Madam Blessing, as most of her patrons call her, surveyed the crowd of mostly men sitting around and having a nice time over drinks in her establishment and she couldn’t help but pinch herself to be sure it was not a dream or illusion. About a year earlier, she opened a new business beside her restaurant on the advice of her younger sister. This was in January 2020 and looking back, she could not have had it any better.
Her younger sibling, Mabel had come to her restaurant in the company of her boyfriend and a few of his friends and after a hearty meal, they delved into conversation, banter and laughter; and there was a need for refreshments to keep the conversation going. Madam Blessing sourced for drinks from a shop, 3 buildings away, a few times to keep her guests entertained. The level of noise and rancour attracted a few people off the street to come and request for drinks in her restaurant, but she promptly redirected them to the shop a few blocks from hers.
Madam Blessing was initially reluctant to start the business as suggested by her sister. She did not want to be in direct competition with the one down the road and wasn’t too sure they could both operate profitably so close to each other. In hindsight, how very wrong she was, as they both thrived.
The ‘business’ being referred to here is the beer parlour, which is considered the poor cousin of the sports bars, lounges and exclusive clubs in the entertainment/leisure industry family. Beer parlours as we have come to know them are the most prolific business in most parts of Nigeria. Known for their staying power and low initial capital base, they are a study in how general inflation and harsh economic environment does not seem to affect certain businesses.
The typical beer parlour is a single entrepreneur-owned business with not more than two staff assisting with chilling, preparing and serving customers. The business premises is mostly the front area of a building to which minimal rent is paid and, in the beginning, the owner buys a few crates of alcoholic beverage and restocks as they are consumed. Over time, he/she is able to calculate the reorder level and with time also opens a line of credit with his/her suppliers who are mostly wholesalers. Keeping the operating expenses low and reasonable is critical to the long-term survival of the business and innovations are only adopted as the business increases in size and profitability.
For most patrons, the ‘pump price mindset’ is the key reason they patronize beer parlours. The ‘pump price’ refers to the drinks being sold at prices equal to or very similar to the recommended retail price from the manufacturers/breweries. Unlike the lounges and sports bars, no premium is placed on the cost of the mostly alcoholic beverages being sold there. This allows patrons to maximise their ‘enjoyment’ within budget and creates room for them to splurge on other offerings.
The other offerings including fried meat, pepper soup (fish, goat meat, cow leg) are also on offer at very low prices. This creates a complete package in the minds of the patrons and increases patronage. A smart mallam can also place his suya stand beside the beer parlour and this becomes an additional offering to the patrons and also, assured patronage to the mallam.
Another key aspect of the beer parlour is the democratization of the public space that allows any person of legal age to not only sit down and consume alcohol and other offerings, but also to freely engage in public discourse, share ideas and in some cases, pretend to be an expert in a particular field of knowledge. In this space, the discourse is not limited or moderated and information seemingly gathered in private is shared with glee to impress other patrons. Politics, sports, business/investment, marital advice, religion are all everyday conversations with opinions ranging from the logical to the outrightly ridiculous. This openness and lack of a judgmental-elitist mindset allow more and more people to throng these places considered as ‘purveyors of gossip’ by some.
Madam Blessing opened her business 2 months before the Federal Government imposed a strict lockdown of 3 States including Lagos where she operates, but in spite of this her business did not suffer any adverse effects and in fact, appeared to thrive during the lockdown. As a people, alcohol and its consumption play a critical role in almost everything we do. So, her establishment was a source of relief especially in the evenings for most people to ease the tension of being locked up at home all day. While most businesses experienced a downward spiral in patronage and profits around this period, businesses such as hers experienced a noticeable boom.
We can ponder and pontificate on the various reasons why beer parlours appear immune to the vagaries in the economy, but the secret might just be in what they sell, which is not just the alcoholic beverages and other offerings; but also, a sense of community. We drink when we are happy and drink when we are sad; all emotions that are enjoyed/endured together as a group.