When David and I first opened AlteArte’s doors for business, we didn’t care who came through the door – we just hoped for customers. As long as there were people, we’d be happy, we assumed. However, two months in – after several visits from the police and even an incident of theft – we’ve already learned an important lesson: not every customer is a good one to have.
The first Thursday that the students came out in droves, we felt fortunate that AlteArte was their destination of choice, and we welcomed their business and even offered a discount on the shots to encourage them to stay. However, when the cops came later that night, we caught our first glimpse into what would become a regular weekly occurrence.
The problem wasn’t the noise that was coming from inside the bar or the fact that we were open past 2 am (the hour we’re legally supposed to close), for on Fridays and Saturdays, we could have the music on, have the place packed with people and stay open until 4, and we never got a visit from the cops. The problem, in fact, wasn’t what was going on in the inside, it was what was going on on the outside.
Large groups of students would congregate on the steps just outside of AlteArte for a botellón. A botellón is a popular activity among Spain’s youth. We had seen lots of them taking place on the quiet stretches of beach in Torrevieja and just outside the huge discotheques in Guardamar. Teenagers would gather and enjoy their own supermarket-purchased-and-therefore-significantly-cheaper alcohol. So the actual activity was far from foreign to us. But when Altea’s youth decided that their preferred spot for a botellón was just outside of AlteArte, we started to directly feel the impact. And not only was it the group of 20 to 30 students that made the noise, but it was also their dogs that added to the chaos by barking, yelping and growling at each other at 2 in the morning.
With all of this going on outside, we were destined to get into trouble and the weekly visits from the police became more and more disconcerting, especially when the cops informed us one week that the warnings were over. If we were not closed with everyone out by 2 the next time they came back, they would be forced to give us a 1,000 euro fine. The thought of having to pay nearly $1,500 was sobering, indeed, and we decided that something needed to be done.
But it wasn’t just the cops’ warning that motivated us to take action. Several weeks ago, at the students’ request, we had hosted a themed party. They were on Easter vacation and wanted to celebrate. We agreed that they could bring their own DJ and we even arranged with our Alhambra beer provider to give us prizes to raffle out. The students made posters and hung them up at the university to advertise the special event. Everything had been arranged and agreed upon – except for the huge cooler packed with alcohol that a group of them nonchalantly placed in the middle of AlteArte and proceeded to serve themselves drinks from.
The weeks of police visits and then this blatant sign of disrespect had worn us down and made us realize that, while many of the students were nice, there was a select group of them that consistently caused problems and weren’t worth keeping. So the next day, David informed the organizer of the party that there would be no more parties at AlteArte and asked that one student, in particular, not return.
It was a situation that we would have preferred to avoid, but, apparently, that wouldn’t be the last of uncomfortable situations, for, mere weeks after that incident, we once again were in a position where we were having to ask customers to not return.
The evening started out innocently enough. A group of our regulars were seated around the bar, and we were having a good time until one of them informed David that he had seen one of the girls at the bar take one of our packaged waffles. We had just gotten the box of waffles earlier that day and had it prominently displayed. Since we hadn’t yet sold any, we knew how many should have been in the box so when David asked me to see whether one was missing, it was quickly evident that, sure enough, one had been taken.
The girl and her friend noticed that we had noticed and headed upstairs as if to go to the bathroom. However, banging from upstairs caught our attention and David headed up to see what was going on. There, he found the two girls struggling to open the door upstairs. To their great misfortune, the girls were trapped behind a door that had once been a working door but was one no longer (in order to get the business license, we had had to condemn the back door). Unable to leave, the girls’ perfect escape plan had failed and they were stuck with nowhere to go. David asked them to open their bags and found inside the missing waffle plus one of our tea bags.
David immediately came down to call the police but, before he could even talk to anyone, he was dashing out the door after one of the girls who, upon realizing her mistake with the non-functioning door, sprinted out the front door and down the street. Meanwhile, I stayed behind with the friend who was feigning innocence even though guilt was written all over her face. Calmly but sternly, I told her that neither she nor her friend were welcome at AlteArte again.
Meanwhile, the cops arrived after a neighbor saw David and the girl yelling in the street. But they didn’t do anything because, after all, it was just a waffle and a teabag. For us, however, it represented a series of items that had gone missing since we had opened for business: a table runner, a small basket in the bathroom, a small, framed photograph belonging to one of the students, and, most sentimental of all, a customized poster of a flamenco dancer, “Sarita de la California,” that David had bought for me in Madrid. We suspected that these waffle-stealing girls must be the thieves-at-large and, sure enough, ever since that incident happened several weeks ago, nothing else has gone missing from AlteArte.
Running a successful business in Altea requires having the support of the locals. We knew beforehand and we’re now seeing it firsthand that the off-season months can be slow. The small, pedestrian streets are void of people and the bars and restaurants are frequently disturbingly empty. Therefore, it was a bit nerve-wracking to take a stand and actually discourage business from the students, to say no to special parties and to even ask one student, in particular, to not return. And we’ve felt the direct impact of that decision as, ever since then, our Thursday sales have been reduced by half.
But we’re also understanding that it’s up to us to preserve the integrity of our business, that we’re the only ones who will protect and uphold AlteArte’s image. We want to make money but not at the cost of making enemies with our neighbors and overall detracting from our neighborhood. And, while our confrontation with the students might have had a negative impact on sales, we’re weeding out the troublemakers and are left with a more mature crowd. And we actually made it through last Thursday without a visit from the police.
And by turning off some students from returning, we’re creating an ambiance for others to enjoy. And we happily welcome the waiters and bartenders from the nearby restaurants and even some of the bars who have chosen AlteArte as their hangout to unwind at after work.
And, in the process, we’re more clearly defining the type of customer that we want to attract. If possible, we want to do the seemingly impossible. We want customers of all ages to feel comfortable at AlteArte, so it’s great when 20-year-olds hang out and even talk to 60-year-olds. And it meant a great deal to us when Jaime, the owner of one of the restaurants who has lived in Altea for more than 40 years, chose AlteArte as the place to celebrate his 71st birthday. I want a sophisticated clientele that doesn’t come just to get drunk, so I’m thrilled that we have a growing number of tea drinkers. I want a mix of Spaniards and foreigners who feel comfortable interacting, so it’s fantastic when Sean, a new student in my Spanish class who’s also American, speaks with Elia, a Spanish artist who has become one of our regulars.
Customers bring much more than just money to a business. The right ones bring an energy that’s so positive and create an ambiance that’s so special that nothing, not even music and candles, can serve as a replacement. By better understanding that and by not being afraid to take a stand to protect AlteArte’s image in the long-run – even if it momentarily hurts business in the short-run – we are making the right type of customers our priority and better molding AlteArte so that it can truly live up to its highest potential.