Question: How Are Some Bars Boosting Profits? Answer: Trivia Nights

Noah Sheidlower | CNBC
  • Many bars and restaurants have added trivia to bring in more guests and turn higher profits.
  • Some places have clawed their way back to pre-pandemic numbers, although staffing concerns and inflation have slowed growth.
  • The popularity of bar trivia is part of the rapid growth of "eatertainment," a fusion of dining and interactive activities.

Megan Fitzgerald has always been a trivia fan, but as the director of brand experience at Talea Beer Co. in Brooklyn she wasn't convinced it would be a good fit for the female-founded brewery.

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

When people go out, "they want something that's enriching and engaging and is more than just taking shots or slamming beers," Fitzgerald said. "Trivia is easy and fun, good for big groups or couples, and you can find it usually just down the block."

After a few weeks of partnering with the NYC Trivia League to host the Wednesday night games, Fitzgerald said Talea trivia nights were bringing in nearly double the revenue of other weeknights, barring special events. The venue has consistently pulled in nearly 20 trivia teams, increasing food and beverage sales throughout the two-hour game. Bar staff get more tips, too, she said.

Across the country, bars and restaurants are adding trivia events to their weekly or monthly schedules to bring in more guests and turn higher profits. New trivia brands have popped up in big cities and small towns, while some long-standing companies have clawed their way back to pre-pandemic numbers. However, the pace of recovery has been slow as the industry faces staffing struggles, according to trivia company leaders and restaurant owners.

While some bars craft their own trivia questions, others partner with trivia or entertainment companies, which charge a flat fee to provide questions, infrastructure and hosts. The basic idea is to bring in teams who are vying for prizes, to boost business or use extra space on what might be a typically slower night — and build a new base of regular customers.

"Trivia is advantageous for us because it's profitable to have it during those slower times," said Nick Marking of The Tap Yard in the outskirts of Milwaukee, which has pulled in about 30% more revenue during trivia nights at its five locations.

"The shows run you a certain amount, and then the prizes also, so you have to look at if it's worth it to have trivia in the long run considering your profit margin is anywhere between 15% and 25% in the bar world," Marking said.

NYC Trivia League, which hosts trivia at over 100 venues across New York City, recently surpassed its weekly event count from early 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown. 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
Irving Torres-Lopez hosts Trivia Nite at the Brooklyn Brewery. 

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

"We fill the place up, and I don't think that would be the case if they just put on a basketball or hockey game and hoped a crowd would come in," he said.

The growth of 'eatertainment'

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

"I'm sure there's a million trivia apps, but there's just something about a group competition, there's something about community when like-minded and competitive people get together in a space to play a silly game but everybody understands the rules," Shaw said.

According to Mike Kostyo, a "trendologist" at Datassential, the rapid growth of trivia nights is part of a broader move toward "eatertainment," a fusion of dining and interactive activities ranging from bar trivia to pickleball-dining concepts. Eatertainment has been beneficial for many bars and restaurants given it doesn't significantly add to labor costs, Kostyo added.

"You're having a lot more customers in your venue, so you need more back-of-house, front-of-house staff, but it's not something where you need to hire somebody to manage that. It's usually an outside vendor doing the trivia program," Kostyo said.

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

"On a trivia night, we are easily doubling our sales from the previous night," said Will Arvidson, tasting room manager at Brooklyn Brewery, who said the space usually brings in about 150 people for its Thursday trivia event. "It's sometimes difficult for us to sit people, but we find a way."

Brooklyn Brewery has been hosting trivia nights with the NYC Trivia League since 2019.
Noah Sheidlower | CNBC
Brooklyn Brewery has been hosting trivia nights with the NYC Trivia League since 2019.

Victoria Dawes and Kristina Cheng, who teamed up on a recent Thursday at Brooklyn Brewery, said they've been playing bar trivia for about a decade and agreed it's more popular now than pre-pandemic. Both said they carve out time each week to bond with friends and show off their random knowledge.

"I feel like we had lost so much connection with each other, and trivia has been a particularly fun way to have very normal interactions again," Dawes said.

The rise of eatertainment comes as inflation compels more Americans to scrutinize how they spend their money.

