IT'S NOT EXACTLY A PLACE WHERE EVERYBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME...
Nor do they have wine in cans.
When they're not serving "snake juice," the place isn't rented out for children's parties and substance abuse meetings.
It's cooler than that. It's also not a TV bar, like all the ones above. (Those bars would be Cheers from Cheers, Paddy's from the ever-twisted It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, and the Snakehole Lounge from Parks & Recreation, if you don't know your half-hour episodic sitcom bars.)
Located in Central America, we're talking about a bar known around the world, with big fans in places as far flung as Canada and Utah, New Zealand and South Africa.
And this bar is the cult-brand product of relentless marketing.
SAY HELLO TO BIG WAVE DAVE'S--"WHERE STUFF HAPPENS"
No, that's not the actual tagline.
I just wrote that.
But it fits.
Stuff happens there, especially if you let it.
Before we get to the part about the relentless marketing, please allow latitude for a story.
As the faithful reader knows, the Fabulous Honey Parker and I recently ventured to the tropics--specifically to Nicaragua's San Juan Del Sur, a town popular among surfers and North American expatriates.
WE HAPPENED TO GO DURING AN INCREDIBLY HOT SPELL
So, within an hour of arriving in this tropical surf mecca, we wandered the streets of the town looking for a respite from the heat.
We stumbled upon a bar I'd read about in my research of San Juan Del Sur.
The place is called Big Wave Dave's.
At 3pm on a Sunday, it was unsurprisingly empty.
Walking into the place, there's a large seating area near the front, and a big, U-shaped bar flanked by pub tables at the back.
AND IS IT EVER TROPICAL
Not in the sense that there are tropical plants or anything like that.
In the sense that it feels really third-world. (That is not meant as a pejorative--and in this case, can be considered a compliment.)
Big Wave Dave's is dark inside. Fans blow air around in the shadows. The sides of the bar are bamboo. There's the general, enjoyable rustic creakiness of a building that's been there a while and knows its place.
We sat at one side of the U-shaped bar and ordered "dos Victoria Clássica," a beer ubiquitously available in Nicaragua.
Across the bar was a Canadian couple, and one large gentlemen nursing a beer and smoking a cigarette. (Lots of smokers down there.)
As the cold, sweaty bottles were delivered to us by the woman behind the bar, we struck up a conversation with the Canadians.
The woman said something about having been living in San Juan Del Sur long enough that Dave had begun to tolerate her.
WHICH LED TO THE OBVIOUS QUESTION
Was the bug guy next to her Big Wave Dave?
Yes, it was him.
The publican. (In the sense of owning a pub, not in the sense of collecting taxes for the Roman empire.)
Small talk ensued.
And finally, Dave said something like...
"GOT BATHING SUITS? I'M IN A BELLY FLOP CONTEST.
"I have a big van. You should come."
And within minutes, we found ourselves going from knowing nobody in Nicaragua, to riding in a van with the town's most noted expat bar owner and his family to a locals' party at a jungle resort.
Well, actually, before riding in the van, we had to help his family push start said van.
Seems the battery was dead.
All part of the charm of tropical San Juan Del Sur.
It was all great fun and an excellent entrée into the community that is SJDS.
But there is one question...
What is a Harvard-educated economist hockey player and education psychologist doing with an expat bar in Nicaragua?
I HAVE NO IDEA
But thank God he's there.
Because he provides an excellent model for the relentless marketer-entrepreneur.
For more than a decade, Dave Grace has been a fixture in the SJDS expat community, serving cold beer and good food to anyone who wants it--but most often to expatriates from around the globe. (There are some Nicaraguans, too--like the gregarious pool sharks who like to come in after work and rip up the table with their tricky brand of billiards.)
Dave's weekly trips to Managua for kitchen provisions are well-known. And really, some of the meals we had in that tropical dive bar were exceptional. Never saw those Thai turkey meatballs coming.
And then, there are the events.
Dave hasn't just let his tribe happen.
He has fueled it.
IN A MAÑANA CULTURE, HE MAKES IT WORK TODAY
He has frequent, interesting, even "foodie" menu specials that one would not normally expect to find in this little town.
Monday night at Big Wave Dave's is Trivia Night. The place fills up with teams of expats who struggle to answer Dave's uniquely challenging trivia questions. The winning team gets a bottle of rum--which they are encouraged to share with the rest of the bar (and which is magically never empty until everyone gets a shot).
Tuesday night is Texas Hold 'Em, with serious card players buying in for 20 bucks and playing for hours.
Wednesday night used to be Blues Night. Sadly, that night stopped holding its own. So, rather than cling to it for emotional reasons as so many business owners might, he axed it.
But he does have live music on Sunday nights. Really good live music.
AND SATURDAY MORNINGS, HE HAS A FARMER'S MARKET
Yes, a Farmer's Market in his bar.
The front seating area of the bar is big enough that he can get close to a dozen merchants into the space with big tables.
There's fresh produce, fresh baked goods, barbecued meats--all kinds of things provided largely by other expats. (We had some of the best mixed greens anywhere, and the most excellent barbecue ever--the latter provided by another expat with an interesting brand: Pelon. That's a Spanish slang word for "bald." Embracing his hairlessness, this bald gentleman from Washington state smokes ham, pork shoulder, ribs and chicken at Casa Pelon, his bed and breakfast, and sells them at Dave's on Saturday mornings.)
There are plenty of special events, from Thanksgiving dinners (both Canadian and U.S.) to Christmas dinners. Pool tournaments to St. Patty's celebrations.
