By Drew Olson Special to Published Mar 05, 2009 at 4:23 PM

It's hard to turn on the TV these days without seeing a panel of economists, eggheads and political pundits pontificating about the pillars of conventional economic wisdom that are causing wild mood swings on Wall Street and Main Street.

It's enough to make you want to have a drink.

Heading into the corner tavern can be a good way to relieve some stress and get a handle on how the economy is going. All you have to do is ask yourself a few questions:

Is the bar crowded?

Are there as many "regulars" in attendance as you remember?

Do people seem to be in a hurry to leave?

Are the prices different?

Are people tipping waitresses and bartenders as normal?

For years, tavern owners have heard that their industry is virtually "recession-proof." The theory holds that people will head to bars in order to celebrate when times are good and drown their sorrows when times are bad.

"I'd like to say that's true," said Steve "Smitty" Smith, who operates Flannery's, 425 E. Wells St., and McGillicuddy's, 1135 N. Water St.

"We always try to be optimistic, because that's our business. But when (the economy) really hits hard, there are only so many dollars to go around."

While many businesses are reporting big sales declines, Smith's bars have seen an upswing.

"This February (2009) was ahead of last February, for whatever reason," he said. "That's a good sign. Overall, our sales were down in 2008 from the year before. While the sales volume isn't down drastically -- it's probably in single digits -- all of our costs have gone up, so the bottom line is getting smaller and smaller."

Given the backdrop, many bar operators are taking creative and sometimes drastic measures to keep profits up. Steve Sazama, owner of Saz's State House, 5539 W. State St., is revising his menu and crafting a steady stream of specials.

"Times are tough," Sazama said. "People are being careful with their spending."

Bar Louie, which has locations on Water Street and at Bayshore Town Center, has had success with its $1 burger sales on Tuesday (5 p.m. to close) and recently added a Sunday brunch.

"We've been doing it for a few weeks and it has been great," said Ari Domnitz, regional sales manager for Bar Louie's parent company. "We drew good crowds without even doing much promotion other than signs at the restaurants. Now, we're starting to let more people know about it and it's growing every week."

Virtually every bar in town is examining -- if not expanding -- its lineup of drink and food specials in order to attract customers.

Leff's Lucky Town, 7208 W. State St., is offering a variety of specials, including full meals for less than $10. Leff's is also planning to add an outdoor patio in an area once occupied by a filling station. The prospect of warmer weather ahead warms the hearts of many local bar owners.

"St. Patrick's Day is always a big day," Smith said. "Then you get opening day in April and the outdoor patios start to open up. That really helps. Even a day like (Wednesday), the sun was out ... our lunch seemed like it lasted forever."

Bars that sell food are cutting prices -- and profits -- on meals in order to lure customers into spending more on drinks.

"If you look at the chains, at least in terms of national advertising, they're all talking about price," Smith said. "Like Subway, with their $5 foot-long sandwiches. Everybody is focused on that. It's easy to see why.

"We're competing with the food end of it, too, and the food companies are competing a little more. We've got our food distributors that we work with and the brokers that supply them. In the last year, I've seen more food brokers than every. They're all coming in trying to sell me things, and getting me to work with pricing and just doing things that they haven't done before, like offering rebates and volume discounts.

"It's a challenge, but like everyone else is saying, we have to get smarter. We have to be leaner. We have to do more with less than we did before and try to capture a few more people with our specials and some advertising. Hopefully, things will get better."

Drew Olson Special to

Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.