How To : Setting up for Success

Photo: Shutterstock/ Aleksandrs Muiznieks.

Proper planning can reduce problems.
By Maura Keller

Perhaps you’re interested in creating a unique craft beverage establishment that you can call your very own. Or maybe you would like to inject a new concept into the bar business in your community. Whatever the reason, learning about the best ways to establish a bar is paramount to establishing an entity’s brand, engaging customers, and improving the business’ bottom line.

Full Speed Ahead

There are probably few things in life that are as exciting—or as nerve-racking—as starting a business.

According to Chris Adams, Principal of Ellis Adams Group, when establishing a new bar business it’s important for business owners to always know who their target customer is, as this will help determine the type of beverage program they will establish.

“Knowing that information allows you to design and setup for exactly who you are going after,” says Adams.

In fact, defining the bar’s concept and incorporating that concept into every detail is vital to its overall success as it helps establish the bar’s brand identity to potential guests. A brand is everything from how your phone is answered to the quality of your customer service to the distinctiveness of your menu boards. A strong brand is the result of good experiences, consistent messages, and positive, reinforcing images.

The easiest way to understand brand is to equate it to a company’s reputation. More specifically, a brand is all the thoughts, feelings, associations, and expectations that the customer experiences when exposed to a company’s name, products, buildings, signs, and employees. Therefore, a bar’s brand includes all visual and verbal elements that are combined to communicate the company’s niche, product offerings, and overall service.

Unfortunately, too many bar owners have a limited view of branding. A simple, memorable, and professionally designed logo is step one in branding. Advertising inside the bar—via slapping the logo/theme on everything in sight—is just the beginning. Your customer greeting, the owner’s treatment of all customers and employees, and even the vehicle the owner drives is branding.

Location, Location, Location

The time it takes to set up a bar completely depends on if it is a takeover of an existing space, a new build, or a renovation. In addition, permitting is always the tricky part that a bar owner cannot plan for from a timing standpoint. 

Thoroughly evaluate the zoning and licensing requirements, as this will dictate vital information on when and how you will open your bar.

“It will impact starting costs and help to create a better understanding to the team on expectations,” says Eddie Navarrette, Founder and Chief Consultant of FE Design & Consulting. “Remember, zoning and licensing requirements can vary substantially in different municipalities. It’s important to note that the amount of time to permit a bar in one location can be completely different in the adjacent city.”

Navarrette says that new bar (non-restaurant) locations are generally harder to get approved through government agencies. Requirements can drastically change from city to city, county to county, and even state to state.

“They all can have their hands in the cookie jar,” says Navarrette. “Estimate anywhere from 12 to 16 months typically to secure initial zoning onsite approvals. Then consider construction document approvals to follow, leaving you at a solid 24 months. Taking over existing bars can drop this time drastically, but be careful. It may be that the location you are considering to take over never went through the proper permitting channels—leaving you holding the bag once you take over.”

That’s why, before anything, Adam Weisblatt, CEO of Last Word Hospitality, advises new bar owners go to the city and make sure what is being envisioned will be allowed by a zoning administrator and the alcohol control board. Next, you want to walk the space with a general contractor and ask if they have any overall concerns about the structure, the property, or the land itself.

“Take a hard look at electrical, mechanical, and plumbing as well as where the trash will go,” says Weisblatt. “Finally, consolidate that information and generate a pre-opening budget to determine how much it will cost as well as an operating projection, so you can assess whether it will be a good investment. Typically, you want to be able to pay back an investment within 36 months.”

Adams has flipped projects in days and taken multiple years on others.

“Regardless, plan on spending more money than you anticipated,” says Adams. “The longer this process gets stretched, the more it is costing you with zero dollars being generated. Go into it with a good strategy, and plan on road blocks popping up along the way.”

In Navarrette’s opinion, a bar’s design should adjust to or be cohesive with the location. This can range from where the sun sets and where entrances and exits are or need to be, to how noisy and active the street is outside.

“However, demographic and operations play the biggest role when considering a setting or location,” says Navarrette. “For example, a live music or entertainment component may not be the best idea when designing a sports-forward neighborhood bar. Or a craft cocktail concept may not be right if the demographic doesn’t want to pay over $10 for a cocktail, but it could work if it was a Tiki bar.”

Adams believes the old saying “location, location, location” plays less of a role now than in the past as the industry sees so many highly successful concepts in areas you would least expect.

“The reason is simple—the new customer is yearning for an experience,” says Adams. “Create an experience, and they will come.”

And while establishing a new bar’s brand and designing the overall experience of the bar is paramount, there are a wealth of other considerations that need to be addressed to ensure a streamlined, efficient process that will enhance
a bar’s bottom line.

Adams says the top “must haves”
that are often overlooked are the functionality of equipment setup, spirit location and storage, glassware storage, cooler space, placement of a freezer behind the bar for an elevated ice program, and a firm identity for the concept while remaining true to who you are.

According to Navarrette, poor bar construction in general can be a big issue. Examples include:

• Bar heights to accommodate proposed underbar equipment

• Knee clearance at bars

• Logistical reach ranges for bars

• Building a bar without a scupper rail

• Proper durable construction of the low wall supporting the bar

• Getting the refrigeration behind
the bar before the front bar is finished
(a very common mistake).

“Make sure there is a well thought-out ice plan,” says Navarrette. “That includes enough ice, where you are storing ice, and locations of ice machines.”

Keep in mind, ice machines generate
a lot of heat. If possible, try to consider a well-ventilated location for ice machines.

Navarrette says it really comes down to bringing in experienced professionals to assist. “Hiring a design professional is vital,” says Navarrette. “You need to create a place people feel comfortable spending time in. If it is too bright, or the customer area is too large, it may make a patron feel uncomfortable or uneasy, and therefore more inclined to leave.”

Mistakes to Avoid

When setting up a bar for the first
time, one of the biggest issues facing
bar owners and operators includes understanding the placement of equipment and how that impacts
the efficiency and experience of
the establishment.

“This is so important and oftentimes is overlooked,” says Adams. “Thinking about every step that is taken behind the bar and how to minimize or reduce those steps is a major moneymaker. We are in an industry
of small margins, so many times those details make a big difference.”

Weisblatt also sees owners who let their excitement and passion override their business sense. As he explains, people fall in love with a location or a concept and then commit before really thinking about whether it is a good fit for the space or neighborhood.

“A general lack of flexibility in hospitality is dangerous, so you need to be able to adapt and not let your ego get in the way of making good business decisions,” says Weisblatt.

And remember, parking in the city
is overlooked because, in many cases, people depend on ride shares, but for the happy hour crowd or the earlier drinkers, parking does play a big role.

“Another thing to consider is the importance of your relationship with neighbors,” says Weisblatt. “You want the community to want you to be there, and if they fought against you but you were able to get through permitting, there will be a neverending stream of issues.”

The first thing Weisblatt always tells his clients is that when you determine how you want to develop your bar, it is imperative that you do not expect to be “the first, best, or only.”

“Those are very subjective labels. You want to focus on creating a business that is complementary to those already in the community,” says Weisblatt. “Rather than going in and taking away business, the goal is to share business and bring new people into the community.”

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