Word of mouth, the new sign

2014-08-10T00:00:00Z 2014-08-11T11:06:08Z Word of mouth, the new signAngela Pittenger Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

An urban trend — dubbed the hard-to-find or speakeasy trend — inspired by the signless speakeasies of the Prohibition era, is making its way from bigger cities like New York and Los Angeles, to Tucson. 

Scott and Co., Dragoon Brewing and Penca don't have signs that are visible from the street, to let people know they are there.

And yet, people find them. 

A new bar, The Still, which will open later this month or early September, will not have a sign either. In fact, the only way in, is through a secret door inside a restaurant.

It may seem counterintuitive to not have a sign, but, it's a viable trend, said Yong Liu, associate professor of marketing for Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona. 

"The pros of this kind of operation can include the feelings of exclusivity, mystery, venturesome and a bit of nostalgia," Liu said. "These come from the decor, the location and often the not-easy-to-get-to process... These feelings can be fairly attractive when one considers going to a bar or restaurant."

MODERN-DAY SPEAKEASY

From a business perspective, the cons focus on the difficulty that customers may have finding them, Liu said. But, he added, it shouldn't be a major concern.

"Some of these bars and restaurants are intentionally limiting the access to create the sentiment of being unique and being exclusive," Liu said. "In other words, they do not want to be a place for millions of people."

Such is the case with The Still, which will open at the end of this month or early September, inside Vero Amore, at Plaza Palomino. 

The Still, a Prohibition-era inspired, 700-square-foot bar, will only hold approximately 25 people, said Aric Mussman, co-owner of Vero Amore.

"We're not trying to be crazy busy," Mussman said. "We're just marketing to a demographic that appreciates that kind of thing...I think it's kinda cooler like that, where you have to know about it."

Like an old-school speakeasy, patrons of The Still, will get in through a secret entrance. Cameras and cell phone use will be prohibited. There is no phone number or address. 

Old-fashioned cocktails, such as bee's knees will be made from scratch, including the bitters and simple syrups. 

"It might take us six to eight minutes to make your drink because it's handcrafted," Mussman said. "It's something we've been interested in for a while. It's really popular in other cities."

So far, people are receptive to The Still. "We're not even open yet, and we have more than 500 Facebook likes," Mussman said. "People are interested."

URBAN EXPLORATION

Though these type of establishments can sprout up anywhere, urban areas with foot traffic are more attractive markets, Liu said, because of the "stark contrast between modern business and old time," as well as being easily accessible to tourists.

"What people like about urban areas is they like exploring," said Travis Reese, co-owner of Scott & Co. "So when they find something, it's a unique feeling. You're not gonna replicate that in a shopping center on Speedway.

R Bar, which recently opened, isn't seen from the main street and is accessed through an alley opposite The Rialto Theatre, downtown. Penca, a restaurant serving Mexico City cuisine, at 50 E. Broadway, does not have a sign. Customers either have to know what it is or happen upon it, while exploring downtown. Same with Good Oak Bar, which has a small sign, only visible to customers walking up to the door.

Scott & Co. was created, nearly four years ago, with the old time speakeasies in mind, hidden on a side street with no obvious signage.

It started out operating as a coffee shop six days a week, and a bar four nights a week. "Apparently no one likes going to a speakeasy coffee shop," joked Reese, co-owner of the bar and neighboring restaurant, 47 Scott. But, once it was converted to a full-time bar, business picked up.

"There's an emotional connection when people find it that's really cool," Reese said. "Places with big signs are saying 'we're here and you know about it.' When people discover you and like you, they feel they've found something. And they take ownership of that and say 'we found this and we love what it is.'"

"It builds a loyalty from the beginning," added co-owner Nicole Flowers.

However, the bar's location, 49 N. Scott Ave., which is on a side street between E. Congress Street and E. Pennington Street, is dark at night, which the owners feel is the only problem of not having a sign lighting the way, especially midweek, when not as many people are out and about.

"There are times, like on a Wednesday night that people aren't thrilled about walking down a dark street," Reese said.

"And if they're new and want to check us out, they're like 'oh wait, maybe they're not open tonight,' " Flowers said.

PLAYING HARD-TO-FIND

Even so, Scott & Co. has successfully attracted and kept its customers' interest. "We've been fortunate enough to get national publicity and have a reputation in this town, so I think it stays pretty busy," Reese said. "Even from the beginning, because we were the only one, there was this word of mouth of people saying 'I can't believe we have this in Tucson.' "

"Speaking easy," or, in modern terms, keeping your mouth shut, is no longer necessary with the new twist on the speakeasy. In fact, these businesses, rely on word of mouth and social media to bring in customers.

"Being in a difficult to find location without signage has become less a problem for people to talk about the place or to find it," Liu said. "Social media makes it so easy for people to communicate with each other, especially about something with a novel element like this."

Word of mouth is what has kept Dragoon Brewing going, especially since it's not in a location with foot traffic. The brewery has an address on Grant Road, but sits behind other buildings, making it impossible to see from the street. The brewery was open for more than a year before it finally put up a sign.

"We didn't think we really needed one," said Tristan White, manager of Dragoon Brewing. "When we first opened and didn't have any signage at all, we really relied on word of mouth."

Not having a sign did not effect business for the brewery. And, since having a sign installed, not much has changed, White said. 

"Our building is not easy to get to and so, even with the sign, you really have to know what you're doing to find us," White said.

Though, the reasons for the feelings of exclusivity differ, from place to place, there's something to be said for being "in-the-know," when it comes to finding a hard-to-find hang out.

"Back in the Prohibition it was exclusivity because it was illegal," Mussman said.  "And now you kind of feel special because not everybody is there."

Contact reporter Angela Pittenger at 573-4137 or apitteng@tucson.com. Follow her on Twitter @CentsibleMama or on Facebook at facebook.com/centsiblemama.

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