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Dave Roepke, Published October 04 2011

Website tells you which Fargo bars are hopping before you go out

FARGO - Going out on the town for a drink places people into two surprisingly static camps; there are those who are angling to see and be seen and those who just want a seat.

Whether a packed bar is an opportunity or a hassle, a new Fargo-based website can help bar patrons find what they’re looking for.

Thehottspott.com outfits bars with cameras to take a photo every 15 minutes of the establishment’s seating areas, often an intentionally blurry shot that gives a sense of how busy a place is but allows little chance of identifying who is there.

The idea is summed up in the website’s slogan: Know before you go, says Sarah Braaten, one of the two co-owners of the site.

Braaten says the hardest part of pitching the idea to bar managers, despite a preference some customers have for open bar stools, is the reluctance to let people know if business is light.

“They don’t want people to see it’s dead,” she says.

Eight area bars are on board so far, and Sidestreet Grille & Pub, in downtown Fargo, was one of the first. Though it’s too soon to tell whether it is bringing in enough traffic to be worth the monthly fee that is charged, Steve Brant, the Sidestreet’s general manager, says it’s got potential. And he’s not concerned about giving the public a peek on off nights.

“It goes either way,” Brant says. “Not everybody wants to go to the hot spot.”

The website went live in mid-September, instituting a concept that first struck Joel Paulson in 2005 as a college student who lived in south Fargo. Hatching a plan for a night out with friends, Paulson realized it would be much easier and cheaper to tell the cabbie where they wanted to go if they already knew which bars were hopping.

It was an idea before its time, mainly because Web hosting was still too pricy.

“The technology was too expensive to be able to justify the cost,” said Paulson, who has moved to the Twin Cities with hopes of widening the site’s reach.

The project is arguably a newly feasible venture for nonfinancial reasons, too. If Hottspott was attempted before cellphones made camera bags out of nearly every purse and pocket, the privacy issue would have been a bigger concern, both Braaten and Paulson say.

“People now know the Internet is everywhere,” Braaten says.

The system is set up to delete the photos automatically, she says.

Even in the Facebook age, it’s taken some explaining to a few of the regulars at Bison Turf, says the bar’s night manager, Kalcey Wike.

Wike says it’s still worth it because of the marketing potential of the site. Along with the live photographs, Hottspott lists the drink specials, band lineups and other amenities for each of its participating bars.

“I know they’re using it,” Wike says of his customers.

Part of the reason for all the additional information, and a rundown of local hotels and cab services, is Braaten’s hope the site can serve as an online concierge for out-of-towners.

That’s what Tim Beedy, a Twin Cities-based agricultural electronics salesman, used Hottspott for when he was in Fargo last month for the Big Iron Farm Show, where the site launched its first promotional campaign.

Beedy says he logged on to Hottspott to find where a live band was playing. He saw Dempsey’s Public House looked full in the photo and assumed the band in the downtown bar was pretty good.

As a frequent traveler for business, at least once a week, Beedy says he was hoping the website would expand to other markets.

“I’ve never come across anything like it,” he says.

In addition to the Minneapolis area, Braaten says the next markets they’ll try to reach are Milwaukee and Grand Forks.

Paulson says he could see it taking off in any college town and says, “Hopefully, we’re going to just keep going and going.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535