Opening your first bar
Five things you probably don’t know, but really should know before you open your own bar
Owning your own bar is the holy grail of bartending. Managing your own cocktail list, organising the music policy and selecting furniture is just the start of it. You get to be your own boss, treat your staff in the manner in which you wish you had been treated yourself, and grow an empire of venues that never scrimp on quality.
Those are the perks, and it is undoubtedly a wonderful feeling to be in control of your own future. There are however a number of considerations that are often overlooked in the eager pursuit of a legendary cocktail bar.
The following includes some unforeseen issues that I have fallen foul to in the past, listed here so you don’t have to as well!
- You wont be a bartender anymore
Sure, you might still work behind the bar, in fact to begin with you will probably pull more shifts per week than it seems mathematically possible, but that aside once you sign on the dotted line and open your own place (in fact even before that) you stop being a bartender and start being a businessman. The business decisions you make will directly affect your cash flow, profits, suppliers and the people who work for you.
- You might not make lots of money
Running a truly successful business is tough. Profit at the end of a year comes from keeping turnover high and costs low, and in order to achieve that you need to have a bar in a good location, strong business acumen, a head for marketing, be a good people person and have a very good understanding of what your customer wants. Even with all of that in your favour you might still struggle to make good money. The truth is that in most parts of the world operating bars is not an incredibly profitable business.
- You will need to be multi-skilled
By this I don’t mean a multi-skilled bartender, I mean a multi-skilled human being! Some level of accounting knowledge is essential; you will need to understand fully where your money is being spent. Basic familiarity with carpentry, electrics and plumbing is a must; these are skills that will prove invaluable time and time again (we did nearly all of it ourselves on my first bar, Purl). IT and networking skills also come in handy, particularly if you are managing your own website and bookings system. Despite being a jack-of-all-trades, you will still need to...
- Surround yourself with the right people
Like it or not, you will need the help of lawyers, bank managers, local authorities and building managers. And not only are these often frustrating people to work with, they come at a price too. You will probably also need to call on the help of web designers, printers, aircon/heating technicians, pest control companies, waste disposal services, plumbers and electricians, accountants, a PR company and media contacts.
- You will cut corners
It’s a sad thing to say, as we all have ideals that we would like to stick to. Through our careers we develop a mental checklist of mistakes made by other people that go against our own personal moral credentials. These personal points of pride make us the bartenders we are, but being a successful businessman means managing budgets and achieving results whilst minimising costs. Perhaps, for example, using only vintage glassware to serve cocktails is simply too expensive and too difficult to manage? Maybe that new potato vodka, despite tasting nice, is simply too extravagant a purchase to go into your house vodka and tonic?
Now this little list might be enough to put you off opening a bar altogether, and if it is it’s probably for the best anyway. But, if you’re still undeterred and as passionate and driven as ever, good luck! The rewards vastly outweigh the sacrifices.
Tristan Stephenson is the co-owner of three of London's top cocktail bars, as well as a keen cocktail historian, pioneer of modernist bartending techniques and amateur flavour scientist.