From Behind the Bar: On Running Two Bars

Alice Gao

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What I'm Drinking: Glenfarclas 1968 (neat)

In 2009, two friends and I decided it would be a good idea to pool our accumulated ideas collected over decades behind various bars, and open a joint that combined everything we loved about bars and none of the things we hated. That bar (called Ward III) is very much a product of three men tackling problems as they arose, and figuring out how to do a lot of new things in a very short period.

While I don't know if we have fully mastered the nuanced art of running a business and a bar, I can say we have learned a staggering number of new things, through trial and error, sound advice from good people, and a healthy dose of good ol' gumption. The care and feeding of a New York City bar takes a fair amount of effort, and we nurtured ours on time, attention, imagination, and a whole lot of hard work.

Just under a year in, I was opening up one afternoon and a friend walked in with someone else in tow. The man was introduced as the owner of a hotel in Times Square which had an old bar on the first floor. After telling me in no uncertain terms how negatively he regarded his hotel's bar, he mentioned that its current owner would be losing his lease after more than forty years, and would we consider stopping by to check out the space?

Bars are the last of the great brick-and-mortar establishments. Their services cannot be outsourced, and we cannot be replaced by an online e-commerce operation. A bar is a place, and as such it always has a neighborhood.

"The suggestion that we would even go to a bar in Times Square was enough to raise an eyebrow"

Throughout each of our careers, my partners and I had specialized in connecting the places we worked with the neighborhood in which they were located. We considered the neighborhood this man was talking about, Times Square, to be a cultural wasteland populated by Broadway-wannabes, small-time drug dealers, and hordes of tourists who couldn't tell the difference between Scotch and bourbon if their lives depended on it. The suggestion that we would even go to a bar in Times Square was enough to raise an eyebrow, and the idea of actually working there was so bizarre that it wasn't worth considering.

Still, there seemed no harm in checking the place out, so we did.

When we walked in the door, we saw a beautiful old bar that had gone to seed. The collected detritus of decades littered the walls. There was carpet, which smelled like old beer, mildew, and Swisher Sweets. The service was deplorable. The clientele belonged in a bingo parlor. Hidden behind all of that, though, was an incredibly unique piece of bar history consisting of old wood, beat-up copper, and the resonant memories of everyone who had sat at the bar for over forty years. Beneath the grime was something special. In the space of one beer, we were totally in love with the joint.

I woke up the next morning and said to my wife, "I have good news and bad news."

She said, "Let me guess. You want to open another bar."

Six months later we did exactly that. That little bar had been called The Rum House for decades, and we saw no reason to break that chain. I'm writing this the day after our first anniversary party.

Opening a second bar has been an interesting process. We've had the opportunity to apply a lot of the lessons we learned from our first bar. Simply having a Rolodex stuffed with contacts made things a lot smoother; unlike the first bar, we knew who to call when some issue needed addressing. We already had a beer-gas guy, a pickle guy, a bread guy, a vodka guy, and all of the ancillary people necessary to get various problems solved. When we were new, we had to find all of these people from scratch.

The first time, we only had the three of us. For the second bar, we actually had a staff of people who worked for us already. And this time around, we had a track record. When we were opening Ward III, it was difficult to get vendors to work with us. Having one joint under our belts greased a lot of wheels.

We're lucky that the time it takes to run two bars is not double the time it takes to run one. It turns out that learning takes a lot of time, which accounts for a lot of the hours we spent figuring out our first joint. Even so, when we opened our second, we looked wistfully back on the days when we only had one bar to run.

Lots of people own many more than two bars, and one day, maybe we will too. When that time comes, we'll have to figure out how to step out from behind the bar and spend time managing places, people, and time instead of working behind the stick. But it will be a sad day when I take myself off the schedule. I am a bartender and, however else I have to spend my time, I will continue to be one.