Churchill's New Owners: An Open Letter
Photo by Monica McGivern
In the early '80s, Pepsi had begun seriously encroaching on sales of Coca-Cola, even outselling the latter in supermarkets.
In an effort to rejuvenate sales, Coke outright replaced its formula with what would be known as "New Coke" -- an "improved" version of the formula that would replace the original for 77 days before the company relented and re-introduced the old Coke as "Coke Classic."
As the new owners of Churchill's Pub, you're already running into a similar dilemma.
Freedom! Essential to the Churchill's formula.
Photo by Monica McGivern
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Perhaps what's most interesting about the New Coke story is that consumers in taste-tests actually favored the fresh formula -- and the initial sales jumped in most of the country. This wasn't an arbitrary decision made by their executives, who actually verified that most people thought it tasted better before launching it.
Unfortunately, the problem was not with "most people." A smaller but more vocal group of Coke aficionados loudly objected to the tampering with the old brand and taste, and managed to undermine "New Coke."
Coca-Cola's President Donald Keough at a press conference said: "The simple fact is that all the time and money and skill poured into consumer research on the new Coca-Cola could not measure or reveal the deep and abiding emotional attachment to original Coca-Cola felt by so many people."
As for Churchill's Pub, Dave Daniels didn't just run a bar -- he ran a brand, and that brand involved a particular, anything-goes ethic that led to a cult-like following among its patrons. If there's one thing you can say about Churchill's fans, it's that they have a "deep and abiding emotional attachment" to the formula.
Dave's approach -- allowing the place to be an incubator of music without the frill or amenities of modern bars -- probably didn't look good on paper and cost some sales. Going to Churchill's has been an adventure, and not always in a good way. But every once in a while, you'd see the Best Show You've Ever Seen -- or the start of a band or artist that would go on to international fame. It was consistently unpredictable and sometimes explosively, outrageously cool.
The fact that he would allow Rat Bastard and others to promote (literal) noise on Thursdays -- two decades before he'd actually start to make money on the International Noise Conference -- was either amazingly prescient or crazy, depending on how you want to view the overall return on investment.
Most bars opened 30 years ago are long gone. Churchill's just sold for a boatload of money.
See also: Churchill's Pub Sale Finalized
Photo by Monica McGivern
New owners, I don't believe you would have bought Churchill's Pub if you didn't value the brand. We're hopeful that the Death of Churchill's is not nigh, and that you'll see this challenge as different than, say, a restaurant or bar on South Beach.
But at the same time, this could easily be one of those "New Coke" scenarios. I'm sure when you ran the numbers, you figured that if you make a few tweaks here or there -- increase turnout a few percent here, bump prices a buck or so there -- Churchill's started to look like a good business. Yeah, there'll be some backlash, but you'll make it up on the other end. And you may.
But that deep and abiding attachment among the small, vocal minority could also destroy your investment (and with it, the bar we love). Part of what is maintaining Churchill's brand is its enduring credibility among a few groups of thought leaders, including aging part-time punk rockers and some seemingly insane (but actually quite astute) promoters.
It would be easy to dismiss the negativity and criticisms that you're hearing from us in the same way that Facebook plods on, despite objections to every new format change. We'll get used to it, right? We might even think it's better. And sometimes it is.
That's certainly possible with Churchill's. You might masterfully thread the needle and maintain the purity of Churchill's brand while making modest tweaks that bring in more people. Dave gave us a stage -- and we have a deep love for Dave and his work -- but it's too early to rule out the possibility that the place (or its marketing) might actually be improved. People who love Churchill's should to be open to that possibility, remote as it may seem to us.
But any changes will have to satisfy more than a taste test. They will have to be perfect -- and that's a much harder lift than simply keeping the place going as it has been. It will mean making only the most essential modifications necessary to survival until the purists trust you.
We've been lucky to have Churchill's (and Dave and the staff's) support around as long as we have. We are thrilled to see Dave will get to comfortably enjoy his retirement. We really want you to succeed, because we love the place. Churchill's is where the Most Amazing Shit Happened.
But in the end, we're more than people who love the bar. We're people with decades of allegiance to the brand and the people who built it. So please, tread carefully.
Honestly, we're happy you're redoing the bathrooms. But there are only so many changes you'll be able to make without it becoming "New Churchills." The road is strewn with the corpses of brands that got tweaked too drastically, too quickly. And we're not sure you'll get the chance or have the resources to reintroduce "Churchill's Classic."
-- Brian Franklin
Brian Franklin is a Democratic political consultant and co-writer with Rob Elba of Hearing Damage (AKA The Rat Opera), much of which is fictionally set in Churchill's Pub.
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