BarChick: meet the new SMS service that’s helping Londoners to find their perfect bar (Evening Standard)

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Trends & Features

Can a new bespoke SMS service hook Londoners up with the perfect bar? Victoria Stewart phones in some fun (Image: Daniel Hambury)

Here’s a snippet from my recent texting conversation. Me: “Just been to awful restaurant in Soho — can you recommend somewhere for a nice quiet beer or cocktail that won’t break the bank?” Her, 20 seconds later: “Damn. The worst! Yes totally.” Then, after half a minute: “We love London Gin Club. It’ll be quiet, maybe a little jazz playing, and they’ve got beautiful gin flights and cocktails. Will restore your faith!” Me: “We’ll check it out.” Her: “Sweet. Want me to see if they have space? You should be fine rocking up but it would be really lame to walk there and have it be rammed.”

And so it went on. Ten minutes later my accomplice and I sailed into said bar and stayed until it was time for the last Tube. Post-gig the following Friday, she recommended Simmons in King’s Cross, where five friends and I duly danced into the early hours.

If you are thinking this texter is a friend, she isn’t (although she’s rapidly beoming one). “She” is actually a crack team of 10 Shoreditch-based operators, one of whom is dedicated to manning the system at any given moment, primed to tell me and the 1,000 current users where’s good to get a drink.

And this new free SMS bar concierge service — like a personal PA for nights out — has come about because BarChick, the hit bar reviews site that started in 2011, has recently relaunched as a tech company.

“We realised that the pre-bar customer experience sucks,” says its new tech adviser and BarChick superfan Namit Chadha, who by day works for a well-known tech company that he can’t name.

Chadha met BarChick’s founder (still anonymous to many) thanks to a chance introduction in November 2015, at which point the pair realised there was an opportunity to “combine BarChick expertise from the main content website” with a messaging service that he could develop. The 24-hour coverage is thanks to two of the 10 operators, former BarChick writers based in New York, who take it in turns to pick up when the London team go to bed.

“If you go to a really nice bar they’re really hospitable… But in any other bar everything before that sucks. You don’t know whether you’ll get in, or how to get a reservation — and if you’re in charge of planning it’s stressful. So it’s  at times like that you can use it.”

Indeed, understanding where different people like to go out has become a BarChick speciality but, says its founder, “what Namit is really educated me on is business, as opposed to just making assumptions.

“We’re basically analysing how people are using us and recognising patterns, because it helps you structure the direction you want to go.”

In this case they are tapping into the way many people make plans which Chadha says “might be on a WhatsApp or Facebook messenger group, or by texting each other. Being able to add BarChick in to those conversations… is the future we’re heading towards, and getting to that will depend on when WhatsApp opens up. It’s way ahead in China because you can do all kinds of things within its WeChat messenger, for example.”

BarChick says that while she is currently raising money to keep the service free, her main focus is “on growth and delivering an awesome service. Then we’ll test out monetisation — but we don’t want the consumer to pay for this.”

A week later I’m texting it again, this time to find a venue suitable to interview BarChick in, and barely notice how normal it feels to be trusting a total stranger with my plans. This is because the idea “was always to make things as personal as possible”. Operators recommend up to three bars using both the site’s original database and 50 “partner” bars which are referred to regularly. Tracking behaviour to identify what kind of people are messaging is also key. “We’ve worked out that our four types of users are cocktail aficionados, high-fliers, free spirits and all-rounders… People have different expectations when they say ‘really nice’. ”

Emerging patterns show that high traffic points come immediately after a new bar is announced on the weekly newsletter, on Friday or Saturday evenings and, surprisingly, at 8am “because either people want to plan ahead or they suddenly remember they’ve forgotten to book somewhere for that evening.”

There are also the very personal requests, such as the man who wanted expert guidance on where to propose.

“So we’re more metrics-driven these days — our numbers are displayed to everyone in the business — which to be honest is just an obvious way of working. We should all be doing it!”

Bring on the bar crawls.

Follow Victoria Stewart on Twitter: @vicstewart

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Article appeared in Evening Standard, March 2016