Back to Basics Behind the Bar

The bar can be a powerful profit center. However, when the liquor’s flowing and business is running fast and loose, it can feel like you are pouring money down the drain. Attention to detail is critical in the bar industry, and you need the same setup, systems, and structure that you do in any profitable business.

A well-run bar program has a strong brand, team, menu, recipes, and the right ingredients for the job. If your concept calls for it, you might have a craft cocktail program, daily specials, happy hour discounts, and more. But that’s the garnish. Get the basics down as a first step to putting your bar business on track.

Know Your Audience, Equipment, and Team

In order to understand these needs better, develop a complete understanding of your audience, your brand, space and equipment, and team.

Identify the clientele you want to attract. Let’s take happy hour, for example. Happy hours should be about the experience, not just a discount. BOGO beer offers might work in a college town. A slight discount on an $18 glass of wine to elevate the experience for your customers might be more effective in a business district. Or special pricing on apps with live music from 4-6 p.m. each day.

Knowing your audience is a fundamental first step for bringing order and synergy to your concept. This is important for new concepts, but the exercise can also be helpful in grounding an existing bar program that might have gone off track. 

Take stock of your equipment. Let’s say you decide to emphasize your craft cocktail program, and for the holidays, you put a Hot Toddy and two original seasonal cocktails on the menu. How and where are you going to heat cider for the toddies? If the Gingerbread Martini calls for half-and-half, whipped cream, and two kinds of liquor, do you have sufficient jiggers for your bartender to keep orders moving during holiday brunch?

When your equipment is suited to your menu, then you have speed of service and table turns, which will make your servers happy and give your guests what they need: great service and a positive experience. Think about cross-functional equipment and ingredients when you are developing your seasonal menus.

The team is the most important aspect of your bar program. If you have a manager who’s lifting bottles of liquor or overserving your customers, that needs to be addressed.

It’s also essential to clarify the roles and responsibilities of everyone on your team. What is the barback doing with their time? Is your highly skilled bartender polishing glassware? Could that be done by someone else? When hiring, consider cultural fit, skill set, and then roles and responsibilities. Training is key once they are hired, and check-ins periodically to see how they are adapting to the culture will have a big impact.  

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Understanding Your Bar Program, Layout, and Design

Once you’ve taken stock of your clientele, equipment, and team, you can make smarter decisions to improve your bar program and design.

If you want to be the neighborhood bar where people watch the game on a Sunday afternoon, you should figure out how many TVs you need and where. Bar stools should be comfortable to allow your guests to stay awhile. If your bar is a holding area for diners continuing on to experience your restaurant, sleek bar stools might be better and will help to subtly encourage patrons to move along after enjoying a cocktail.

Design will impact your menu as well. If there’s nowhere to sit and eat at the bar, are you serving handheld items that can easily be eaten standing up? If your bar is a teaser for dinner, maybe your menu is small and light, whereas heartier plates could be a good accompaniment for a local watering hole. Understanding the way your guests are using the space and how your equipment supports that can bring your bar program to the next level.

Determine the best recipes, ingredients, and product quality to maintain the brand you desire. A local dive bar could sling gin and tonics with well liquor, but if you’re an upmarket tavern, you likely want to offer  Tanqueray or a locally distilled spirit.

There are so many versions of a Manhattan that people forget what they actually taste like. It’s great to put a new spin on something, but there’s also value to staying true to a classic recipe; a back-to-basics approach can give your bartenders a story about the drink’s origins to share with guests when they order your Manhattan. If you’re going to have a Sidecar, do you make it with an elevated liquor or use the well? What’s the upcharge? If you’re putting brand names in your cocktails, are you using that to your advantage for pricing, marketing, and branding?

If you have beers on tap, a bulk gas program can help you manage nitrogen and CO2 supply. There’s nothing worse than having Guinness on tap and running out of nitrogen.

Last but not least, when it comes to your team, you want an experienced team - TIPS certified and familiar with all local laws, permits, and training. Always buy from a state-recognized distributor and have a clear policy on checking IDs.

Walking through these steps can help you take stock of opportunities for a successful bar program. Cheers!


Mark Moeller is a fractional chief operating officer and founder of The Recipe of Success, a national restaurant consulting firm. Prior to starting The Recipe of Success, Moeller worked with independent and chain restaurants and in corporations focused on all aspects of foodservice, from supply chain management to franchising. He’s an operations expert, and turnaround specialist with deep expertise in the restaurant industry.


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