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So you want to open a bar, eh? Note that the skills you need to kick-start that goal have nothing to do with making drinks. Before we even say the words theme,” “menu” or “glassware,” let’s talk about neighborhood, building materials and labor. After all, at least one person on your opening team should be versed in shopping real estate, hiring contractors and securing licenses.
And even if you’re working with a partner who’ll oversee this side of things, it’s always a good idea to have a basic understanding of every part of your bar’s operation. This keeps every aspect and member of the business accountable, from the creative side to finances. And it’s especially true during the build-out phase, because after that’s done, things are much harder to change.
Ready to get started? Whether you’re a veteran of the hospitality industry or a bartender looking to become a first-time bar owner, these are some tips and tricks to consider for a successful bar build-out.
1. Pick the Right Neighborhood
Don’t underestimate the importance of location. No matter how strong your cocktail program is, it must be a fit for the clientele. Consider the relationship between your price points with the income level of the neighborhood, and do market research to find out what your competition looks like.
“I look for a neighborhood that can support our concept while not being overly saturated with it either,” says Tait Forman, the owner of Bibo Ergo Sum in Los Angeles. “We’re located at the intersection of three different neighborhoods—Beverly Hills, West Hollywood and Los Angeles, yet I don’t believe there are many bars that serve the community quite like ours.”
“Most of the time, the space influences my concept so much that I rarely nail down a firm idea until I’m under lease,” says Dustin Lancaster, the proprietor of L.A.’s An Eastside Establishment (Covell, Crawford’s, L&E Oyster Bar). “For example, should you put an upscale wine bar in a younger up-and-coming neighborhood or is that more geared toward a dive bar with cheaper drinks?”
2. … And the Right Space
How big will your bar be? Do you want outdoor seating? How many bathrooms will there be? These are all things to consider when selecting a space within the neighborhood of your choosing.
“The space is really what speaks to me—where the bar will go, where the bathrooms have to be, how the doors are placed. These factors decide the floor plan and affect my choice of concept,” says New York City star-tender Eben Freeman.
For first-timers, Lancaster suggests looking into a smaller space. “I always say it’s better to have a small bar that’s always full rather than a big bar that’s half-full,” he says.
Once you’ve set the parameters of size and seating, be flexible in your vision to get the most out of a space.“I start with a concept, but if the right location lends itself to a specific type of bar, then I feel like it would be a mistake not to lean into it,” says Forman. “For example, our first concept didn’t necessarily call for an outdoor space, as it is about small intimate moments, but if a patio were an option or essential to the location, then we would look to create a bar that maximized the potential of the space.”
Then there’s curb appeal. Does the bar have any intrinsic elements that will grab the attention of passersby and increase foot traffic? “Our bars always begin by spending a lot of time understanding where we’re going to open,” says Alex Day, a partner at Proprietors LLC, overseeing Los Angeles Koreatown spots like The Walker Inn and The Normandie Club. “A bar also must be unique, and so we’ll choose spaces and locations that have inherent intrigue.”
3. Don’t Settle for Less on the Lease
Not to be overlooked is the lease on the space. Read, reread and get second opinions on any proposed terms before you commit, even if that means walking away from a space you think is perfect.
“Most of what I’ve seen in my 20 years of bar design and consulting that makes or breaks people’s businesses has to do less with corner locations, foot traffic counts and high ceilings,” says Tobin Ellis, the hospitality and design consultant behind BarMagic of Las Vegas. “It has a lot more to do with what kind of lease they signed, the condition of the building and the problems created by a ‘great space’ that doesn’t have enough space.”
Ellis adds that your checklist should include good structural bones, a vetted landlord and happy tenants.
4. Let the Theme Choose You
Once you’ve officially signed a space with potential, in a neighborhood that makes sense, it’s time to refine your theme. For those who have something less concrete in mind, Johnny Swet of NYC’s Grand Republic Cocktail Club suggests perhaps looking into the history of the space for inspiration.
“For me, the concept is always based on the location and, if possible, the history of the space and either its relevance to the neighborhood or the neighborhood’s relevance,” says Swet. “We’re located just a few feet from Transmitter Park. A little bit of digging and online vintage shopping uncovered the fact that there used to be a steamship docked at the ferry dock there called the Grand Republic. I found a vintage sign advertising the ship, and the rest of the inspiration for the interiors shortly followed.”
Dmitri Komarov, the co-owner of Los Angeles’ prolific 1933 Group (Bigfoot Lodge, Sassafras Saloon), reveals that the theme for their agave-focused La Cuevita (Spanish for “The Little Cave”) came directly from the space. “The bar concept elsewhere would have totally bombed if we didn’t get the inspiration first from this little cavelike bar we stumbled upon in Highland Park,” says Komarov. “And that was 15 years ago, before we knew mezcal would be the drink of choice that it is today or that Highland Park would be as big of a scene as it is now.”
A vintage sign advertising a nearby steamship named Grand Republic inspired Johnny Swet’s bar design for Grand Republic Cocktail Club.
5. Make a Timeline (But Be Realistic)
Now it’s time for the work to begin! Agree upon some target dates, from breaking ground to installation of key elements (lighting, bar, seating) and, of course, an opening date. Understand that these are movable targets and give yourself the space to make things perfect. While licensing and permitting will be contingent on your market, a good rule of thumb might be eight to 12 months from the signing of a lease to the opening date.
