How to Run a Bar
What Every Bar Manager / Owner NEEDS to Know
to Ensure Long-Term Success
Learning how to run a bar is not an easy task. Although there are many schools that teach people how to bartend, there aren’t any that teach people how to run a bar successfully. Most people learn the hard way – by jumping in with both feet and making a ton of mistakes along the way (and hopefully learning from those mistakes).
This article is not written for people deciding about whether to open a bar or not and does not get into the aspects of bar ownership like finances and legalities, but instead takes the operational approach, focusing on what a bar owner or manager needs to do to ensure long-term success.
How to Run a Bar – Tip #1
The first thing you’ve got to look at is the first thing your customers look at when they step into your bar. Give your customers something to see and talk about when they come to your bar. People go to bars for relaxation and entertainment. And part of that can be achieved simply by the way your bar is decorated. In addition to ensuring that your establishment is always clean, make sure that your décor matches with the theme of your bar. If it’s a country bar, would someone know by walking in and looking at the walls? Make sure everything from the color of the paint to the pictures and other paraphernalia adorning the walls of your bar are inline with your theme and the customer you’re trying to attract. Give your customers some eye candy by hanging interesting things on the wall, painting the walls an inviting color, hanging mirrors in the right place, putting up vertical blinds or curtains or blacking out the windows – as long as it fits with your theme.
How to Run a Bar – Tip #2
Create an Eye-Catching Menu
Your menu is your bar’s resume – it tells the customer what kind of experience they are going to have when they order. When it comes to menus, a picture really is worth a thousand words. Take the time to have your menu professionally made – both your drink and food menus. Your menu has to have pictures and it should highlight high profit items. It should be easy to read and easy for customers to locate items but it shouldn’t be too crowded. A professionally designed menu can increase profits all by itself. After you get your menu designed, post it outside so passers-by can see all the wonderful items your establishment offers – even when you’re closed.
How to Run a Bar – Tip #3
Set the Right Prices
Both food and drink prices should be inline with the experience that your customers get from ordering said items. Stay away from the mentality that you can simply increase profits by increasing your prices. This is a short-term fix at best and it will likely leave you with less and less customers as time goes on. Look at it is from your customers’ perspective. When they wake up and count their cash the next day after partying at your bar the night before, will they be pleasantly surprised or floored at how much it cost them? You don’t want your prices too low as people tend to associate low quality with low price. And you don’t want your prices too high either – as you’ll get people in the first time but you won’t get them back.
How to Run a Bar – Tip #4
Get Your Managerial Hands Dirty
As a manager or owner, you’ve really got to know what you’re doing. From how to cook each and every dish in the kitchen, to how to bartend with speed and efficiency during the busiest of times. If you don’t know how to do something in your bar, how are you going to train your staff to do it? And if its not you training the staff, how are you going to know what procedural changes and systems to implement if you never get your own hands dirty? A bar manager or owner has to lead by example. This is not a job where you get to sit in a glass office and watch over the little mice working below you. Earn your staffs’ respect by doing their job better than they do it. If you aren’t familiar with some area of your bar – schedule yourself shifts in that area until you become proficient. The best way to know what works and doesn’t work is by jumping in and experiencing it firsthand.
How to Run a Bar – Tip #5
Hire Top-Notch Staff
It is absolutely essential for your establishment to have good staff if you want to achieve lasting success. People visit a bar as much for the people behind the bar as for the bar itself. Start off by hiring personable, outgoing, professional-looking staff. You’re looking for someone who has the ability to entertain people – someone who is easy to talk to and quick to smile. Whether they have experience or not is secondary. Bartending skills can be taught on-site but social skills can’t.
How to Run a Bar – Tip #6
Offer Top-Notch Training
After you hire the right staff, make sure that you train them thoroughly. All staff should get continual, ongoing training. Training in job skills as well as areas such as customer service and product knowledge. If you, as the owner or manager, don’t have these skill sets yourself, then look to your suppliers and reps for a cheap solution. Bring in your wine rep to train your staff on the differences between the wines you serve and which wines pair best with which dishes. Bring in your beer rep to show your staff how to pour draught properly and teach them the difference between a lager and an ale. As well as training your staff so that they can better represent your establishment, this will also reduce staff turnover as the staff are continually learning and growing.
How to Run a Bar – Tip #7
Keep Your Staff Motivated
Now that you have extremely knowledgeable, outgoing and personable staff, make sure to keep them motivated so that they continually put forth 110%. Complacency will kill your business, slowly but surely. Keep your staff motivated with staff contests, employee of the month programs and fun staff outings. This gives them a feeling of satisfaction and achievement as well as building a family-like relationship which makes it less likely that they will leave when the next big bar job opens up somewhere else.
How to Run a Bar – Tip #8
Put Controls in Place
From the back of the house to the front, portion control is paramount. In the kitchen, menu items should be portioned so that every dish is the same and cooks aren’t left to their discretion to determine how much of an ingredient is to be added. Pre-portion everything from the cheese to the french fries. In the front of the house, you need to control the pour. If your bar doesn’t have the money for an inventory control system, then get the next best, cheaper option – measured pour spouts. Put measured pour spouts on all your rail bottles. In addition to keeping costs and waste down, this also brings consistency to the drinks and prevents bartenders from over-pouring or “tipping the elbow” and giving a little extra to certain customers. If, for some reason, you don’t want to use measured pour spouts, then make sure that all your bartenders use a shot glass or jigger when making drinks.
