we offer flights, paid tasting events, food pairings, by the glass drinking, entertainment, food trucks, etc. to make for a high-scale, but approachable experience with 100% local fare, right down to the snacks. We even run a trivia night, a "wine glass club" which entitles people to certain discounts after paying in, and free movie nights...

So here's the problem: while we were really popular at first, as the seasons have changed we're having a serious and problematic decline in business. Not just that, but people have cued into the idea that we have gift cards for trivia night first-place winners and that we have the wine glass club, various promotions etc. They also realize we are the MOST beautiful place in town to have a private event... so the result is that a lot of people are coming in, drinking water, bringing outside food (normally ok because we don't have a kitchen), and bringing large groups of 8-10, where only one or two people will order a drink. It's become somewhat of a meeting place, but people don't feel obligated to buy anything. I'm losing money fast because people are taking serious advantage of us.

Now, I don't want to be the jerk and say "hey, you can only hang out if you're buying something" and drive off customers leaving a bad taste in their mouths. Then again, they're not really my customers if they don't buy anything! I've had to implement a few policies, such as a ledger for trivia gift cards, expiration dates, limiting what people can get for free if they win on quiz night, changing our glass club from "one free glass of our wine on glass night" (which would have worked if people didn't just get one glass and go home!) to Buy One- Get One, etc. I'm even having to put signs up today that say "No outside beverages" and "our complementary coffee bar is for paying customers, their children, and designated drivers only... all others pay at bar". We are also saying a "one drink minimum" on quiz night because literally 80% of our "customers" now come and drink water until they win a free glass of wine.

I'm a very caring, generous, and courteous person and therefore we've gotten excellent reviews across the board on customer service, but I feel like we're being taken advantage of here and it's becoming alarmingly frequent... or at the very minimum we are reaching the wrong demographic. What would you do, as an owner, to curb this abusive and destructive behavior of our non-paying, (technically) non-customers treating my building like it's a public library? I'm finding my enthusiasm for my business decline and I know desperation will only hurt us, so I'm trying to keep positive and see what insight others have.

What would you recommend?
 

ibglowin

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Sounds like people see you more now as a club/bar and not a winery. Your mix of entertainment has brought lots of people in but sounds like most of them are freeloaders which doesn't pay the bills. Time to make it harder to get a free drink. Free drinks don't keep the lights on.
 

Mismost

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Welcome to the wonderful world of marketing! Cover Charge at the door?

I don't know how people can do things like that....guess I just don't have the gall to act like that. I did at one time buy a bar with a couple of friends. It seemed like such a great idea...except EVERYBODY wanted free beer and nobody wanted to work. I bought out the duds and worked my tail off "having a great time". One night a guy came in, sat down, and told me how he always wanted to own a bar. I was lucky and lost about about 4 grand on the sale...actually a very cheap lesson for me.

Good Luck. But....you can't always be that "real nice guy". It is a business, unless you do not run it as a business...then the place will just be closed. Some folks will say "the customer is the most important person"...I do to in public! In private, it's the business owner themselves...if they ain't happy, no one is happy...if they don't make money, the business fails...then no one is happy. Tight rope walker...can you do that??
 

FRVintner

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Thanks guys for the feedback! Yes, today I made it harder to get a free drink. Now signs around the building that say "No outside beverages permitted. Please order a refreshment at the bar". My bar manager will now tell anyone with an outside beverage (last night it was 2 liter of soda) that they cannot have it on site. We are making the gift cards for trivia night to be a "with minimum purchase requirement" good for 2 weeks only, etc. We're even requiring a one drink minimum to play trivia or use our meeting room, which has been abused. Last week a group of quilters showed up, no reservation, went upstairs, started quilting and helped themselves to the free coffee stand we have in the back for designated drivers... now we're calling it a VIP room, velvet roping it off, and stating that there is a "one drink minimum or equivalent" for groups five or larger or to use the conference room. We're taking back the bar, but doing it with a smile on our faces! :)
 

Johny99

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Thanks guys for the feedback! Yes, today I made it harder to get a free drink. Now signs around the building that say "No outside beverages permitted. Please order a refreshment at the bar". My bar manager will now tell anyone with an outside beverage (last night it was 2 liter of soda) that they cannot have it on site. We are making the gift cards for trivia night to be a "with minimum purchase requirement" good for 2 weeks only, etc. We're even requiring a one drink minimum to play trivia or use our meeting room, which has been abused. Last week a group of quilters showed up, no reservation, went upstairs, started quilting and helped themselves to the free coffee stand we have in the back for designated drivers... now we're calling it a VIP room, velvet roping it off, and stating that there is a "one drink minimum or equivalent" for groups five or larger or to use the conference room. We're taking back the bar, but doing it with a smile on our faces! :)
Sounds like you have a great place and concept. As a customer sort, the changes you've made sound good. Even if you get enough paying customers, as a customer I don't like an environment of freeloaders if I'm paying my share. Good luck and I really hope it works out.
 

FRVintner

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Sounds like you have a great place and concept. As a customer sort, the changes you've made sound good. Even if you get enough paying customers, as a customer I don't like an environment of freeloaders if I'm paying my share. Good luck and I really hope it works out.
Thanks John! I appreciate the word of support on the concept! I was really nervous rolling the changes out tonight, but we actually made a lot more on sales simply by clamping down a bit... best part is that nobody got mad and people actually seem to have taken the hint and started buying things.
 

Spikedlemon

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They likely understand that you need to be able to pay the bills to keep the doors open.
 

Hokapsig

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I'd say to get back to your core values. If you want to be a bar, be a bar. If you want to be a winery, then be a winery. Cut back your hours to weekends only. Cut the free coffee. I find that if people come to your winery and taste for free, they will usually purchase unless they don't have a taste for the wines.

Also, those that bring in outside beverages are asked to leave or to pay you for the beverages (or an uncorking fee).
 

marquettematt

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Thanks John! I appreciate the word of support on the concept! I was really nervous rolling the changes out tonight, but we actually made a lot more on sales simply by clamping down a bit... best part is that nobody got mad and people actually seem to have taken the hint and started buying things.
You catch more flies with honey than vinegar
 

marquettematt

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Many businesses no longer exist because they gave away too much honey ....
I agree but my comment was more towards his attitude. He simply changed his policies in a more or less polite manner rather than getting crappy with the people who were coming. If he'd done that they would've been less likely to come back and they'd be telling their friends about it, hurting future business.
 

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