From Behind the Bar: So You Want to Open a Bar

Alice Gao

What I'm Drinking: Fernet Branca (rocks)

Your life sucks. Sure, you make good money, but you're never home, you hate your boss, whatever industry you're in is either uninspiring or downright evil, and you want to take your ill-gotten gains and leverage them in to something that gives you the lifestyle you've always wanted.

Do you open a Subway franchise? No way. Where's the fun in that? You want to do something fun. You want to open a bar.

A bar is a no-brainer. You buy beer in a keg at a nickel a pint, and sell each one for seven dollars. A bottle of vodka might cost fifteen bucks, and you sell each shot for nine. Who couldn't make those numbers work?

The problem is, it's not that simple. Opening a bar is hard, and running a successful bar is infinitely harder. A disturbing number of people think that if you can scratch together the money to get in, a bar will return astronomical profits, just because it is well stocked and the doors are open. The phrase I've heard most often is, "In good times, people drink to celebrate. In bad times, they drink to commiserate." You've got all of your bases covered, right? Good economy or bad, you've got the booze, and people will always want to buy it.

"Ray Foley, editor of Bartender Magazine, estimates that 75% of bars fail in their first year."

The reality of owning a bar is much more stark than what most people believe. Ray Foley, editor of Bartender Magazine, estimates that 75% of bars fail in their first year. While I haven't vetted his numbers, my experience in the business leads me to believe this is true. There are many types of bars in this world, and for each there is a lot of competition. You want to open an Irish pub in your neighborhood because you see Irish pubs doing well? What makes yours stand out from all the others?

When the time came for my partners and I to open our own bar, we tried to internalize all of the lessons we had learned from the places that came before us. It turns out that, despite all of our experience, we didn't know a thing. Sure, we knew how to cobble together a liquor order, but who was going to answer the phone when it rings at 11 a.m.? We could put together a decent cocktail menu, but who was going to make sure anyone would find out about it? What do you do when your ice machine dies in the middle of service? What happens when the tax-man comes calling?

But in addition to all that, we had to look at our business and say, "What is it that I'm going to do that will make someone walk in to my joint and not the one down the street?" If you can't figure out a good answer to that question, your bar is destined for the scrap-heap of oblivion.

If success hinges on showing people a good time, it also requires we act responsibly. Bars are in the business of intoxication, and we have to deal with all of the challenges which that implies. Drunk people fight. They steal things from the bathroom. They fall down. And enough people who are intoxicated enough won't hesitate for a second to rip a bar to shreds. Finding staff responsible enough to deal with this is not easy, and finding staff who don't also participate in the party is harder still.

The fact is, opening and running a successful bar takes an enormous amount of work. I am two and a half years in, and am lucky to work ninety hours per week. How do I spend my time? Learning Quickbooks. Shopping printers for the cocktail menus. Trying to find a new busser (again!). Figuring out how much gin I need on hand for the weekend. Repairing the walk-in because a shelf collapsed and a full keg fell on someone's foot. Wiping off toilets. Taking over shifts if someone's out. Finding another pest control guy because the last one sucked. Firing a person who got drunk on his shift. Greeting guests. Cancelling my newspaper ad because I don't think it's working. And being the guy that always has his phone on, just in case something goes down in the rare moments that I don't happen to be at the bar. I am always on call.

The fantasy and fact of owning a bar are two different things. I work enough that I jeopardize my family life, making sure that things in my establishments run the way I think they should. The irony is, that is how I take care of my family.

Not what you were hoping to hear? Maybe a nice Subway franchise would be the right thing for you.

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