Questionable Practices

The next night, we put out a notice that the tavern was all out of alcohol, and would, from that night on, no longer sell alcohol. Instead, we would be selling mainly coffee and tea as beverages, though the rest of our menu was unchanged for now – I had plans to shift to a model that focused more on sweets, but we would need the knowledge of a patissier for that, so it would come later. In any case, we made it clear that the only drinks our customers would find were non-alcoholic in nature, despite Rosalind’s worry that doing so would reduce our clientele.

Nothing changed. The crowd did not abate. The crowd on that night rivalled the crowd that had attended Rosalind’s first performance – in fact, the crowd exceeded it. The same people who had previously attended informed their friends and family, and thus spread the word of Rosalind’s amazing voice. The people who were in attendance spilled out of the tavern into the night, but while upset that they could not see her in person, most were content simply to listen to her voice.

Well, all that was as according to plan, but there was one slight complication: people weren’t spending enough.

I made it a point to chase out anyone who stayed for too long without purchasing anything, but almost all the patrons simply bought the cheapest drink available and used that single cup as an excuse to stay in the tavern – or, well, I suppose it was now a café, since we only sold coffee and tea instead of alcohol – for the whole night. I suppose it was inevitable, as coffee and tea were not our specialties, and the blends we used were nothing special, so expecting the customers to instantly fall in love with it was unreasonable.

Still, while Rosalind was perfectly happy with this, still intoxicated with the rush of performance, I was not. I considered it a challenge to my abilities as a marketing executive. With this much of a captive audience, if I could not at least make our earnings match that of out initial alcohol revenue, I would bring shame upon my entire profession.

My solution? Rework our business model. Drawing upon the nightclubs of my world as an example, I charged our patrons an entry fee, rather than per drink. Upon paying a nominal fee that was slightly higher than the median cost of drinks on our menu, the customers would be allowed entrance to the venue. To make the entry fee slightly easier to stomach, we also provided a complimentary cup of our cheapest blend to those who paid the fee. Each patron was given a number tag, to denote their order of entry. Payment of the entrance fee entitled a customer to 90 minutes in the venue, extended by 30 minutes per drink ordered, capped at a total of three hours per customer. The venue was able to accommodate roughly 20 seated and 50 standing patrons at once, causing any customers after the initial 70 to be forced to wait outside until someone left and a space opened up.

After a few days, I managed to commission a travelling group of magic merchants to cast a soundproofing enchantment on the door, preventing those outside from hearing what was on the inside. Furthermore, we arranged it such that only Rosalind’s voice would be filtered out, allowing those outside to hear the cheering and laughing of the crowd, but not Rosalind’s song. This drastically reduced the number of people who loitered outside the tavern without entering, while also increasing the length of the queue significantly. It was a heavy investment, but one that paid off remarkably well.

Of course, the mention of the above expenditure should indicate that my plan worked perfectly. Customers would queue up outside for hours just to get into the tavern – from my understanding, several of them even paid friends to hold a spot in the line for them. Even after paying the entrance fee, more than half of our customers bought at least one drink to extend their time, with a small minority purchasing three drinks to enjoy the maximum possible allowance of three hours.

Occasionally, I would see children with their parents loitering around outside, clearly curious, though their parents would not join the queue. On those occasions, I would make a big show of allowing the children free entry – though I charged their parents as per normal. Of course, the children could not stay without parental supervision, so if the parents refused to pay, I would send the children off as well. Fortunately – for me, at any rate – the disposition of children was such that they would throw a tantrum if their parents tried to leave. Seeing this, I would feign sympathy and offer a special, one-time discount, allowing them in at half the normal price. Of course, I never forgot a face. One family was only entitled to this discount on their first visit, and their subsequent visits – since a majority were converted to fans of Rosalind – were charged full price.

During those days, when I fully displayed my capacity for manipulation and exploitation, I thought I caught Rosalind staring at me with fearful eyes on multiple occasions, but I managed to convince myself that I was probably imagining it. Maybe. Hopefully. In hindsight, that was rather obnoxious, but business is business.

