September 26

A Brief History of the Happy Hour


Many Restaurants Offer It—Many More Don’t Know Why. Here’s Our Brief History of the Happy Hour

It’s five o’clock somewhere, which means there’s a server in the weeds and crowds of office folk searching for cheap drinks and tasty bites—all for the low price of your favorite server’s last nerve.  

The Happy Hour. We love to hate it, but we can’t live without it (unless you’re in a state where it’s illegal, but more on that later). 

Have you ever wondered where Happy Hour originated and why we still partake in this obscure tradition?

On the surface, it’s a logical marketing ploy. Restaurants want to attract customers during slow business hours with cheap offerings. 

In reality, it’s much more than just a marketing strategy. Happy Hour has been around for over 100 years, so you know that history’s deep. 

If you’re like me and did wonder where the heck Happy Hour came from—then you’re in the right place. 

We’re breaking down a brief history of The Happy Hour. 

First, There Were Sailors

Believe it or not—the original happy hour had nothing to do with alcohol and cute plates of snacks. It actually originates with the military, like other parts of our industry. 

According to Thrillist, the first Happy Hours started in the U.S. Navy with a group of sailors on the USS Arkansas who called themselves the “Happy Hour Social.” 

They’d coordinate movie nights, boxing matches, live music, dancing, and other athletic contests twice a week. The idea was to provide a break from the monotonous life out at sea and allow sailors a space to let off some steam and relax. 

Over time, the event took on the name “Happy Hour,” and other naval units quickly adopted the practice. 

And no, this wasn’t where the term “Drunk like a sailor” originated. The U.S. Navy went dry in 1914—so the likelihood of alcohol being present at these events was basically none. 

It’s been said that the term was considered navy slang and found its way to the continental US through newspaper articles covering these events. 

Then, There Were Mobsters

Fast forward to the prohibition era between 1920-1933, and we start to see a shift away from the association of Happy Hour with the wholesomeness of land-deprived sailors wrestling for shits and giggles. 

At this point in history, the term was adopted to describe the early afternoon when alcohol-deprived Americans pre-gamed before dining in dry restaurants. Usually, libations were enjoyed in mobster-run speakeasies or among friends at home. 

We could also assume this was when small plates were first introduced and associated with Happy Hour. Some historians suggest finger foods first became popular in the US because of speakeasies. 

Offering small bites, also known as canapés (if you’re fancy or French), became a way to ensure patrons didn’t wind up drunk like a sailor and blow the cover on the whole drinking illegally in secret places thing. 

Now, There Are Restaurateurs and Legislators 

Happy Hour has been a long-standing tradition—even if the current state of the term equates to the bane of every server’s existence (more work, less tip out).

For business owners, there are quite a few benefits to offering a happy hour. Including, but not limited to: 

1. Increased business during low-traffic hours
2. Attracting new customers with more accessible menu pricing
3. Boosting revenue from selling more products at a slightly cheaper price
4. Decreasing waste by moving products more quickly
5. Quick research and development by testing new menu items

Of course, these benefits only apply if offering a happy hour is legal. 

Nine states currently have laws prohibiting restaurants and other food and drink establishments from having a happy hour. Most believe that happy hour encourages irresponsible drinking and drunk driving. 

States where happy hour is illegal include:

• Alaska
• Indiana (although drink specials are allowed between 11:00 AM – 3:00 PM and after 9:00 PM—so weird legal loopholes exist.) 
• Massachusetts
• North Carolina
• Oklahoma
• Rhode Island
• Utah
• Vermont 
• Washington 

In most states where happy hour is legal—it’s not going anywhere, but we’re already witnessing another evolution of the term. 

In recent years, more and more establishments have added mocktails or non-alcoholic drinks to their happy hour menus, becoming more inclusive of sober and sober-curious communities

Sure, this isn’t as big of a shift as sweaty sailors singing to drunkards imbibing illegally. Still, it is a change away from happy hour, as we’ve known it for the last 100 years, as a time strictly associated with alcoholic drinks! 

No matter where the term goes—one thing is sure. You know more about the history of the happy hour than you did three minutes ago.

Now, share the news with a customer, perhaps the regular who always makes it for happy hour. 


About the author

Ashley McNally likes to cook, loves to bake, and is always dreaming of her next meal. With over 13 years of experience working in various roles within a restaurant — McNally has made a home in hospitality.

About the author

Ashley McNally likes to cook, loves to bake, and is always dreaming of her next meal. With over 13 years of experience working in various roles within a restaurant — McNally has made a home in hospitality.


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