For this story, I have decided there is no need to change people’s names. There are no “guilty parties,” and so no need to protect the innocent with aliases. This isn’t that type of story. No, this story is about the power of marketing and, when done properly, how even the simplest idea can have the power to create very special moments for your customers, moments that they talk about for a very long time.
It was a cold and rainy day on the Meseta as Jen, Nicky, and I began our daily walk. It was a Thursday, actually. I remember the day of the week because it was the day we crossed the halfway point of the Camino Francés route. But that happened later in the day and, though it is a special moment in the life of a pilgrim, for us it was not the most memorable thing that happened on that day. For the three of us, and several other pilgrims not far behind us on the trail, what we remember most is a hand-made sign posted to a make-shift post just outside of the little village of San Nicolas and, most of all, we remember where that sign would lead us.
As a pilgrim, you are always on the lookout for signs. Mostly you look for yellow arrows or scallop shells but when you are looking for one sign, you tend to look at them all. Perhaps the person who posted this sign was a pilgrim once and so they understood this concept. That is what makes their marketing strategy work. After all, what business would ever be successful if they didn’t know their customers?
The sign, which was advertising a bar in San Nicolas, exploited three known facts about pilgrims. First, as stated before, we are always on the lookout for signs. Second, we are also always on the lookout for the best café and/or bar in whatever village we happen to be passing through (remember Ulli’s shortest Camino joke, “A pilgrim walks by a bar…”). Third, and most important, most pilgrims are educated enough to know who Socrates was. If Socrates likes the place, why wouldn’t we?
After reading the sign, the three of us mused about whether or not we should heed its advice. Would the second bar really be better than the first? The first bar was usually good simply because it was the first bar (i.e. you didn’t have to walk as far to get to it). Sure enough, as we strolled into the village the first bar did look very inviting. Through the windows covering its patio we could see that it was clean, warm, and dry. However, there were no other pilgrims visible through the windows and curiosity is a very powerful thing. We continued on and as we walked down the street we noticed another sign saying that the second bar was next to the plaza in front of the church.
San Nicolas, fortunately, was not a big village. The church was visible from the first bar so we knew we didn’t have far to wonder. But this small village did have a sleepy feel to it. Would the second bar even be open? Not being the high-season for the Camino, many shops and businesses did not keep regular hours. As we rounded the corner into the plaza, it seemed the second bar might fall into this category. I looked at the tables and plastic chairs stacked neatly outside the bar entrance and feared that they may only be the coolest bar during the high-season, all other times they are the closed bar. There was only one way to be sure.
The three of us walked across the plaza, opened the door, peaked into the bar and caught the gaze of the bartender. “¿Es la segunda bar?” I asked. He smiled broadly, putting down the glass he was polishing. “Si, si,” he said, ushering us in with the wave of his hand. We were, apparently, the first pilgrims of the day as the rest of the bar was completely empty. We all smiled in relief as we placed our backpacks on the floor and hung up our rain soaked jackets. Before we could even sit down we had each placed our coffee orders and the bartender quickly got to work.
As we waited on our barstools we checked out our surroundings. Yeah, this place had a good vibe to it. Low ceilings with wood beams running across, Spanish tile floors, white plaster walls, and plenty of odd knick-knacks and art arranged tastefully throughout the bar and restaurant gave the place a warm, inviting feel. It reminded me of an authentic Mexican restaurant you might find in central California somewhere. When the coffee was served, we knew we had found a good place to warm up out of the cold. When the food arrived, however, we knew why Socrates was such a fan of the second bar.
I ordered a typical sandwich with egg, chorizo, lettuce, and tomato; nothing too special but the lettuce was crunchy and the tomato was literally bursting with flavor. Nicky ordered the fruit with chia seed and almond milk pudding, topped with local honey. Jen ordered something similar but much bigger, the Fruitopía. This was a large bowl of fruit, topped with oatmeal, onto which the bartender poured fresh squeezed orange juice. Jen was practically giddy with delight as she watched him do this and her eyes practically rolled to the back of her head as she took her first bite.
Food, as I’m sure you can imagine, and I’m certain I’ve mentioned before, is an important part of pilgrim living. One cannot live on tortilla y potata or tostada alone, though pilgrims come pretty close to doing just that. So, when we find a place where the food is slightly different than our regular diet of Spanish omelets and pilgrim menus, we quickly want to share the good news, especially when the food is as good as what we had at the Second Bar.
Not long after receiving our food, Dirk and Ulli poked their heads through the door, both with the same puzzled looks on their faces that we had when we arrived. “Is this the second bar?” asked Ulli. “Yes, it is,” we all exclaimed. “You found the right place, now try this food. It’s amazing!” said Jen. In clear violation of pilgrim etiquette, Jen did not even give the two Germans time to set down their backpacks before pulling them over to where she was seated at the bar and forcing them to admire her huge bowl of fresh fruit.
It wasn’t long after Dirk and Ulli arrived that four more pilgrims walked in; Robyn, Maggie, Cameron, and George from Georgia (the country, not the state) again, all with the same bewildered looks on their faces. It seems that all of us had followed the advice of that home-made, hand-painted sign one kilometer outside of town that asked us to forego our usual pilgrim thinking and try something new… the second bar.
We could have stayed in there all day, avoiding the cold and rain and feeding our bellies with happy treats from the kitchen. The Camino calls, though, so we finished our meals and put on our rain coats and backpacks. As we were doing this, Yann and Marie walked in with that look on their faces, though the look quickly disappeared when they saw all of the familiar pilgrims inside already stuffing their smiling and happy faces. Apparently, many more of our pilgrim friends found the second bar after we left as this was a common topic of conversation that evening, and for the rest of the Camino, actually.
In fact, during the Camino 100 (this is what we called the last 100 km from Sarria to Santiago), when the throngs of Tourigrinos would swarm on the first bar of every little village, those of us in the know knew to continue past the mass of people and look for the second bar. As the weekend pilgrims elbowed their way through lines to order watered down café con leche and day-old tortilla y potata, the more experienced pilgrims, those of us who had been walking for weeks, knew to keep on walking. We knew that just around the corner was another bar, one where we would find our friends already sitting down with warm drinks and smiling faces. “I’ll see you at the second bar,” became a familiar saying as pilgrims said goodbye to each other every morning before hitting the trail.
All of this because of a simple sign on a post just outside of a sleepy little Spanish village named San Nicolas. So, keep this in mind when you are trying to get someone’s attention, you don’t always need a billboard or a fancy social media strategy. Sometimes a few pieces of wood, some paint, and a little creativity are all it takes. And if you’re not convinced, imagine what the owner of the first bar in San Nicolas is thinking as he watches every single pilgrim walk straight past his bar and disappear down the tiny street around the corner.
Wow, okay, that’s a depressing way to end this story. Here, enjoy these pictures of funny knick-knacks from the original Second Bar.