Here’s the deal:
Even if you’re a neighbourhood fixture, you can’t just rely on regulars.
You need to work out how to bring in a steady stream of new customers.
It’s a crowded market out there, so taking the time to make sure that your customers see your bar’s best side from the off is time well-spent.
Cozy country pub or slick city-centre bar? Real ale or rare mezcals?
It doesn’t really matter — when 29 pubs are being closed down each week, and high streets everywhere are filling up with identikit chains, what matters is that you stand out, no matter what for.
What you need to do is take a step back, in some cases literally.
Take a walk in your customers’ shoes and try to understand what they see when they see your business.
Do they see somewhere warm and inviting?
Do they see somewhere exciting and inventive?
No matter what you offer your customers, you need to make sure that you’re enticing them in.
Think about why your customers choose your business, whether it’s pub or bar, traditional or trendy.
Does your storefront convey your business’s aims and values? Will it turn heads and draw eyes?
No matter what your bar specialises in, you want to make sure that it creates the right impression.
You don’t just create a first impression with a sparkling storefront, though.
Atmosphere is crucial.
What does a first-time customer see when they walk in? What do they hear? How do they feel?
You might have the best selection of real ales in the county, or mix award-winning cocktails, but that’s not enough.
You need to think about customer experience, and customer journeys more broadly.
How do customers interact in your bar, and how does the design of your bar facilitate this? This might be tricky to work out: you know your bar inside out, and know precisely how it fills up, and where and when queues build up, and how fast they move.
But a customer might not, and a first-time customer definitely won’t.
If a customer walks in for the first time, and is greeted by a queue of people or wall of noise, chances are it’ll be the last time they visit.
No matter how your business chooses to position and brand itself, you need to keep your customers in mind.
You need to look at everything through their eyes, and work out how they feel every step of the way.
Your bar’s menu is like a CV. It tells customers, at a glance, what kind of experience they’re in for.
And no matter where you’re located, and what kind of customer you’re aiming for, you need to make sure that your menu shows your bar’s best side.
There’s a lot of psychology behind menu design — good ones are cunningly engineered.
People don’t spend a lot of time reading them. Polling firm Gallup found that the average patron spends 109 seconds reading a menu. That’s just over a minute and a half.
So when designing your menu — whether it’s food or drinks on offer — play to this.
You can make your menu easier to scan by using bold section headings, easy-to-read item names, and grouping like items.
And don’t forget about prime menu real estate. Patrons’ eyes tend to gravitate towards the upper right-hand corner of a menu — known in the trade as the sweet spot. Put high-cost, premium items here, whether it’s a pricey ribeye steak or a cocktails made with top-shelf spirits.
Canva is a useful web-based design tool that allows anyone to easily create professional and stylish graphics. It has a plethora of attractive templates that make it simple to get started.
They have written a guide with different ways to design menus for maximum impact, along with real-life examples.
And once you’ve designed your menu, don’t forget to post it outside, where passers-by can see it.
Along with creating an enticing atmosphere and a killer menu, you need to make sure that everything is priced correctly.
This doesn’t just mean items priced to make the biggest profit you can, but that you should set prices commensurate with your customers’ expectations and your competitors’ pricing.
This might mean that you can get away with charging a hefty whack for inventive drinks at your city-centre cocktail bar, but equally it might mean that you have to take the view that hot wings and chips are loss leaders at your cheap ‘n’ cheerful sports bar.
Setting price points means negotiating between what your patrons are likely to want, and the needs of your business. Buzztime have a great article on their blog detailing the best strategies for pricing your bar menu to ensure you hit the sweet spot between the two.
But to do this, you need to take control of your back-of-house operations, which brings us nicely onto our next point:
It’s tempting to slip your favourites a little extra, isn’t it?
And free-pouring is a fine art, right? You’ve spent long enough learning how to do it properly, after all.
Pouring spirits is quicker, and it’s more impressive — it’s almost impossible to look cool when you’re measuring spirits into a little 25mL thimble.
It’s quicker, too. With a standard pour spout, it takes five seconds to free-pour a shot, while pouring the same amount carefully into a shotglass takes far longer.
But in the UK, at least, measures are the rule rather than the exception: the 1963 Weights and Measures Act saw to it that every pint of beer or shot of spirits should be measured out in approved and stamped vessels.
Thinking with your mixologist hat on, it might cramp your style somewhat, but it’s a real boon to anyone with responsibility for inventory management, as it makes it much easier to work out precisely what you’ve used up, and how much you’ve got left, as well as precisely how much you’re making on each menu item.
To find out how much a drink — say, a G&T — costs you to make, simply work out the cost of ingredients and add them together.
So, if a 750mL bottle of gin costs £22.50, then a single mL will cost £0.03. Multiply that by 25 to get the cost of a single measure — £0.75.
And if a box of 24 little tonic water bottles costs £12.00, this means that one single bottle costs £0.50. Assuming that the cost of ice and a slice is negligible, this means that the cost of ingredients for a G&T is £1.25.
This metric is called Menu Item Cost, and it is vital in working out profit margins and setting pricing.
But your G&T won’t just cost £1.25. You’ve also got to factor in costs of delivery, of ice and of that slice of lemon, which means your G&T’s Menu Item Cost will be £1.25 plus all of the costs associated with it.
