So you want to open a bar. Sounds like a fun way to make a living. Well, it is and it isn’t. The following is most definitely not a comprehensive check list for opening a bar. Your business plan will provide that. This is more of a reality check before you get started.
First, you do have some experience in the food and beverage business, right? And not from the barstool side. Meaning you’ve been a bartender or a server. I’m not including management in this because management may know how to do the paperwork and run the numbers, that doesn’t necessarily mean knowing how to properly serve customers or make an adequate margarita. People who can serve the public day after day have great people skills. And that’s what running a bar is about. People. Do you like people, even when they’ve had one too many? Drunks are very hard to take on a day to day basis. And you’ll see many of the same faces every day, hear the same stories, day after day, week after week. Can you do it?
You say you won’t be the one behind the bar or serving food, you’ll be hiring others to do that for you. Don’t believe it. Yes, you’ll need staff, but bar patrons, especially in a local bar, want to see the owner, not just the hired help. It’s an everyday job, smiling, chatting at tables, milling around to see that everyone’s happy, breaking up heated discussions and lover’s spats, being a shoulder to cry on or the source of encouraging words.
There will also be those days… and many of them in a bar… when the help doesn’t show up. Who takes over when the bartender, server, or cook calls off? Unless you have the resources of a faithful staff who are willing to come in on a day off, you take over. You’re the owner, the one in charge. The one who sees that everything runs smoothly and that patrons are served promptly and well. Jack of a trades, you’ll know how to mix drinks, set a table and carry a tray, and how to cook every item on the menu.
Do you have a family? Owning a bar when there are small children at home isn’t easy. You need to be at work most of the hours your establishment is open… at least 12 to 16 hours a day. You may open the bar at 10 AM and not get home until dawn’s early light. That doesn’t leave much time for family life. It can be done easiest if you live close to your business, allowing you to run home for meals or tucking the kids in at night. Of course, mealtime at home is also mealtime at your bar and the kid’s bedtime could be one of the busiest hours at your business.
Those are some personal things to think about. Others are the nuts and bolts of the business, the actual business side of running a bar.
If you’re opening a new venture, is a license available? The Alcohol Beverage Commission of your state will have the answer to that question. In Indiana, population determines the number of licenses permitted. Population increases will allow for more licenses. If you’re buying an established business, is the license current and up to date? Drinking establishments have been closed and patrons ushered out the door until lapsed licenses are renewed.
Again, if it’s a new establishment, do you have a location picked out? Check zoning to see if you can open a bar there. In Indiana, a business that serves alcoholic beverages must be a certain distance from schools and churches. Check you local and state zoning laws.
Who will be your suppliers for beer, liquor, soft drinks, food supplies, paper supplies, cleaning services, insurance? There may not be any options about who supplies your alcoholic beverages. In Indiana, for instance, suppliers are limited to certain areas of distribution. But you’ll want to check the prices, quality, and dependability of other products and services.
Before you can order supplies, you need to know how much of what to order. A grand opening or re-opening will probably call for a heavy supply of booze and food. What sort of food will you serve? Sandwiches and fries, full meals, lunch specials? My thought on this is to avoid having an extensive menu. Serve only limited items, but be absolutely certain that they’re the best in town. Make your burger bigger and juicer, serve only a generous cut of prime rib, use real butter and good dinner rolls, offer all the toppings for baked potatoes, use crisp, fresh chips for nachos, don’t offer endless types of hot wings… just the favorite of the area, use onion or other specialty buns for sandwiches. See how that goes… your food has something special that makes it the best in town.
Who’s going to work in your establishment? Do check references when hiring staff. Does the bartender have the awareness to know when a patron has been over-served? Can she tell the patron he’s cut off without starting a riot… as in, diplomatically? In actual fact, this rarely works. No one wants to be told that their evening is over, that’s it’s coffee or nothing. Be prepared to back up your bartender when this happens, as it surely will. Mixing drinks and pouring beer are skills that can be learned and improved with practice. More important to your business is the personality of the bartender. A surly one will run off business as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow. Hire the person who smiles.
Those same traits are what you’ll look for in hiring servers. And the ability to take food orders accurately, serve promptly, and get the food and drinks to the right people at the right table. That’s not as easy as it would seem when the place is packed and everyone came in at the same time. A good server is worth his or her weight in gold many times over.
Who’s cooking? Hire a cook, not a chef. Unless, of course, you’ll be serving upscale meals. If you’re looking for someone to get the food out quickly and properly, hire an experienced line cook. The cook should be responsible for ordering kitchen supplies, supervising helpers, food quality, and cleanliness in the handling and preparation of food.
Liability. People drink and drive. If a person causes an accident after drinking in your establishment, you could be held liable. You need insurance, but how much? The best advice is to consult an attorney. And be certain all of your staff knows how to tell when a patron has had too much.
Music and dancing are part of the fun in a bar. Live music, a DJ, or just the jukebox? More decisions to make. Is there room for a dance floor? Are there state or local regulations prohibiting dancing? Is there a law or regulation regarding noise? And then there is ASCAP, The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. ASCAP protects the rights of member songwriters, composers, lyricists, etc., by requiring a license to play or perform members’ music in public. Check this out with your attorney. Music and dancing bring business to your establishment, so you’ll have to pay for the licensing if it’s required.
Still, want to own a bar? There are as many headaches as there are rewards. But you’ll be providing jobs, income, services, and entertainment to your community while enjoying the way you make a living. So maybe the rewards outnumber the headaches.Still, want to own a bar?