Welcome to the build-a-bar workshop!

Yeah, I’m sort of being facetious; I certainly don’t have all of the answers. That said, there’s definitely a right way and a wrong way to build a bar program.

So … how does one build a bar program? It’s not as easy as you might think! Anyone can go through a cocktail book and create a menu, but what else does it take to get a bar off the ground? Here is my simple (?) guide to opening a bar.

Step 1: The concept

This is the fun part, but it will make or break you. The first question is: “Does this community need another bar?” The second question is: “What kind of bar does this community need?” Do you want to make a place that’s the weekend hotspot, or “church,” where people go every day? If you say both, you should quit now; that’s a lottery win. Are you a craft or a volume spot, or both? (It’s difficult, but doable.) Intimate or warehouse? Do you want a dance floor? If so, your insurance costs will increase significantly, as will the requests for ’90s Mariah Carey.

Step 2: Build

I’m not here to ruffle any feathers, but the local reality, at least in Palm Springs proper, is that your build time will be about a year longer than you anticipate. If I had a dollar for every program I was going to helm that simply never opened, I’d have about $5. Seriously: These were five well-funded projects that didn’t open. Between the state, the city and the workforce, you’re in for delays. You’re likely on the hook for up to $100k, maybe more, between rent and paying for the build. If you own the property, you have more money than I can possibly comprehend, so stop reading now.

Step 3: Equipment

You’re going to need a ton of this. Sure, some used equipment can be snagged during the year of delays as you build, but be warned: You’ll have competition. Restaurant owners who know how to operate are always ready with cash when a gently used walk-in fridge or ice machine is available. You are likely to need to buy most things new, unless fortune be your friend—and that’s no guarantee these days! Be ready for months of delays on your new equipment arrivals, too.

Step 4: Vendors

You’re going to need to make really good friends with these chaps, or have a bar manager who is already. These are the relationships that will make you or break you. This isn’t buying lettuce; if you want a brand-name liquor, you have to buy it from the one company that has it. Complain about monopolies all you want; this is some The Godfather level stuff, and you have to play ball. Sorry! The upside is most of the sales people will try hard to make you a success, and will be there in a pinch—if you treat them well. Make sure you set up your accounts well before opening, and pay them on time, or risk getting caught with a Costco receipt in your books. You don’t want that.

Step 5: Hiring

Here’s a dirty little secret: A lot of places open with the same people. The reason is these are the people who have been fired recently, or can’t keep a job for various reasons. The current lack of a workforce (which has been a worsening issue for the six-plus years I have lived here) doesn’t help. When you do finally staff up, don’t get comfortable, because you’ll lose at least 30% of them in the first month. That’s OK, because you kept your postings up, right? Right??

Can your staff make these drinks consistently? Are they profitable? Drop the vanity, and realize that in all likelihood, vodka sodas are going to pay the bills in the long run

Step 6: Menus

So here is where you finalize your menu. I know … it was the first thing you did. Cute. But can your staff make these drinks consistently? Are they profitable? Drop the vanity, and realize that in all likelihood, vodka sodas are going to pay the bills in the long run. Anthony Bourdain covers the fate of vanity projects better than I can in Kitchen Confidential, albeit even more cynically. But if I had a dollar for every wannabe restaurateur I talked out of a venture, I’d have at least another $5. Get someone who can make you a menu that makes money; most drinks should be three ingredients or fewer. Charge for the ones that aren’t.

Step 7: Marketing

This is more important than ever: Hire a professional. Whatever cute idea you had about the place, put it in a paper plane, and cast it into the sea. OK, that was a bit harsh … so email it to a millennial who charges a small fortune, and thank me later. Customers who aren’t on Instagram or TikTok are going to be going out less and less. This is a cruel fact.

Step 8: Pray

Obviously, I’m joking … but not really. Whether you succeed or not is based as much on dumb luck as it is on planning. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness applies here as well as it does with stockbrokers. If I had a dollar for every amazing concept that simply didn’t work, and another for every insane concept that did, I would now own my own place. You have to “take what the defense gives you,” as an NFL coach might say. The community will likely embrace you, or not, straight out of the gate. If you’re stubborn enough, you might find success years in … or you’ll just chase bad money with good. I’ve seen examples of both, but it’s usually the latter.

This business is tougher than ever. If you are one of the many who thinks that opening a bar is a good investment, think twice. The used-equipment graveyard is full of dilettantes. Invest wisely.

Kevin Carlow

Kevin Carlow has been a bartender and writer for most of his adult life. Having worked in nearly every position in the service industry at some point, he is currently a cocktail consultant and the co-owner...