According to Datassential's February Table Stakes Report, 39% of consumers said they're pulling back on eating out, though Kostyo said cost-conscious people are looking to eatertainment venues for value when they do go out.

"A lot of consumers, they're stuck at home all day and they don't really socialize, so they're looking for those opportunities from the food service industry to socialize with friends and family again," Kostyo said.

"But that doesn't mean that they're back in droves," he added.

Brooklyn Brewery hosts a Thursday trivia night on March 30.
Noah Sheidlower | CNBC
Brooklyn Brewery hosts a Thursday trivia night on March 30.

Teams can win cash prizes — as much as $50 or $100 for first place at some bars — or shots, food or free merchandise. Those possible winnings could encourage more spending from players and potentially offset costs for budget-conscious trivia-goers.

Conrad Corretti, who says his trivia team usually places in the top five at Brooklyn Brewery and other venues, said he's been more likely to cut back on spending on other weeknights so he can spend "more liberally" at bar trivia.

"You're showing up with your group, and you don't really have to interact with other people, so it's been a good activity to hang out with people you don't always see and have a good time," he said.

Bumpy road to recovery

With so many new venues hosting trivia nights, Kostyo cautioned bars may "cannibalize each other" as more businesses try to plant their flag in the trivia space. He's seen more niche topics at trivia nights pull in specific audiences.

To attract more consumers, some companies, like Geeks Who Drink, have recruited new quiz masters and brought on client managers to cultivate relationships with venues. Bryan Carr, marketing director for the trivia company, said the company launched a "twitch" quiz still running today, and it maintained its 15 plus-person writing team to keep creative content flowing.

Bringing back longtime venues and onboarding new ones has been a "slow-moving process," but the company has continued growing its presence in cities including Denver, Chicago and Austin, Texas. It does full-service pub quizzes in around 650 venues, though that number was around 1,000 pre-pandemic.

"We try to provide venues with a great starter kit to make sure that their event gets going, and we know that it takes at times two to three months to really build up that consistent following," Carr said. "They really can see a big difference from before they had trivia and then when they have it on these slower off-nights."

Joshua Lieberthal, founder of California-based company King Trivia, which has venues in about 35 states, said he's seen considerably more trivia nights today than before the pandemic. However, with tighter profit margins, many bars have been forced to do "vastly more" weekly events to stay afloat, which might explain why the company went from around 200 weekly venues in 2019 to about 325 now.

Still, about 30% to 40% of King Trivia's pre-Covid clients went out of business, and the rebuilding process has been bumpy.

"It wasn't like you just got back your old clients when things restarted — it was starting from scratch," Lieberthal said. "Amazingly, we were more profitable pre-pandemic than we are today, even though we're so much larger than we were before."

Attendance and retention are back, more or less, to pre-pandemic levels due in part to the company's expanded sales and customer services teams, he said. Though every week, Lieberthal said another client goes on hiatus or pushes back a launch date due to staffing troubles.

"Because everyone gets paid more, because it's hard to staff, you need more people working behind the scenes to make it all happen," Lieberthal said. "That's an unfortunate reality that the breakeven point is much higher in this industry than it used to be, but thankfully so many venues want to run shows that it's doable."

For Wisconsin-based America's Pub Quiz, founded in 2007 by Michael Landmann, everything from staffing to the cost of pencil boxes has slowed the company's pace of growth compared to before the pandemic.

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

The company created an online system that could handle dozens more teams, but Landmann noticed many venues were unable to keep up with increased demand. Others with ample staff couldn't find a suitable trivia host.

Tyson Sevier, general manager at Omaha, Nebraska-based Varsity Sports Cafe, which has partnered with America's Pub Quiz for a decade, said locations have often been short one or two employees on a busy trivia night. That's a far cry, he acknowledged, from the "employee horror stories" he said he's heard from other bar owners in the city.

Still, trivia nights at Varsity Sports Cafe pull in $2,000 to $3,000 more compared with other weeknights, he said.

"We have more and more people calling that want to play, so I think that there's definitely an interest such that only a couple of bars had trivia years ago and now it seems like every bar has it," Sevier said. "You have to do it now to be competitive."

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