“We’ve worked hard over the years to have some strong systems for opening bars—a checklist of sorts that lets us swiftly and efficiently get a property open and humming as quickly as possible.” says Day. “But that process is rarely consistent, requiring a whole lot of flexibility in meeting the challenges of any city or space while not getting off track or over budget.”
The key to managing a timeline, or at least responding to hiccups and unexpected circumstances, is to keep all channels of communication open. Understand that you’ll be working with folks who’ve never worked together before.
“I’ve yet to meet a restaurateur who opened on the date they originally intended,” says Tommy Tardie, the owner-operator of NYC’s Fine & Rare. “Building a restaurant is a monumental task and one that involves coordinating and managing a dozen different contractors—architects, designers, audio engineers, electricians, plumbers, millworkers, structural engineers. Oftentimes, they have no prior working relationship, so to expect them to all work in unison from the get-go is a little unrealistic.”
6. Decide if You’ll Contract or Do It Yourself?
That is the question. While the safety and stability of your construction is paramount, there’s something to be said for getting hands-on with the work, both to ensure things are done according to your vision and also to save a buck. Divide tasks into those that must be contracted out and those that can be done in-house.
“We work with outside contractors for specialty orders—things like cabinetry or woodwork finishing or booth making,” says Komarov. “Everything else we build on our end. At Bigfoot Lodge, we contracted it out to family to help us do the log cabin work.”
Miles Macquarrie, the beverage director and co-owner of Atlanta’s Kimball House and Watchman’s, notes that pursuing a space that was once a bar is a great way to save money in this phase. “Going into a preexisting space that has some basic functional aspects can allow us to put more financial energy into making sure the place is designed well.” He adds that even if you decide to work with a contractor, go in frequently to oversee progress. “Your contractors will always make some type of mistake that wasn’t drawn on the plans,” he says. “Go in every day and check their work.”
When encountering errors, or even if having a change of heart, recognize that nearly everything in the design phase can be edited and that reworks are part of the process. “Architects, designers, FSCIs and other members of the design build team can redraw and reimagine, and we do, over and over,” says Ellis. “That’s just part of the process. It’s really helpful to build a very strong concept and keep it as nonvisual as possible in the early stages so you don’t block up the creative team’s ability to imagine.”
Don’t forget that after the build-out you’ll want to treat the space like your home. “Contract out the big jobs if you can afford to—you need your headspace and time to focus on what matters like the final product, the identity and getting people in the door,” says Kaelin Ballinger, the owner of The Seneca in NYC’s Ridgewood neighborhood in Queens. “Decorate and set the place up yourself and work behind your bar at least in the beginning. It’s your house, and nobody will look after it like you do.”
7. Be Smart About Your Building Materials
There are plenty of things to not cut cost on: infrastructure, shelving, lighting. But if you’re looking for places to save money on materials, prioritize things that guests won’t see or that might have to be replaced.
“I usually cut costs on things that aren’t frequently used or seen and things that have comparable options at better prices,” says Will Lee, the beverage director at Detroit’s Grey Ghost and Second Best. “I also consider whether the materials and labor are going to be a recurring cost or if it’s just a one-time cost.”
Ellis suggests saving on floors, ceilings and light fixtures but not equipment and rarely furniture. “I see people fall in love with beautiful floors, and I get it, but even if the bar is successful, the only person that’s ever going to see the floors is the person mopping them,” he says. “If people can see your floors when you’re open, you’ve got bigger operational issues. Ceilings, pendant lighting and sconces can be ‘value-engineered’ to fit the design aesthetic by being creative, picking, going to auctions and developing relationships with fabricators.”
Tobin adds, “Spend money on the things that create value for the business and a better experience for the guest. Acoustic dampening materials, dimmer switches and ergonomic bar design aren’t things you get to brag about in a press photo, but those are the ‘unsexy’ parts of design that make a big difference to the guest experience and your bar’s bottom line.”
8. Don’t Forget Some Universal Truths
We asked the experts to share a few universal truths about their build-out experiences.
“Master the ergonomics of the bar,” says Komarov. “Build one that is functional for the neighborhood that you’d want to walk up to. Build the bar shaped as a horseshoe or circle. There are plenty of access points, and it avoids three- or four-person-deep bottlenecking.”
“Most of your businesses fate is decided by the terms of the lease, so only sign a very favorable lease,” says Tobin. “Once you’re 100 percent positive you have budgeted for every possible contingency, add 40 percent to your capital cost budget and four months to your timeline.”
“It always takes longer than expected,” says Lee. “It always costs more than expected. It’s always harder than expected.”
“Make sure you’ve budgeted yourself correctly,” says Ballinger. “It’s very possible to run out of money at the finishing line. You’re going to need money to operate your business in the beginning too.”
“You will most likely change something in the middle of buildout,” says Macquarrie. “Don’t let it frustrate you. It’s part of the process.”
“If you plan to open on a certain date, learn to get comfortable with the fact that it might be three months later than that,” says Swet.
“Everyone thinks that what they have is a great idea,” says Lancaster. “But you have to really ask yourself if what you’re doing is needed by the public and not just a romanticized idea you’ve fallen in love with.”