Bartenders need to be doing opening and closing daily inventories of the bottles behind the bar and made responsible for any missing inventory on their shift. If you don’t have a computerized inventory system, get a scale and have your bartenders weigh each bottle before and after each shift. And, if not a scale, even using a point system is better than doing no inventory at all. Have the bartenders eye the bottles and guesstimate how much is in them – from 0.1 (point 1) to 0.95 (point 9 5), where 1.0 is a full bottle.
How to Run a Bar – Tip #9
Be on the Lookout for Thievery
It’s a fact – every bar, including yours, experiences employee theft. Theft can be anything from the staff picking at french fries in the kitchen to the bartender giving away free drinks to their friends or charging for drinks and pocketing the cash. Make sure that your staff knows what constitutes theft and that it will not be tolerated. If you catch someone stealing from your establishment, it sets a good example to fire that person immediately and let the others know why he/she was fired. Make sure you have cameras installed and that the staff know that someone is always watching.
How to Run a Bar – Tip #10
Be a Numbers Guy
If you want to know how to run a bar successfully, it’s all in the numbers. There’s no way to see how successful (or unsuccessful) your bar is if you don’t have the data to back it up. Make sure that you record EVERYTHING, every day – from the less obvious things like the weather, the number of customers and highlights of the day to the more obvious things like breakage, waste, liquor and food inventories, payouts, salaries and sales. This data is essential to get a bird’s eye view of how your bar is doing and what areas need improving. Having historical data will also help you with future bar promotions and events as well as staffing.
How to Run a Bar – Tip #11
Keep your Regulars Coming Back Regularly
Every bar has its regular customers and for some bars, these people make up a substantial percentage of their overall revenue. Since that’s the case, treat them like it. Buy your regulars birthday drinks and keep a bottle of their alcohol of choice behind the bar with their name on it. If the kitchen makes a dish by mistake, give it to one of your regulars instead of throwing it out. If your venue lines up at times, make sure that your regulars never have to wait in line. Little signs of appreciation will keep your regulars coming back to your bar instead of searching for somewhere else where they feel appreciated.
How to Run a Bar – Tip #12
Keep Things Fresh
The bar industry is a highly competitive one and in order to compete you’ve got to stay fresh. This means always doing something new and different – experimenting with different events and promotions, keeping what works and throwing out what doesn’t. It’s not enough to just open the doors these days. People want an experience when they go out for a drink – else they’ll go somewhere else to find it. Always be on the lookout for new ideas and bar promotions. Work with your liquor reps to come up with new promos that you can offer. Run specialty parties and events – try to run a new event at least once a month. And run food and drink specials and other promos regularly.
How to Run a Bar – Tip #13
If You Build it They Will Come…If They See your Ad
There aren’t too many bars around nowadays that don’t have to spend some money on advertising. Put aside money for advertising each month and monitor what works and what doesn’t. If you’re on a shoestring budget, look for cheaper or free ways to advertise – but make sure that you still do advertise. Social media sites like Facebook and Youtube are free and can be effective in driving traffic to your bar if used properly. Look into other sites like Craigslist, Foursquare and Groupon. Otherwise you may want to try to trade off gift certificates for advertising – that way you don’t have to pay cash and you’ll get advertising at 1/3 of the regular price (assuming that your food costs don’t run higher than 30%).
How to Run a Bar – Tip #14
The Devil’s in the Details
Success in the bar industry often doesn’t come down to a single big thing. It’s usually a combination of little things that take a bar from the red to the black. If you’re not the owner of the bar or it isn’t your money that was used to finance the bar, start acting like it was. Pay attention to all the areas where you’re losing unnecessary money. Are the kegs completely empty before being changed? Are the servers “marrying” the ketchups to make sure that they are completely empty before throwing them out? Are the staff continually using bar napkins to wipe their hands instead of cheaper paper towel? Can you cut a half hour off each of your staff members’ starting times without affecting customer service? Keep looking for little ways to save on costs and it’ll pay off in a big way by year-end.
How to Run a Bar – Tip #15
Keep it Consistent
There’s nothing worse than having an excellent meal or cocktail at a place and then going back the following week and getting something entirely different. Consistency is key in everything from the way each of the dishes coming out of the kitchen are cooked and put forth to the way each of the mixed drinks and cocktails are made, garnished and presented. Ensure that all your staff is trained to make your menu items the exact same way. Put up pictures and recipes in the kitchen and a drink recipe list in the bar. Your customers need to have the same experience each and every time they order something. It does you no good to have people say “I like it better when Tom makes it” or “Who’s cooking today?”, wondering if they should order food or not.
How to Run a Bar – Tip #16
Do, Learn, Tweak and Repeat
As mentioned above, how to run a bar successfully often comes down to a combination of a bunch of little things. As a bar owner or manager, you should be continually looking for ways to improve everything from the service to the quality to the presentation to the overall customer experience. Put systems in place for every aspect of your bar’s operations. Look for what works and get rid of what doesn’t. Find ways to save money on staffing and food and liquor costs. Look for ways to save money by cutting down on waste and breakage. Train your staff on how to properly handle glassware – make sure they don’t stack glasses, one of the leading contributors to breakage. Look at your bar from both a managers and a customer’s viewpoint. Is there a way to make things faster or more efficient? Is there a way to improve the customer’s experience and ensure that they keep coming back? Are the staff using top shelf liquors when they should be using rail stuff? Keep asking yourself how you can cut costs, improve your guests’ experience and make life easier for your staff by implementing procedures and checklists.
Learning how to run a bar may be one of the most difficult things you’ll ever do. It’s a job that requires you to wear many different hats. You have to be both a good barman and a good businessman (or woman) to succeed. Continually strive to make every aspect of your bar better and it’ll go a long way to making your bar profitable and maybe more importantly, a fun place to go to work each day.