In such a way, I completely revitalised our shop and turned our fortunes around. When Edgar (the tax agent) came round again at the end of the next month, we had money to pay him and plenty to spare, even after setting aside a good amount for renovations. It was during that same visit that we submitted our declaration of being alcohol-free, which led to a quick inspection the next week confirming that fact. When Edgar asked how we were managing to stay afloat as a tavern without alcohol, I offered him free entry for a night. We obtained another fan that day.

I understand that some of my readers might find the detailed description of the above somewhat horrifying, but I think it important to give a full, truthful account of our early days, when we were just starting our tale. And that, of course, includes the account of how we managed to swindle our way from obscurity into fame. Well, it was mostly me. Rosalind was mostly an accessory to the crime, though I’m not so kind as to absolve her from guilt.

If any of you readers were among those customers from our early days – unlikely as that is – then I apologise for manipulating you like that. I would also like to assert that I would do it all over again if I had to. Well, to be fair, you people enjoyed yourselves, right? You thought you were getting your money’s worth, right? So it’s fine. Take it as a lesson in being wary of merchants and our scheming ways.

Speaking of schemes, I should probably mention that, as expected, three months after declaring the tax, Lord Rishard announced a new license that would allow for selected merchants of “virtuous character” to sell alcohol while ignoring the tax. From my understanding, it caused quite a stir in other towns within the territory, but nobody really cared in ours. That was simply because the other two taverns had already closed down, and Rosalind’s singing had become known as having a greater soothing effect than alcohol. When Rishard’s new merchants came around peddling beer that cost significantly more than our modest entry fee, the townspeople paid them no mind. Thanks to our efforts, the town had inadvertently become the most sober town in the region. Which is somewhat ironic when considering Rosalind’s taste for fine wines.

As an amusing aside, Edgar tells me that the lord attempted numerous methods to shut our café down, but was stopped by his advisors due to a lack of justification – we were providing wholesome entertainment that was completely legal. Constitutionally, he could not change the law without a valid justification, and any changes which outlawed us would impact all bards and performers in the territory – an act which would in turn anger the Guild of Bards, which had connections to numerous nobles in the land. His position was too tenuous to risk that. As a result, we were left well alone. In all honesty, it was our efforts that prevented civil discontent from building in this town, so we were doing him a favour, really. Not that the idiot would have been clever enough to realise it.

Anyway, through a combination of my questionable deeds and Rosalind’s abundant natural talent, business boomed. We were flooded with customers every night. Even after we bought over the adjacent two shops and turned them into part of our café, even after we renovated our café such that it had a more pleasant and classy atmosphere with enough seating space for a full 150 people, there was a perpetual queue outside our door. Even though many left disappointed, unable to get a chance to enter, they would reappear the next day without fail, in the hopes of getting in early. To maintain fairness, we only allowed two tables to be reserved per day, and were strict about the alloted time. We were making so much money that we even managed to hire staff to help with the brewing of the coffee and the management of the crowd – we hired a total of three girls: Anna, Caren and Veronica. Within eight months, the Serene Ezov had grown and evolved from being a small tavern in a backwater town to being a large, well-furnished specialty café which had become known as the pride of the town and its main attraction. Word of Rosalind’s singing had spread through the efforts of passing merchants and soldiers, and people started coming from nearby towns and cities to listen to Rosalind’s song, often queueing up long before opening hours to ensure that their trip was not a wasted one.

One morning, a messenger came in bearing a request for a reservation made two weeks in advance. Upon learning the identity of the sender, I immediately knew that our big break had come. Earnestly accepting the request, I waited until the messenger was out of sight before rushing to Rosalind’s room, which we had refurbished to double as a changing room. There, I saw her checking her appearance in front of the mirror, whereupon I whirled her around to face me. I waved the reservation request in front of her face, unable to stop myself from grinning.

“It’s time! It’s finally time! We’re going to hold a ‘concert’!”