Whether you are a comedian, DJ, reporter, or pretty much anyone who functions in our society, you need to know your audience. This is especially true for bar owners, as who the bar speaks to with its design, cocktail program and physical attributes will dictate much of what your venue becomes.
But in today’s ever-evolving world, the marketplace looks a lot different than it used to. There’s the café that doubles as a laundromat, the farmer’s market that functions as a youth training program and gyms with full-service restaurants inside. Populations, people and purposes are becoming blended and so are the audiences.
n this spirit another such unique space is emerging, the “general population” bar.
What’s a general population bar? It’s simply a place that is open and welcoming to everyone. And by welcome, we don’t mean, “come on, in!!”, so much as, “you’re here, you may or may not be queer, now would you like that neat or on ice?”
Today’s LGBT consumer expects to feel welcome in your space. They are going to come in as part of a group, either of like-minded LGBT folks or a mixed crowd of different backgrounds, and if you want them to make it their regular spot they need to feel that they as a whole person are wanted. This generally means a lack of patrons who gratuitously use the F-word multiple times in a sentence, and the absence of those who call something “ gay” as if it’s derogatory (ps, it’s not actually derogatory, but it is annoying).
It also means that if they come in with a significant other and are enjoying themselves enough to have a “Michael Sam moment” they can do it as naturally as their heterosexual counterparts.
Maybe this is your bar and you just don’t know it … as that is kind of the point.
When we decided to open The Port Bar it was this concept that we had in mind. For our location we chose Oakland, California which, if you don’t know, is the 5th best place to visit in the world according to the New York Times. Everyone living in Oakland knows that. And part of the reason is the then burgeoning, now off the hook, bar scene. Craft cocktails are the rule not the exception and patrons never wonder why they are waiting five minutes for a drink (especially in Uptown).
Despite the activity, LGBT Oaklanders have no specific place in the action. Sure there’s two longstanding nightclubs that are 8,000 and 10,000 square feet, but they lack the intimacy of a smaller bar and are not always open during standard hours.
And let’s face it, nightclubs are different than bars. When you wait 5 minutes for a drink in a nightclub it isn’t because the drink is being made with integrity by those who pride themselves on being mixologists. And with loud music and dancing there isn’t room, or volume, for conversation as with a traditional bar.
So without a dedicated LGBT space, LGBT Oaklanders either head for that city across the Bay known for all things gay, or go to bars that do their best at being “general population”.
For The Port Bar, getting to this result meant community focus groups organized by gender and age. To say this process was eye opening was an understatement, as our goal environment (where everyone is welcome) had yet to fully establish itself and the reasons why were soon apparent.
Undoubtedly this absence was in due in part to lack of intention, as this simply was not a sound financial possibility in prior eras and or less progressive markets. But additionally the logistics proved to be much more complicated than one might imagine, as different members of the LGBT community want different things.
In older populations you have people that lived through fierce discrimination and still identify with the side of our society where you can be fired for being gay (29 states still allow this) or even physically attacked (only 23 states provide hate crime legislation protecting LGBT individuals). These folks want a space that is very much intended for them.
This was echoed among both our male and female groups in the 40+ age bracket, most of whom made it clear that hanging out with other genders and orientations should not be a priority.
This was hugely different from our 20s cohort, who not only thought that our space should be welcoming to all LGBT communities, but those in the other direction as well. A beautiful sentiment that shows how far we have come, as many of our patrons are now less worried about affirming their own space as making sure their friends from communities that not so long ago kept them at bay were also welcome.
To us this meant that while we are obviously going to have our “Michael Sam” moments, the wishes of more conservative customers should be respected as well. So while we never want to restrict our customers, Miley Cyrus MTV stage behavior is not something we will be striving towards.
We also affirmed that the “LGBT” label has value, an insight that should be heeded by all venues who would like to attract this section of the market. “When I see that a space is specifically marked to the LGBT community, I know that they get us” said one focus group participant. “Getting the LGBT consumer means that you recognize that safety and a welcoming attitude mean something.”
This is an important point, especially to many hetero customers who might wonder why a bar needs any label if it is truly “general population”? In reality this is a safety issue more than something meant to be divisive or exclusive, still a necessary reality even in our progressive times.
For The Port Bar, we will attempt to honor all of these intentions. We of course realize that being for everyone will inevitably mean that we are not for everyone (especially those who would like a more traditional experience) … but we hope the benefits of inclusivity prevail overall.
And for the rest of you, just note that as social progress continues and new bar patrons age into the marketplace, LGBT consumers are going to come into your bar. Whether they come back and whether they bring their friends and their friends’ wallets is up to you and the degree that you make them feel at home.
At The Port Bar, we will work to ensure everyone feels at home. At your bar, it’s up to you.