The 5 Biggest Mistakes You’re Making in Running Your Bar

A successful bar does not happen by putting big personalities who like to talk about spirits in a dark room full of people. It requires careful crafting in it’s infancy and constantly focused maintenance every day of its life. Employee turnover, shifts in the economy, changes in neighborhoods and ever evolving trends present constant challenges. But there are some basics that can help to ensure your success.

  1. Lights and Music: Lights and music are the last thing people talk about and the first thing that gets their attention. Atmosphere and energy are key to the success of any bar. Lighting should be warm and inviting, but at the same time allow you to hide a little while you get comfortable. No harsh direct lights, just a warm soft glow. Music should first be appropriate to the location, but whether rap or classical, it should create a feeling and an energy. The rules of volume level are a little different in a bar than in a restaurant. Music should make it necessary for you to talk just a little bit louder to be heard so there is the sound of a nice buzz to go along with the warmth and glow when newcomers enter the room. And most of all, lights go up and down with the sun and volume goes up and down with the crowd size. This is a detail that so many people miss. No one stays to drink in a room that is as bright as a tanning bed or as quiet as a funeral home. Someone must be trained to raise and lower lighting and music volume throughout the night, every night, ensuring the atmosphere is always perfect.
  2. Staying True to Your Brand: Owners seem to put so much effort into developing a cohesive brand in their restaurants. Wall art, furniture, menu covers, and menu items are carefully selected to build a cohesive restaurant brand. These same owners far too often seem content to let a national liquor brand develop their cocktail menus, stock their bars, print their menus and decorate their walls. It is sometimes like stepping into an alternate universe when you make the transition from dining room to bar. While the atmosphere of a bar always needs to be different from that of the dining room, it still needs to be cohesive with the overall brand. If your brand is farm to table, your cocktails should incorporate locally sourced herbs and produce. If your restaurant serves food of a particular ethnicity, your beer, wine and liquor offerings should also reflect that ethnicity. If your restaurant is casual, your bar should be casual or just the opposite if you are an upscale exclusive location. And the only logos that should be seen anywhere are yours, not your vendors and not those of the brands you use. Your bar should always showcase your brand and your points of difference.
  3. Letting Your Vendors Drive the Bus: Who amongst us has tried to schedule a meeting with your bar manager only to find they are booked solid all week tasting liquor, beer and wine? Vendors love the manager they can always get an audience with to introduce their next great product. And this my friend is how your wine list evolves from 14 selections to 144 and it is also how you end up with 23 vodka flavors including bubble gum and caramel cookie. Keeping abreast of new trends and introducing new item is important to the long-term success of a bar. However, it is you who should determine when it is time to change, the direction that is best for your brand, and even what you would like to see and taste. It is best to train your salespeople never to stop in unannounced but instead when you ask for an appointment. Do not think I am telling you that salespeople are your enemy. They can be your best ally bringing you great deals and introducing you to exciting new products. Nurture that relationship and keep them eager to work for you, but also make it very clear who is driving the direction of your bar.
  4. Hiring the Wrong Bartenders: A great bartender is not one who is eager to create something new for every guest in front of them. A bartender is not a rock star artist to be bowed down to. A great bartender is not only knowledgeable of their product, but is first and foremost focused on creating a welcoming and service oriented experience for each and every guest. A bartender, just like a server, should be able to read their guests, understand their needs and tailor their experience accordingly. There is no place for a superior attitude behind the bar. Bartenders can be great educators, but they are not there to judge or push their own agenda. In hiring bartenders, so many people look for a gregarious personality with the ability to create. I instead encourage you to look for warm personalities with the ability to execute. Flexibility, clean work habits, organizational skills and the ability to multi-task are just as important as the ability to create.
  5. Recipes and Portion Control: Not every bartender should create because not every bartender can create. The art of crafting a perfectly balanced cocktail is exactly that, an art. Few bartenders are actually mixologists. Your recipes should be created by one person and your beer, wine, and liquor selection should likewise be in the hands of one person. The rest of the team should be skilled at flawless execution. Drinks need to be made the same every time using proper measuring devices, following detailed steps and without taking shortcuts. When guests fall in love with a drink they want that same drink every time they order it.

These five suggestions are not the end all, be all for a successful, bar but they are a solid foundation to begin with. To truly ensure the success of your part you need to watch it in motion. Pay attention to the reactions of your guests and the interactions of your employees. All the information you need will be right there.

Michael Maxwell – Partner, Blue Orbit Restaurant Consulting

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