What It's Like to Renovate a Bar with a Past Life
There’s no easy way to open a bar, but it’s possible that renovating a historic or unconventional space is the hardest. We caught up with three different owners who have gone through this process to get their take on the nuts and bolts of renovation and what they wish they’d known when they started.
For Ryan Dettra, business manager and co-founder of The Ice Plant in St. Augustine, Florida, it was important to find the right brand. In 2010, he and his partners purchased a building that had been an ice plant, ceasing operations in the 1950s or 60s. Around that same time, handcrafted and block ice was just starting to have a moment in the craft cocktail world. It seemed like a match made in heaven. “One of the things that I could recommend to anybody starting out is when you're selecting a location you think about the brand,” says Dettra. “Think about the story that's natural to the building, because authenticity is really important for people now, and especially as part of the cocktail experience. If you find a repeatable story that people are really excited about then that is your marketing. When people post pictures or tell their friends, that reduces your costs of traditional advertising.”
Neal Bodenheimer, owner of Cure, in New Orleans, which is located inside a 1905 firehouse, toes the line between using his building's history and creating a new story for his brand. “I think you want to make sure that you honor the building and that you honor the building's history, but at the same time if you're going to do a commercial project you also can't do it to the point where it becomes a theme unless you really want that theme,” he says. “You have to walk that balance between honoring the building's past and understanding that you are the guardian of that building for a time. You have to do things that you think are the right decisions for a building but also understand that it's your story to write for your generation, for your lifetime.”
In Provincetown, Massachusetts, Fred Latasa-Nicks opened a tavern this May in an 1850 house (originally owned by a sea captain) overlooking the harbor where the pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact. It’s called Strangers & Saints, based on what the Puritan pilgrims called themselves and the rough customers who made up the rest of the pilgrim party. For Latasa-Nicks, it was very important that the interior be as authentic as possible. “For the most part, everything in the restaurant is reclaimed,” he says. “Some of the furniture was made by our carpenter out of old floorboards.”
Even if your space has been a restaurant, like Strangers & Saints, the renovation process can be surprising. “You can only look at so much, and once you start peeling back the walls then you find things like pipes that are cracked,” says Latasa-Nicks. He recommends bringing in professionals before you buy or lease to get a feel for the building. “I brought in people I knew who were in the industry, friends of mine, and asked them to take a look at the kitchen, we had engineers come in, take a look at the structure,” he says. “We had all kinds of tradesman come in prior so that we had some idea of what we were in for. Because no one is going to tell you half of what's wrong.”
In addition to checking out the building itself, all three of these owners recommended doing as much homework as possible before buying to cut down on red tape related to zoning, historic tax credits and permit issues.
Dettry recommends being as hands-on as you can during renovation. “I think when you're working with most contractors, they don't have the vision or understand it the way you do. There's going to be a lot of changes because you're working with a historical building and that can get expensive really fast,” he says. “I think being hands on is the best way to go, but not everybody can do that.”
When Latasa-Nicks wrote his budget and business plan, he allowed cushion time before opening and budgeted for the unexpected. That time gave him the ability to research laws specific to restoring a historic building (which vary depending on where you are) and go through all of the necessary processes with the professionals he assembled as part of his team. For him, the detailed business plan becam the most important tool in helping people catch the vision, from his designer and kitchen staff, to city officials. “It seems obvious,” he says. “But I know a lot of people who don’t do it.”
Also, on the paperwork side, Dettra recommends spending some money on lawyers in the short term, especially if you’re working with investors. “Everybody starts off on the same page, but that doesn't continue and that's absolutely the hardest part. Make sure at the outset that you're controlling shares and what you have,” he says. “It's hard to spend money on lawyers if you have the sweat equity and a small part of the money in it, but you really do have to get the contracts and documents in place and you have to make sure you can work with somebody, it's like a marriage.”
Latasa-Nicks cautions that it’s easy to get caught up in a big project like this and forget to take care of yourself. “I know other people who have done this and they get so consumed and so burnt out and so even in all of the craziness, you need to find an hour or two a day to give to yourself, whether it's going for a run, going to the gym, sleeping, whatever it is,” he says. “Your day is never too crazy that you can't take an hour to just do something outside of your world.”
Renovation and repurposing might be extremely difficult, but for Dettra, Latasa-Nicks, and Bodenheimer, it’s completely worth it. “This is the hardest way to do it, but I think it's also something that's not going to be in and out of fashion,” says Dettra. “This is a building that's now a permanent fixture in St. Augustine and a part of communicating its history to guests as they come in forever. You're going to have to modify things over the years to keep up with whatever the trends are, but the history will always remain important.”