How To: Open a Bar

How To: Open a Bar

by Cristina Velocci


Ever walk into a lounge or club, take a look around and think, ‘I could do this so much better?’ Or perhaps you drink so damn much it would just make sense at this point to open a bar yourself. Before you even consider making a go of it in the nightlife industry, consider this: for every ten bars that open their doors, only three survive within the first three years. That means there’s a 70 percent chance yours could fail— unless you know what you’re getting yourself into, and who better to advise than Carey Rossi and Steve Johns, authors of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Starting and Running a Bar, out this month. Here, they spill the ten most important things you need to know before taking your love affair with bars to the next level. How to open a bar:

1. Make Sure You Have What It Takes:
To be an entrepreneur of any sort demands drive and that you be a go-getter, but in the bar business this also applies socially. “Wallflowers aren’t always the best people to run a bar,” says Rossi. “You have to be very comfortable with yourself and comfortable with the decisions you’re making, because you’re also managing people. You can’t be wishy-washy.” More than being outgoing, there’s also something to be said about being the life of the party. “You’re promoting fun. If everyone sees in your personality that you’re a fun, outgoing person, then they’re going to enjoy themselves at your establishment,” notes Johns. “If you put out positive, you get positive back. That’s the energy and the nucleus of this business.” In other words, Debbie Downers need not apply.

2. Get Experience:
In order to run and manage a bar, you need to know the ins and outs of how one operates, and the best way to do that is by getting on the job training as a bartender, cocktail waitress, or bar manager. “If you really want to be in this business, go work for somebody,” says Johns. “Experience is everything, so reach out to people in the business and see what it’s all about before you get into it.” This will also allow you to test drive the field to see if it’s something you really enjoy doing—or if your hopes and dreams were clouded by beer goggles.

3. At the End of the Night, It’s Still a Business:
Despite the fact that a bar is a place where people go to be carefree and have fun, as a bar owner your approach will be much different. “Some people get into [the business] for the wrong reasons,” says Johns. “They think of the glamour of it, but there’s more to it. On the other side of the bar, that being the business side of it, it is a business. You’re there to make money.” Remember, this is not Cheers. If you’re merely trying to escape the rigors of doing business, then maybe you should stick to taking shots at the bar—not calling them.

4. Do Your Homework:
The most common reason bars fail is because the owners didn’t perform their due diligence. “There’s a lot of research involved in opening a bar,” says Rossi. “It all comes down to homework. You don’t want to be caught behind the 8 ball.” This means researching traffic patterns in the area you wish to open your bar, finding out what the demographic is and what kind of establishment (bar, pub, tavern, lounge, club) would do best based upon their needs. You also need to study the law and know how your state and municipality deals with noise levels, smoking, minimum wage, and, most importantly, alcohol. “It’s a controlled substance and there’s a whole host of issues that go along with that,” points out Rossi. “It’s easy to be a patron at a bar, all you have to do really is drink, but when you’re the person who’s serving the alcohol, there’s a lot of liability that goes along with that and you need to make sure you’re ready for that responsibility.”

5. Be Prepared to Work Hard and Work a Lot:
True, being a bar owner makes you the man on top, but it doesn’t mean your only job is to boss other people around. “The bar business is not the kind of business where, as an owner, you get to sit back and let everybody work. You need to make some money and so you’re the one doing it all,” says Rossi on how to open a bar. Johns agrees that the bar owner wears many different hats when first starting out, which often requires 16 hour work days. As a result, he says, “this business takes a toll on your personal life. But it’s important to have your friends and family around for support.”

6. Be in Shape:
No, not to impress the ladies who come to your establishment. Since you’re the one doing everything to make the business run smoothly, you need to be physically fit. “It’s a lot of running around outside the club, inside the club, lifting heavy cases,” says Johns. “There’s a lot of energy that goes behind setting up the bar and prepping it for the day.” Rossi also credits the long hours as a reason to hit the gym. “You want to work out and be healthy because honestly, your immune system is going to take a beating.”

7. Have a Game Plan:
Even after you’ve done your research, you need to think of your long term goals and create a solid business plan. “Some people think, okay we’ll just buy the booze, we’ll get the liquor license, we’ll have a cool name, and off we go. There’s more to it. You need to structure the business just like any other business in the world,” says Johns, who equates having a plan as a measure of stability and success. “Stick to your plan and don’t stray from it. If you play your cards right and you have a business plan, you can continually grow your business.”


8. Know Your Liquor:
Not only do you need to know the difference between scotch and whisky (hint: scotch is a type of whisky made in Scotland), but also the brands that will be most popular among your clientele. This is the type of on the job training you would receive working elsewhere first, but if you decide to forgo that route, many wine and high-end liquor stores offer tasting classes where you can brush up your booze knowledge.

9. Pick a Name That Fits:
Having a name that sounds good isn’t enough— it should also reflect the theme and appearance of your bar. You should also let the location and building you select guide the theme and name of your bar. For instance, if you want to create an ultra-lounge, but the site you chose resembles a dilapidated wharf, financially it makes more sense to use what you have and market that rather than try to create and convert something that’s not there. “If you put too much money into a place you might never see that money returned,” says Johns.

And the last rule on how to open a bar:

10. Study the Competition:
Still think you can do one better than that overhyped lounge that you saw? Then you should start learning that place inside out. “If your concept is going to be the same as your competition, then you better be on your game because they’re not going to go away when you open up and they’re going to fight back,” says Johns, who recommends paying attention to their marketing plan and price point. “You get one chance to make a first impression in this business, so do it right.”

Click here to purchase your own copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Starting and Running a Bar.

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