What to Do When Your Bar Doesn't Meet Expectations

A woman making a cocktail.
When your bar comes out differently than you'd hoped, there's little choice but to keep on keepin' on. Photos by Guillaume Belvèze.

When Josh Fontaine and Quixotic Projects (Candelaria, Le Mary Celeste, Hero) opened Glass in Paris’s Pigalle neighborhood in 2011, things didn’t go exactly as planned. “We opened on time but over budget due to soundproofing complications, and the artist due to install the light-up dance floor — the main design feature — had a personal issue and, therefore, was several months late on delivery,” he says. “We couldn't wait any longer, however, so we opened an unfinished bar in an unproven part of town.” And while Fontaine notes that taking that approach isn’t a “recipe for instant success,” the NYC expat knows a thing or two about rolling with the punches — while also staying true to an opening’s most important assets. Here, he breaks down the basics of debuting a dream bar, and just as importantly, how to deal when that vision has to change.

What's the biggest lesson you learned in opening Glass?

Don't open an unfinished space, don't let the designers hijack the vision you have for the bar and implement their own, and be sure to manage your guests' expectations through PR and social media beforehand. People were expecting Candelaria 2.0, and they were very surprised initially that Glass was completely different.

What was the original vision you had for the bar before opening doors — and how did that vision change or adapt once it opened?

We wanted a rock-focused casual neighborhood bar with good cocktails and a great beer selection, where we could stay open very late, have impromptu dance parties, and play music as loud as we wanted.

This is what we have now, but when we opened, the bar was too cold and sterile — like a mini-club. We were aiming to recreate the vibe of downtown NYC bars, where Adam and I had bartended.

The interior of a dark black bar with a disco ball. Glass was intended to feel like the casual, neighborhood bars of New York. When the result was different than the vision, they had to adjust.

What was something you knew you wouldn't compromise on in terms of opening the bar?

We were adamant on the late-night license, which caused us to lose a lot of space and original character due to the "box-within a box" soundproofing that was necessary. Today that is the bar's signature — staying open later than anywhere else and being the industry meeting place after hours. But if we had to do it all again, I think we would revisit this idea and weigh the benefits against the loss of vibe. It's cool to be the late-night industry place, but maybe it's better to be the all-night regular Joe bar, as well.

What was something you accepted as fact that you would need to compromise on for the opening of the bar — and what was your reaction to needing to do so?

The light-up floor installation. It almost didn't get done at all, but after some begging and pleading and negotiating, we were able to get it installed about five months after opening. We were all shocked as the news came quite late in the game, but we had to push on and open the doors, as we were out of money.

A lightup dance floor. The light up dance floor was integral to the design of Glass, and it was one element they refused to do without.

What surprised you most about the opening — for the better?

That Pigalle changed so rapidly after we opened. It's a completely saturated nightlife area now, whereas before, we were the only new bar on the block!

What was the biggest challenge you faced in the opening?

Not being more vocal in the design phase and trusting the designers to follow our ideas too much. I think we also chose the wrong designers for the job. They are very good at one style of place, but for Glass we were looking for something very different from what we did together at Candelaria, and they weren't the right fit.

What steps did you take in overcoming it?

We changed the design ourselves numerous times over the past three years to sand away some of the cold, hard edges in the bar, to arrive at something today we are reasonably happy with. Unfortunately, we didn't have money to hire a new designer and pay for a complete revamp, so we made a lot of mistakes along the way. Redesign by committee doesn't always go well.

What's more important when it comes to opening a bar: being flexible, or sticking to your guns?

I would say they are both important. It’s good to be flexible enough to be open to new ideas, while sticking to your guns on the things that matter. Not losing focus on what your original vision is for the bar is extremely important, but some of our best ideas have come quite late in the design or building process and are usually due to happy coincidences, luck, or chance. It's important to be able to adapt a bit to accommodate those fun ideas.

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