Behind the Bar

5 Things Every Bartender Should Know Before Opening Your Own Bar

Female bartender in leather apron using touchscreen
Patience, sticking with your vision, and a positive attitude are all important traits for bar owners to develop — but a crash course in finances, building codes or plumbing can't hurt, either. Photo via AntGor/iStock.

In his SED Talk at Tales of the Cocktail on Tour in Mexico City, Tristan Stephenson said that the first key to opening up your own bar is to dream big. He certainly has, as the man behind places like Worship Street Whistling Shop in London, Surf-Side Café and Bar in Cornwall, and Black Rock in East London (which made it into the Top Ten for World’s Best New Bar in this year’s Spirited Awards). “I would actually advise never to sacrifice any part of your dream unless you absolutely have to,” he added. But what real-world advice would bar owners give to those who want to break out on their own? We spoke to Stephenson and new bar owners Giuseppe Gonzalez (Suffolk Arms) and Alyssa Sartor (August Laura) about what they wish they’d known before opening up shop.

1. Get Some Business Skills
“I wish I had been wiser to the business of running a bar,” says Stephenson. “Most people that open a bar have opened bars previously, but with another person’s money. This prepares you for most of the teething issues associated with opening a new venue, but it’s only when you do it with your own money that the business angle becomes a major factor.” He notes that you might be able to learn these skills through a class, but that you also have to prepare yourself for the fact that you won’t know everything right off the bat. “It’s very easy to be fooled by lots of money going through the cash register, but balancing wages, purchases, rent etc. is the real key to turning a profit — and without that, you’re finished,” he notes.

2. Hire Good Lawyers
Gonzalez says it’s worth the money to hire the best lawyer you possibly can in order to stomp out bigger issues as they arise. “They cost more but overall, save you time and money, and help you understand the process better,” he says. “They can fix issues that always show up almost immediately.” With someone else taking care of legal matters, you get to focus on the menu and your staff.

3. Surround Yourself With People You Trust
Sartor encourages you to always get the opinion of experts you know will tell you the truth. “Your real estate agent will say anything to make the sale,” she cautions. “You must have the property inspected by someone you trust before you sign. If you don't, you may get stuck with someone crazy unforeseen costs that could cost you your business if you don't have a huge financial backing.”

4. Be Patient
Problems you never thought possible will crop up when you finally open your own bar—all the stuff that was never your responsibility to deal with as a bartender. That’s why Gonzalez would’ve liked a crash course in plumbing, electricity, and carpentry before he opened Suffolk Arms (along with a deeper understanding of how New York City’s building codes). So long as you have a good attitude, though, you can cope with whatever befalls you. “The most important trait a young bar owner needs is patience,” says Gonzalez. “It's vital to success and your overall happiness.”

5. Go With Your Gut
This goes back to Stephenson’s advice about sticking to your dream: Sartor, too, encourages you to stay true to your vision, whatever it may be. “Don't be afraid to put your creativity to use,” she says. “If you have something you believe in, do it wholeheartedly. It's your bar you don't have to follow any industry ‘norm’ or standard. Set your own and don't worry what other industry professionals will say.”

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