Behind the Bar

How to Run a Bar Where Everybody Knows Your Name

A man serving drinks to a bar full of people.
We all want to find that bar where everybody knows our name. At Big Bar in Los Angeles, bartenders foster close relationships between guests and staff alike. Photo courtesy of Big Bar.

In this fast-paced modern world, the word “community” may bring to mind Facebook groups and Twitter lists before we imagine people communing face to face. But bars originated, you’ll recall, as a place for people to gather and exchange ideas, to share pieces of themselves over a glass of wine or mead. With the proliferation of the cocktail renaissance (not to mention the radical transitions bars have seen over centuries of existence), the idea of what a bar should and shouldn’t be has been hotly contested. To be sure, a bar’s particular M.O. is a matter of taste and a decision to be made by the bar’s founders and team, but for many bars, the end goal isn’t necessarily to produce the most innovative cocktails or to be featured in the trendiest Instagram photos. Instead, some bars aspire to be a home away from home, a place where you make and relive some of your best memories and build deep, meaningful relationships. The owners of bars with thriving communities tell us how they’ve built a bar “where everybody knows your name.”

Family begets family

At Big Bar in Los Angeles, you’ll walk in to find smiling faces, superior drinks and people hanging out in packs. This is by no coincidence. The staff set out with a mission to be a hub in their thriving, vibrant neighborhood of Los Feliz. And for the Big Bar team, this begins with the vibes they feel toward one another. They spend significant amounts of time together outside of work, and they’ve grown close accordingly. “We have laughed together, cried together through tragedies, celebrated countless birthdays, lost many bowling tournaments, and we have stayed together throughout all this,” says Cari Hah, the bar manager. “This way, as we have our bar family, we then radiate outwards to include our community into our Big Bar family.”

"We are here to make people feel good, and feel acknowledged."

This closeness is half the reason so many bartenders have stayed on the Big Bar team for so long, many even since the bar opened five and a half years ago. It’s also a major factor in making bar guests feel at home. “Having this unique consistency of faces really helps build this community and this client base,” says Hah. “They know us, we know each other, we love each other.”

For Chaim Dauermann, head bartender of The Up & Up in New York City, “Building a team that works well together, with personalities that mesh well with the bar and the clientele, is far more important than simply hiring people with a following,” he says. “Although many members of our staff have regulars who turn out to see them specifically, those regulars almost always become regulars of the bar, regardless of who is working, and they continue to come back even after their favorite bartender has moved on to another opportunity.”

Four people holding hands behind a bar. At Big Bar in LA, they build community by encouraging close relationships between the staff. Photo courtesy of Big Bar.

Build trust

At Big Bar, the staff makes it a point to introduce guests to new cocktails and spirits in an approachable, considerate manner — never with any inkling of pretension. Guests came in initially for their food offerings, but Hah and her staff were able to bring them new reasons to keep coming back. “Slowly, over the years we have been able to introduce the everyday latte and/or panini crowd to enjoy a freshly made mojito, a classic whiskey sour, a proper old fashioned. As we gain trust, one well executed and friendly drink at a time, we have them trust us to shift from a mojito to say, a Queen’s Park Swizzle. A margarita to an Infante. An old fashioned to a Sazerac. I think the development of trust is integral to relationship creation,” says Eugene Lee, digital director of Big Bar and Hah's right-hand man.

A similar attitude exists at Sanctuaria in St. Louis, Missouri. “We didn’t sneer at folks if they really wanted a Cosmopolitan or Long Island. We just made it the best we could and hoped it put a smile on a face,” says Matt Seiter, the bar’s former manager. “My staff’s demeanor of ‘what are you in the mood for’ took any sort of pretension out of drinking cocktails. It helped make the whole atmosphere or stigma of cocktail drinking approachable to all people.”

You never know if someone is looking for a Corpse Reviver or a Budweiser, but you can assume they’d like to feel good. That, perhaps above all things, is what communal bars get right.

Make a meeting place

The Rogue Gentlemen creates a warm atmosphere for people to gather by refusing to take themselves too seriously. “The Rogue Gentlemen is a place where you can get the best cocktail in a relaxed atmosphere while listening to Hall & Oates or Fetty Wap or whatever crazy stuff we decide to play during service,” says owner John Maher. “A lot of cocktail bars tend be stuffy and serious. We prefer to not be and our guests know that.”

A lighthearted atmosphere and a welcoming spirit go a long way in creating the kind of place people want to frequent. “I stress that to all my team that we are here to affirm our guests and give them a safe space to congregate,” says Hah.

At The Irish Pub in Lewisburg, West Virginia, the welcome is extended even to kids and teens. The Irish Pub features “a family friendly atmosphere, board games for all ages, free popsicles for kids, a safe place for teens, [and] coloring books and crayons,” says Andrea Izzo, one of the bar’s owners. This unique aspect is a dream for parents who might otherwise never get to congregate with friends or treat themselves to a nice drink, and it’s a welcome reprieve where even their kids can feel at home.

Make guests feel special

You never know if someone enters your bar looking for a Corpse Reviver or a Budweiser, but you can assume they’d like to feel good, no matter what they’re drinking. And that, perhaps above all things, is what communal bars get right.

“When [guests] walk into Big Bar, they are part of our family and we have to make them feel that way,” says Hah.

It doesn’t have to require inviting guests into your home Christmas morning or becoming their “In Case of Emergency” contact (though it certainly could), it just means taking the time to get to know them. It means making an effort to remember names and favorite drinks and figuring out what they’re all about.

“It's not hard to make guests feel special,” Dauermann says. “People just want to be noticed. If someone feels noticed, and they liked you and your bar, they will likely be back.”

A glass of whiskey next to a card with an S on it and a notebook. The Sanctuaria Cocktail Club involves trying 150 cocktails to earn a membership card, which provides special discounts and offers. Photo courtesy of Sanctuaria.

Show loyalty to your most loyal

When you gather a robust base of regulars, how do you keep them coming back? Reciprocate the loyalty they show your bar. At Sanctuaria, this loyalty exists in the form of Sanctuaria Cocktail Club. Seiter developed a list of 150 cocktails — 80 classics, 70 originals, and members pay a one time fee of $20 to join the club and work their way through the drink list over time and at a discounted price. Members also received a notebook to take notes on the drinks and track their progress. Upon completion of the list, members then receive a metal membership card with the Sanctuaria logo on it, which of course comes along with special discounts and privileges. (LA's Tonga Hut has a similar program for tiki enthusiasts.)

“Another thing that kept people coming back were the members themselves,” Seiter says. “Groups would come to complete the list. They each would order a different drink and try it amongst themselves, talk about it, laugh a while, and then come back the following week.”

The Rogue Gentlemen also employs membership cards — in this case, black metal cards are given to the most loyal customers: “It entitles them to 10% off for life, access to special events and offers, etc.,” says Maher. “I’ve become very good friends with many of them over the years.”

Remember your purpose

Big Bar has facilitated a community that gives them purpose everyday. “Bars are the lighthouse for a community — a center, a place to be together,” Hah says. “From behind the bar, you see the people living, crashing into each other, trying to make their dreams come to fruition. We are here to make people feel good and feel acknowledged.”

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