BIG WAVE'S DAVE'S IS MORE THAN JUST A BAR
This man--this education psychologist who was no doubt an imposing force on the ice back in the 1980s (I'm fairly certain he helped take Harvard to at least one Beanpot championship)--now runs what looks like an expat bar.
In reality, it is the nexus for the expat community in that part of Nicaragua.
How much of a destination is it?
We met one expat couple there who had come over from Costa Rica. They were making their "border run" to renew their visas, and were on their quarterly pilgrimage to Big Wave Dave's.
"Big Wave" Dave Grace is a smart man and a relentless marketer.
He could just kick back and let his bar run itself.
BUT THAT'S NOT HOW A BUSINESS ACHIEVES LEGENDARY STATUS
And legendary status is exactly what he's accomplished.
His is a cult brand in a remote location that's not easy to reach--and the brand has fans around the world.
The faithful reader knows that Slow Burn Marketing defines brand as "The one way your core customer should feel about your business."
Dave might not know that particular definition.
But he is a psychologist.
So he knows something that is approximately the same.
And he unleashes it daily upon his tribe.
Accordingly, his tribe feels one very important thing: "This is the place."
And they ride that wave.
Be like Dave.
And you can create a big wave of your own.
A Peek Behind The Palm Fronds...
A COOL BREEZE DRIFTS THROUGH THE OPEN WINDOW
Outside, it's a cacophony of tropical birds, chattering and nattering and pooeeting and squawking.
Occasionally cutting through the din of indigenous birdsong is the crowing of a rooster proclaiming its place.
When sleep leaves too early (as does too often), this is a favorite spot: by the window with a cup of coffee, listening to the delightful disharmony.
It is a musical chaos here at the edge of civilization.
The location is by a crescent-shaped bay on the Pacific.
Mark Twain spent time here, and wrote about it--though those writings relatively unknown.
THIS LOCATION FIGURED PROMINENTLY IN THE CALIFORNIA GOLD RUSH
Prospectors flocking to California could sail around Cape Horn, which was time consuming, uncomfortable and dangerous.
Or they could sail to the Caribbean, and take an overland route that was faster and safer and brought them to the docks here.
Cornelius Vanderbilt cashed in on that traffic, demonstrating once again that the most successful gold-rush entrepreneurs were those who provided goods and services to the rush.
The most recent gold rush here has been surfers. The remote beaches with good surf breaks have become famous in the sport.
AND YES, PART OF THE ATTRACTION IS THAT THINGS HERE ARE CHEAP
The other night, the Fabulous Honey Parker and I dined at a tapas joint we like. The owner is from Barcelona and a lovely man.
His food (as the notorious one-man brand, Guy Fieri would say) is off the hook. The star of the tapas menu is a tiny filet mignon in a gorgonzola cheese sauce.
The two of us dined well on six small plates and two drinks each during a leisurely 90 minutes.
The tab was $23, which is an expensive night out here. (Unless, of course, you choose to hit one of the handful of big, touristy places on the beach. Then, the prices climb sharply.)
As I write this, a gecko is initiating a serpentine run along the wall above the bathroom door.
Just outside the window, there's a loud thump as a fresh mango drops to the ground.
After breakfast, we're going surfing.
SO, DOES THIS SOUND PRETTY GOOD FOR A WAR-TORN HELL HOLE?
Seriously. That's the brand here.
Americans think this place is dangerous and deadly.
They think heavily-armed rebels in jungle encampments.
As a friend of mine who loves it here once said, "People in the U.S. still have a Reagan-era mentality about the place."
Welcome to the branding challenge that is Nicaragua--a country recognized as one of the safest places in all of the Americas.
If you talk to my father-in-law, he thinks we've come down here to "hang with Noriega." (That was Panama and his present hang is a U.S. Federal prison, so no.) My mother-in-law no doubt suspects a dearth of white porcelain bathroom fixtures and imagines a dark hole in the ground.
THIS COUNTRY IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF HOW A BRAND CAN BE STUCK IN TIME
Despite Nicaraguan tourism's concerted efforts to evolve the brand, the old persona still sticks to perceptions in much of the U.S.
And props to people for addressing it head-on. If you go to the ViaNica website, a portal for Nicaragua tourism, it says it right there on the "about" page:
Nicaragua is known as a country of
political instability, wars, and revolution.
The dictatorship of the Somoza family
in the first half of the 20th century,
the revolution of the Sandinstas and
the war against the Contras, which
were funded by the US, helped
establishing this image. Fortunately,
these days are over.
Thanks, ViaNica, for reminding everyone that the U.S. was responsible for so much of that turmoil. (That's a whole other branding challenge and a different screed entirely.)
LESSON: BRAND YOURSELF OR THEY'LL DO IT FOR YOU
Nicaraguan tourism is making an effort.
But as we've seen before, if you don't brand your business, the customer will give you a brand you may not like.
And a majority of Americans in an unscientific study (focusing on my in-laws and most everyone else we know) believe the Nicaragua brand to be one of peril, murder and risk.
Which is not so great for the little nation of Nicaragua.
It's pretty good for those of us who enjoy a tropical bargain, mind you.
But this impoverished little country that could stands as a stark lesson in the law of unintended branding.
If it's any consolation, though, there's a brand of U.S. citizen coming here and doing fine things. Volunteerism here is huge. Americans and Canadians are teaching and building and healing and giving to a community that desperately needs it.
So after everyone's done cracking wise about jungle camo and AK-47s, go ahead and put that in your snarky Sandinista-joke pipe and smoke it. I'm picking up a mango in the front yard and going surfing.
Blaine Parker is prone to ranting about any and all things related to brand. In many ways, he is a professional curmudgeon. While there is no known vaccine for this, the condition is also not contagious. Unless you choose it to be so.