So, if your bottle of gin costs £2.00 to deliver, then you will need to add 6.67p onto the cost of each measure. Costs like these are small, but they add up, so you need to take them into account.
From this, you can work out your profit margins for that G&T.
To really nail down how much you’re spending on inventory and how much you’re making from that, you ought to do this for every menu item, whether it’s food or drink.
This might be a faff but doing this allows you to work out how profitable any given item is, and justify the business case for each and every item you sell.
This might be easier said than done, though.
If you run a pub where you mostly sell pints of beer and cider, with the odd spirits-based drink thrown in, then this will be pretty easy, and you can probably do it with an Excel spreadsheet.
But if you’re managing a cocktail bar where your bartenders make lots of custom and off-menu drinks, then this can prove difficult.
In this case, you might want to look at investing in an Electronic Point of Sales (EPOS) system.
An EPOS system will automate these calculations for you, managing your inventory and generating a plethora of reports on an hour-by-hour basis.
This means that if you input cost prices for raw ingredients, your EPOS system can work out not only what a drink costs you to make, but what profit you’ve made on it, and a whole variety of other analytics.
And it’ll do this for any combination of ingredients, meaning that you can work out not just the profits on the G&Ts you serve each and every day, but of that off-menu gimlet you made last week.
Restaurant Engine goes into more details about calculating costs and prices, with ways of setting prices manually.
A basic rule of thumb is that your Menu Item Cost needs to be roughly 30% of what you are charging in order to cover all your business’s costs and turn a profit.
So, that G&T that costs you £1.25 will cost the customer at least £3.50.
As well as working out profit margins and reports, a good EPOS system will also manage inventory, checking each item sold off against what you’ve got in store, letting you see at a glance what’s held in inventory, in real-time, across multiple sites.
Some will even automatically reorder supplies when stocks fall below a certain threshold.
This is vital for a busy bar: the last thing you want is to run out of a popular beer or spirit or cocktail ingredient, leaving you high and dry.
You need to keep track of what sells when, so that you can plan accordingly.
That means that if you get a lot of patrons coming in for beers on a Friday evening after work, you can anticipate the rush.
Doing this also allows you to play with your menu — if you know what sells when, you can test substitutions and alternatives and measure how well they sell against your menu’s permanent fixtures.
And stocking your bar goes beyond just making sure there’s plenty of beer on tap, and bottles on the rail — there are all sorts of condiments and ingredients and garnishes that need to be kept in stock, even if they’re not used all that often.
To make matters more complicated, the stock that you keep on-hand will most likely change from season to season.
While you might want to keep plenty of fresh fruit, mint, and coconut milk on hand during the warm summer months, you’re unlikely to sell many piña coladas in December, when warming spices like cinnamon and nutmeg are probably the order of the day — unless you’re in Australia, that is.
Along with stocking garnishes and fixings for cocktails, you need to make sure that people who don’t drink are catered for.
And there’s an increasing number of these people — it’s a growing trend. An Office for National Statistics poll taken at the end of 2016 showed that alcohol consumption in Britain had fallen to its lowest level since surveys begun, back in 2005.
Non-drinkers, whether they be dedicated teetotalers or designated drivers for the night, are increasingly looking for sophisticated non-alcoholic options.
A half of Coke from the tap or a bottle of slimline tonic isn’t enough any more.
Seedlip’s first non-alcoholic spirit, distilled and infused with botanicals and spices to taste like a booze-free gin sold out almost immediately when it was first released in 2015. Soon after that, the company was bought up by international alcohol juggernaut Diageo — their first ever non-alcoholic acquisition.
Meanwhile, soft drinks giant Britvic has funded Thomas & Evans, which takes a leaf out of vodka-brewers’ books in making its charcoal-distilled “zero proof” spirits.
And while Schweppes and Fevertree might be better known in the bar world for their tonics and mixers, they both sell drinks like ginger beer and bitter lemon in larger bottles.
While you don’t need to go as far as Redemption Shoreditch, a bar that is completely alcohol-free, as well as wheat-free, sugar-free and vegan, non-drinkers will appreciate you going the extra mile.
And don’t forget the gluten-free crowd. For people suffering from coeliac disease or other gluten intolerances, pubs have long been a disappointment. But gluten-free beers have grown up lately, with renowned craft brewers experimenting with grasses and grains like millet, sorghum, and buckwheat, to create gluten-free beers that are anything but flavour-free.
The upswing in sophisticated non-alcoholic drinks, whether as a mixer or to be sipped solo, is a trend that’s set to continue well into 2018 and beyond — Fever Tree saw sales of its natural tonics increase by 77% in 2017 alone.
And the complex, botanical flavours of these drinks are becoming increasingly popular. The negroni exploded in popularity last year, in part down to some savvy marketing, but also because its bittersweet, crisp flavour plays well as both an aperitif and a digestif. This is driving drinkers to previously overlooked bitters such as Cynar, Fernet Branca and Amaro.
Vermouth is also gaining in popularity, not just as a bit part in ever-popular cocktails like Martinis and Manhattans, but on its own, to be supped with nothing more than a few cubes of ice.
Staying on-trend in the coming months and years will require pushing out of your comfort zone and embracing flavours that seem to have come out of nowhere.
Running a successful bar is never easy, but these seven tips will help you survive and thrive.