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How to Run a Bar

Some invaluable tips from Dustin Evans, not least the fact that good service is everything in this sector. What skills and attributes do you need to run a successful bar?

D ustin Evans: I've always thought that the best skills you need to run a bar are personality and friendliness. If a bartender isn't as fast as you would like, you notice it a lot more if they're not friendly or if they are in a bad mood. 

The one thing I've always lived by is that it's more fun to eat in a bar than it is to drink in a restaurant. A bar is supposed to be fun and friendly and energetic and you're supposed to have a good time there. 

Everything else kind of takes care of itself if you have strong, fun personalities.

You have to be able to have fun but still stay in control. You have to be able to be firm, but not upset anybody. 

Everybody should be able to feel cool and welcome in your place. One of the things that we've gone after is for everybody to have a good time here. 

There's enough space and enough time to not alienate one person for the sake of a party.

BFS: What does a typical day or week look like for a bar owner?

DE: A typical week involves my business partner and myself opening up around 3pm. 

One of the biggest things in the bar business you have to decide is whether you're going to be open during late hours. 

One thing I have noticed is that there's a lot more money to be made in a bar than a restaurant

Because service is probably the biggest aspect of owning a bar, it's important to capture the crowd of people getting off work. 

We split up our shifts and one of us will open and work happy hour. And then [we try to capture] the party scene where we contact a couple businesses every day and talk to them about having their functions here. 

And then at night, when my partner comes in, we'll stop at a bar or two to grab some food or get a drink before we go in to talk to restaurants that we haven't seen before, where we offer to buy the staff their first round when they come in to our bar.

BFS: What are the most attractive parts of this industry? 

DE: Before I got into the bar business I was off by 10pm and we were at the bars doing our own thing. 

One trait about the bar business is that there is easy money from the service industry crowd because most of the servers tip well. There's a lot of money in the bar business because you're able to cut your labor costs almost in half because most of your employees are working at $2.13 an hour. 

The late night kitchen is a lot less expensive because you don't have your full complement of cooks working. So the one thing I have noticed is that there's a lot more money to be made in a bar than a restaurant.

BFS: What are the biggest challenges you face in your role? 

DE: The biggest challenge we've had is getting new customers. Every day it's something you have to do. 

Every day you have to contact and talk to 10 new people. Every person that comes into your bar you kind of have to learn about. 

You have to get to know them and be open and honest about yourself so that people have a relationship or vested interest in seeing you stay open.

BFS: Do you need experience in the industry before you own a bar? 

DE: I believe that you have to know what it takes to work in a bar and give good service. The biggest failure that I've seen by many people is that they don't know what it means to wait tables. 

They don't know what it means to make drinks or what it takes to provide great service, so when it's wrong, they don't know how to fix it.

BFS: How did you overcome any problems you encountered on the way? 

DE: We haven't run into many problems. Outside of the neighborhood we opened up in is just going through a turn over. 

This used to be a big club area and all the clubs have since closed down and moved to another section of the city, and it kind of allowed us to start doing what we wanted to do. 

The hardest thing we've had to do is change the reputation from the bar we bought to the bar that we are. For a good part of the first year three quarters of our base target clientele thought that this was still the same bar - so overcoming that was our biggest obstacle to date.

BFS: How much can a bar owner realistically earn?

DE: If you're able to keep your liquor costs honest, so bartenders aren't giving away more than you know of, or you're not losing any product based on storage and if everything was in optimal conditions, you would probably be able to put 20% more to the bottom line than you would in the restaurant business. 

This is based on much lower labor targets in a bar - at about 15-20% - than in a restaurant where you'll probably run a 40% labor. 

In addition, the more liquor sales you have, the lower your bar costs will be. Just those two factors alone is a 20% saving over owning a restaurant, almost every day of the week. 

BFS: Any other tips for thriving in the bar sector?

DE: You have to be able to work, get in there and do what it takes to make it successful. 

If you're labor is high, then you have to be able to bartend. If your cooks are slow, you have to be able to get in there and get it out in a timely manner. 

The longer people have to wait, the less likely they are to come back. If you have slow kitchen times, they're going to eat before they come to your bar. 

If you have long drink times, people may go somewhere else and drink and then come to your bar for the food, if it's that good. 

You have to be able to manage everything, and I think the owner or the managers that you hire have to be able to cook, to bartend, and to do whatever it takes to keep the place moving and making you money.

My best single piece of advice is to do your research and don't rush into it.

Debbie Williams

About the author

Debbie is a freelance writer for all titles in the Dynamis stable including, and as well as other industry publications.