How to turn an idea into a bustling bar business
It seems like each week another exciting drinking den springs into action. But what does it take to turn an idea into a grand opening? SB investigates.
*This feature was originally published in the May 2019 issue of The Spirits Business
“Before opening a new bar I’m absolutely terrified,” says Ryan Chetiyawardana, founder of award-winning bars including Dandelyan and White Lyan. “Of course, I’m filled with pride for the team but I am of the opinion you should be shit scared. It shows you care.”
Chetiyawardana says the opening has been hugely collaborative, with “so many talented people pouring their expertise into bringing it to life”. Like any bar opening, the project brought together people from a host of disciplines, including bartenders, designers and builders, each contributing to the finished venue.
Bar founders are usually the first people involved in an opening. They may find a space, assemble a team or formulate a concept – a process that Jack McGarry, co-founder and managing partner of New York’s The Dead Rabbit and BlackTail, says is the essential first step for any new venue. “When opening a bar, the first thing we think about is the why and the story,” he says. “We always ask why we are opening this bar and what is the story we’re going to tell.”
The concept for the venue will influence every aspect of the bar, such as its design, drinks, the music played and the guests it hopes to attract. To come up with the concepts for Dead Rabbit and BlackTail, McGarry and co-founder Sean Muldoon researched a narrative that they could build the bar around.
“When the concept is agreed, the design team, operations team and the owner are all on the same page about how the venue is going to work,” says Jacu Strauss, founder of Lore Studio. Strauss trained as an architect and cut his teeth in interior design while working with British designer Tom Dixon.
“My first standalone bar design was Dandelyan,” says Strauss. “I joined shortly before Ryan got on board, so I had designed a space [in London’s Sea Containers hotel] without a brief from him. We were very lucky that it worked out as well as it did.”
Strauss says the design process for each venue varies “from city to city and country to country”. Once a small team has been assembled to work on the project, they begin researching the concept, the space and its surroundings, creating decks of images to show their inspiration. “One of the challenges with a bar is that you don’t often have the luxury of time to test things,” says Strauss. “It tends to be a little bit more intense designing a bar.”
According to McGarry, once an idea has been agreed on and designs have been approved, “that’s when you engage your general contractor”.
BEAUTIFUL AND SOUND
Laird Fitzpatrick, director of UK construction firm Stanrock Building Services, worked on his first cocktail bar in 2013: London’s Earlham Street Clubhouse. He has since been faced with creating suspended cocktail bars, appeasing disgruntled neighbours and managing the expectations of clients.
While constructing a venue, Fitzpatrick works with designers, bar staff, management and chefs to build a space that is both beautiful and operationally sound.
“Over the years, we have learned a lot about how a bar should be designed, so we can give advice on the design and plans accordingly,” he says. “We recently completed work on Heads + Tails in West Hampstead. The space is beautiful, and the guys behind the bar are passionate about what they do. It also stood out because it really wasn’t straightforward; there was a huge amount of structural work to do and next to no access.”
Once the build is under way, a bar can begin recruiting the staff that will bring the space to life. A bar team usually includes people with different roles, such as supervisors, bartenders, floor staff and glass collectors.
“I think about staff right away,” explains McGarry. “You have to lay out the education programming to get them close to ready. Training takes four weeks before opening.”
Michele Mariotti was appointed bar manager at Singapore’s MO Bar before its opening last year. Having completed his training in Italy, Mariotti has worked through the ranks behind the bar, holding positions at venues including the American Bar at London’s The Savoy hotel. “When I joined MO Bar, the concept of the venue was already in place, so my work was more about the menu and drinks development,” he says.
Opened in Singapore’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel in collaboration with bar consultants Proof & Company, MO Bar’s menu centres on a fictional journey from French Polynesia to Hong Kong, with each drink representative of a stop on the voyage.
“We wanted to make sure that through our menu we could convey this sense of a journey,” says Mariotti. “It is important when you open a bar that you have a strong concept to work with, because the concept can generate ideas for the whole venue.”
When opening Super Lyan, Chetiyawardana was eager to involve the bar’s wider team as early as he could, to ensure they were prepared to “personally and confidently deliver the experience” he was hoping to create. He says: “We’re always proud to creatively empower the team, but with a common goal and with purpose – so we can work together towards a change we’re excited to see.”
Having begun his hospitality career more than 10 years ago as a barback, Thomas Datema joined Chetiyawardana’s latest project as head bartender. “Super Lyan is a much bigger organisation than anything I have done before,” he says.
Datema says the opening of Super Lyan has been a joint effort and he has been able to choose glassware, source uniforms for the staff and arrange brand partnerships. “Opening a bar is a collaborative process,” he says. “It is not something you should, or can, do alone. Everyone has their strong points and it is much easier to miss things when you are trying to do it alone. I have never done an opening alone and can’t imagine how hard that must be.”
‘IT’S A TEAM EFFORT’
Collaboration is also something McGarry emphasises. He says: “It’s a team effort; it’s the people behind the idea, the partners backing it, the contractors building it, the staff working it, the people behind the scenes and the managers managing it. We steer the ship, but there’s an army of people involved.”
After the designers and builders have finished their work, and the bartenders and barbacks have choreographed their moves behind the stick, it’s time to welcome the final essential element into the venue: its customers. This is the moment everyone has been waiting for.
“We design spaces to excite people,” says Chetiyawardana. “Ultimately, they must be warm and accessible. When you see people having a great time and the team enjoying themselves while helping to make people happy it is an immensely satisfying feeling.”