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Kaddy Exclusives

OPINION: So you want to open a bar? This is what it's really like...

August 24, 2022

The dream of having your own bar is something shared throughout the beverage industry. Even if you already have a bar, you usually want to open another one - and next time, with your own line of canned cocktails/natural wine/shandy!

In this Kaddy Community exclusive feature, bar legend and Oceania academy chair for the World’s 50 Best Bars Sam Bygrave gives the inside story on what it's really like opening a bar - the highs, the lows and the reason why you should just do it.

Bartending is a funny job. If you speak to enough bartenders, you’ll find one common thread to how they all got into the business in the first place: they fell into it. Whether their first job was in a pub pulling pints or on the floor triple-stacked with glasses in a bar, they usually get their start in hospitality because they need money, and thus they need a job.

Nieuw Ruin in Fremantle

No one really dreams of becoming a bartender when they’re eight years old.

And many of those young hospo kids wash out and find something they actually want to do — you know, they go and get a ‘real job’. But for the lifers who love the business, if they work long enough behind the stick, perhaps progressing to a supervisor or management role, inevitably, they’ll be asked the question: so, do you want to open a bar of your own?

It’s a dream for many working in bars today. Just having worked in a bar as a bartender, however, doesn’t necessarily prepare you for actually opening one. So what’s it like to open a bar? Let’s imagine you’ve found the site, hired the crew, the fit-out is complete, and the bar is stocked. How does that first night feel?

'It’s always a blur,' says Dimitri Rtshiladze. He’s the co-owner of two venues in Perth, Foxtrot Unicorn in the city centre and Nieuw Ruin in Fremantle. Foxtrot Unicorn opened at the tailed of 2019, the first bar of Rtshiladze’s own, having run the influential Perth small bar Mechanics Institute for much of the last decade.

'Whilst [opening night] seems like an important date to the public, the team who are involved have already been working on it for months, sometimes years. Everyone on opening day is excited, stressed, hungover, sleep-deprived, you name it.'

Natalie Ng is co-owner of Sydney bar basement bar, Door Knock, which opened in 2017. She’s a veteran bartender of the Sydney scene — she managed seminal tequila bar Cafe Pacifico back in its heyday — and she has led the team on a number of new venue's first nights.

'It reminds you that nervousness and excitement are pretty much the exact same feeling,' she says. 'I never remember what the night feels like, but I remember how the aftermath felt when service was done and the last guest was out. Relief, pride, and closeness to your team — which will essentially be your adopted family for years to come.'

Door Knock Bar

And while those first few nights will show up all the flaws in your systems, testing your team but also building new bonds.

'The hardest parts are normally getting through the first weeks of service, every new venue is different, systems always change between projects and over time,' says Rtshiladze. 'Once you get through that, everything starts to feel normal, there’s a rhythm to how things operate, what used to be a hard slog busy night feels like a normal night.

'So, in short, you barely remember those first few nights and weeks. You tend to remember more the first busy night that everything clicked, customers and staff were happy, it was busy, and you and the team can sit back and realise that what you are producing makes sense.'

But to get through that first night — and the months of preparation beforehand — you first need to decide that yes, actually, I do want to open a bar. There are many, many reasons why you might decide not to: the cost, for a start, isn’t insignificant; you may not have landed on the right concept, and you might not believe you can indeed do it.

'Having the confidence and track record as a solid operator helped me have the confidence in myself — and the confidence of my business partner — to make the jump into ownership,' says Simon Rose-Hopkins, co-owner of the recently opened Joelne’s Sydney. Rose-Hopkins spent years running venues for other people before making the leap.

That was the case for Rtshiladze, too. For him, the impetus behind going out on his owner was twofold: autonomy for himself and autonomy for his would-be bartenders.

'I have worked for plenty of different operators over the years, and it always felt like you were employed to create some ideal offering for some 50-year-old husband and wife team that weren’t really part of the hospitality scene,' he says. 'The freedom to try new things and concepts, [and] to take risks to progress the food and booze culture in Perth was a big driving force. Work then becomes less about money and supporting some operator’s lifestyle and more about doing things you love.

'For years, myself and the people I worked with wanted that autonomy to be able to do and try things, now, I could be in a position to offer that to staff that wanted that freedom we strived for.'

So let’s assume you have the confidence and experience to open a bar, and you’ve pulled everything together and got through that first opening night. It’s not simply a case of building it, and the people will come — why should anyone like what you do? How do you know that the product and the experience that you and your staff are creating is a success? How do you gauge success?

Jolene's bar

'This is probably the hardest part about opening a bar,' says Rtshiladze. 'You have no baseline for what a normal week’s trade looks like; the joy of a busy night is counteracted by one quiet one. You can literally go through the emotions of thinking you are going to be rich down to the thought you’ll lose everything within the space of a few hours. Getting out of that mindset is important; instead, focusing on the product the venue is producing and allowing people time to discover and understand what it is you are bringing them. It takes six or so months to really grasp how things have been travelling.'

At Door Knock, the product that Ng opened with wasn’t quite the same as what they were offering just a few months later.

'The first month is a learning curve, what works and what doesn’t,' she says. 'Listen to your customers as well. At Door Knock, we never meant to be very beer-focused, but we ended up adding more craft beers and taps to the list because that’s what our customers wanted.

'Take a step back and see what can be changed to make service more efficient, it might be as simple as rejigging where everything goes in the bar or redoing a table plan, or it might be something structural where you need to create more space at your pass [and] wash up areas.'

At Jolene’s, Rose-Hopkins is going through that process now, and because he’s right in the middle of things, one key measure of success for him is the one that will make or break his bar in the coming months.

'Most importantly, positive cash flow,' he says. 'Are we covering our costs from the start? It’s okay to slowly build the back bar, or slowly style the venue more and more as the bank accounts get healthier,' he says.

Ultimately, however, the success of your new shiny bar will be in just how long it sticks around. Does it become an institution? Does your punter write their own memories on the place, does it take on a life of its own?

'It’s easy to open a bar and become a trend for a year. It’s much harder to be around in five years and stay relevant,' Rtshiladze says. 'Staff retention, reputation and knowing the venue is contributing to the hospitality scene are probably the biggest indicators of success for me.'

Opening a bar isn’t going to be for everyone. Some might not have the appetite for risk, some may not want to chain themselves to a bar that doesn’t have any guaranteed future. Whether you go ahead and open your own bar will ultimately land on whether or not this is something you *have* to do.

And it might be as simple as wanting to put doubt to rest and have a go.

'If you don’t do it, you’ll never know,' says Ng. 'I got sick of thinking and talking about it — and I’m not getting any younger. So the time was right.'

Photos - Instagram