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Owning a Bar: A Good Read for New Bartenders

Who (in their right mind) would Want to Own a Bar?

The Fantasy

Lots of us have this fantasy of opening a bar somewhere. I mean how much is there to it really?
All you have to do is buy a bunch of liquor (probably in bulk and save money, right?), get in a good selection of beer, get a couple of big screen TVs, and keep a couple of bottles of champagne in case the local sports team does something noteworthy, or some misguided honeymooners come into your dive. You’re all set, right?
For the rest of the time you’re “Sam Malone” and everybody knows your name. What could be better than that?

“Well, Sammy,” says a familiar voice, “let me tell you about that…”

The Reality

Welcome to the Mole-men Corps! As the owner of a bar, most of your time is going to be spent underground. Yep, you’ll be down in the basement, wrestling beer kegs into position, hooking things up, purging lines, washing containers, making sure the carbon dioxide is sufficient for your beer engines & soda fountains, and then checking & changing syrup canisters so that your mixers continued to flow reliably.

The rest of the time you’ll spend unplugging toilets, slaving over a computer covered in spreadsheets in the backroom, doing payroll, creating liquor-order sheets, doing all of the accounting, filling in the books, making bank deposits, picking up booze, returning empties, and buying new glasses to replace all the broken ones.

And if you didn’t get good advice to start you’ll probably be replacing all those loose tables and chairs with things that are firmly bolted to the floor and nailed to the wall. At least you will after your first lawsuit because some drunk leaned on the corner of the table that toppled over under his weight.

The Ideal Candidate

Who should be a bar-owner? The very best candidate would probably be a certified refrigeration mechanic, a plumber, a carpenter, an all-round handyman, and a legal advocate. But most importantly, they should be someone that has worked in a bar before.

You’re going to spend a lot of time fixing stuff (or a lot of money getting some else to fix it for you)! And you’re going to need your wits about you to fight your way through the bureaucratic cesspool that is intent on stopping you from fulfilling your dream, just to obtain a liquor license in the first place.

The municipality will probably consult with everybody within 1 mile radius of your proposed location to see if they want to permit a bar or tavern. If enough people don’t like the idea, you’re either going to have to spend a lot of time convincing them, or find a new location.

What’s the Plan?

The best possible way to proceed is to buy Somebody Else’s Bar. The liquor license is already in place, and transferring it should be a breeze compared to getting approval for brand new liquor license.
The problem is, much like a franchise purchase, you might have to spend as much as ¼ million dollars to buy such an outfit, no matter how small. Bars and taverns have intrinsic value in terms of their clientele, neighborhood goodwill, and earning potential.

But if you completely lack experience in the trade and are going to rely on someone that you trust to run the bar for you, just so you can have the pride of ownership, then you face a lot fewer problems.

Getting Owned (by the staff)

Nothing can put you out of business faster than a disloyal employee. Liquor disappearing at the back door; “spillage”; bartenders pouring very generous shots to get bigger tips; staff giving away free drinks to friends; staff cooking and eating food without at least paying the discount price; and all the way down to swiping a few rolls of toilet paper to take home.

Pay your staff well; treat your staff well; but then still make a point of checking to be sure you’re not being victimized. Buy a thoughtful gift for a holiday or birthday; have an annual excursion for the entire staff to local water park. Make your bar a remarkable and fun place to work, and your staff will see it that way, too.

Do your research

Hit some Trade Shows in your area if they’re available. You’ll learn an awful lot there, and representatives are willing to tell you just about anything you need to know in hopes of selling you their equipment.

Read up in a few industry magazines (Bar & Beverage, Bar Business, Nightclub & Bar, Bar Magazine, Pub & Bar, etc.) to gather some insight on the industry. They can give you some great ideas for the design of your bar and clever ways to ensure “flow”, but they can also keep you apprised of new technologies, from a clever little flow meter for your bottles, to a brand new beer engine that saves you hours of maintenance.

Reconnoiter successful bars in the area and see how they’re being successful. Is it because the offer Theme Nights, Giveaways, Happy Hours, or Loyalty Rewards? Do they draw in the patrons with just pure ambience? Do they rely on a single product, like the craft brewer selling only their own productions and beer from local artisans? Maybe it is a wine bar but with limited success because they flatly refuse to carry any starter liquors like vodka, gin, rum, and beer is completely out of the question in their mind.

So, Who Wants to Own a Bar?

You do! Of course facing the reality of all the real work involved in running a business is difficult. It’s better to know before you start that is not going to be easy. You probably won’t earn a dime of profit in the first year, but after you get over that hump, establish yourself and have regular clientele, you will have time to relax at the bar, and finally slow down enough, once you are organized, to release your confident inner “Sam Malone”… You and your clients will be “as one” yelling “Close the Door!” on chilly evenings.