Bar on a Budget, Part One

Shoo Shoo, Baby in Los Angeles. Not a budget bar but follow this series and you'll learn how to create something similar without going broke. Image: Invictus Hospitality (Shoo Shoo, Baby bar interior)

From the outside of this business looking in, owning a bar or a restaurant is exciting. It looks fun. The optics are cool and sexy. It seems like the quintessential embodiment of the American dream, giving the bold the freedom to create their own business—being the boss and making the big bucks.

And you know what? I’m not going to tell you that owning a bar can’t be all of those things. There are bar owners who can check all of the above (and then some) off a list. They make it look easy and cool.  And, they make money doing it.

Usually, that’s only how it looks—in reality, opening a bar can be complete hell. Unmitigated, dream-shattering, sleep-depriving, relationship-destroying, bank account-draining, credit-ruining hell.

It doesn’t have to be, though.

If you start smart, with informed, realistic expectations and an understanding of the fundamentals, you can open a bar or restaurant similar to the one pictured above (built with no expense spared) without feeling like you want to jump off a cliff, wondering why you ever gave up a cubicle. You just need an edge, an advantage that helps manipulate the odds in your favor. You need some good ol’ inside information from people with real experience and working knowledge of the bar world.

Read this: Year Two: Preparing for Long-Term Operations

I’ve gained access to a fantastic resource to bring you the best information, the consulting firm Invictus Hospitality. The word “invictus” translates from Latin to “undefeated,” and that’s exactly the attitude, the confidence-inspiring swagger, you want in a consultant.

Why Invictus?

The client has only a fraction of the budget that would make the job easy? Cool, let’s make their budget work. The project is facing overwhelming obstacles to success? Awesome, we’re going to roll up our sleeves and work 23 hours straight. We at Nightclub & Bar want you to learn from consultants who have faced the so-called impossible and said, “Let’s get to work.”

I chose Invictus because even though they’ve worked on bar, restaurant, and hotel projects with a number of clients who had seemingly inexhaustible supplies of cash, they have also worked on many other projects where they had to stretch their creative muscles for small operators with serious budgetary constraints. Founded by Michael Tipps and Homan Taghdiri, the Invictus team works with many other industry professionals who love what they do, and are up for any challenge, such as David Foss (a distinguished yet approachable sommelier) and Mark Diaz (a renowned designer who has worked on hospitality projects throughout the U.S. and received numerous accolades for his work).

Read this: 3 Ways to Save on Operating Costs

If the name Michael Tipps seems familiar, there are good reasons for that: he was trained by the legendary Sasha Petraske of Milk & Honey, he has spoken at the Nightclub & Bar Show, and he has contributed to our website. He has also made multiple appearances on Bar Rescue.

Before we begin the real work, I’m going to address the two words I know you’re fixated on right now. Yes, Tipps was a bar expert on Bar Rescue. Yes, he’s the first to say that it’s been great for his career as a bar consultant. And yes, like others who have been on Spike TV’s ratings juggernaut, he left because he disagreed with elements of the show.

“I think that Bar Rescue is built for a TV world,” says Tipps. “It has all the rules of TV, and so, some parts simply are not true to real life.”

Why Structure this Series like a Consultation?

In real life, great consulting means being a patient teacher who first gets to understand the client and root of the problems with their business (and realizing that yelling and screaming at a client doesn’t really fix their problems). In reality, great consulting means inspiring the client to appreciate the right way to get things done, and continuing that process after they leave. In the real world, a consultant isn’t paid by a huge TV network, they’re paid by their client—so they must gain trust and not intimidate them. Most of the consulting projects out there in the wild, away from the structure of a “reality” TV show, don’t have mid- to high-five-figure or six-figure budgets attached to them for a remodel and buildout. Instead, many clients are about to lose their homes, their spouse, and their life savings.

When Invictus receives a call from any potential client they understand that they’re not just entering into a simple business transaction. It’s a relationship. Some of the firm’s clients are handing over their last dollars and trusting they’ll get results that will save their bar, their livelihood, and their future. In the real world, these consultations get as emotional as an intervention. If that sounds dramatic that’s because it is—dramatic and traumatic. It’s mentally taxing on everyone involved.  You don’t normally see the bank actually foreclose on an owner’s family home on reality TV shows, but that happens in the real world. This isn’t lost on anyone at the firm. 

“In the end, great consulting is about building trust,” Tipps says. “And you can’t build trust when you scream at someone in a bar with guests all around, and then belittle them or call them an idiot.”

Alright, Invict-o-mercial over. That’s some of the firm’s pedigree information. You’ll get to know the principals as we move forward and call on them for their advice. This multi-part series from Nightclub & Bar is going to walk you through opening (or renovating, refreshing, rebranding, etc.) a bar or restaurant as though you’re sitting with the team for a paid consultation.

The First Big Question

We’re going to give you the tools to open a bar with the best odds of survival right out of the gate, based on what Invictus has learned over the course of saving bars for several years. I know I gave you a huge amount of information to digest before getting started. Now I’m going to be direct. I have a simple question for you:

Why do you want to open a bar?

Seriously—why do you want to do this to yourself?

Are you doing this because you like the hospitality industry and you want to serve people? Do you want to open a bar because you’ve worked in this business your entire life and are ready to do it your way, which you just know is the better way? Have you made enough money doing something else in your life and now you want to be your own boss? Do you want to be the cool person in town everybody knows, who is invited to all the best parties and drinks for free?

Realize that those aren’t trick questions; answering yes to any of them doesn’t preclude you from opening your own place or doom you to failure. What you need to know, however, is that your answer to this simple question helps identify the role you need to play as an owner, and how to prepare for all the intricacies of owning your own place. Your best chances for survival in this business rely on an understanding of your motivations and role from the start.

I’ll get into the types of owners Invictus has met and worked with throughout their years of consulting in the next part of this series. For now, you have a homework assignment. It’s short, consisting of just one question, but you need to focus and answer it honestly: Why do you want to open a bar?

In the next installment we’ll address owner, operator and manager types and the roles that best suit them, in the Invictus team’s experience. As this Nightclub & Bar series progresses, topics will be addressed that will appeal to more established and veteran operators.

Have tickets for the 2018 Nightclub & Bar Show in Las Vegas? If so, you’ll have the opportunity to attend a number of sessions presented by members and partners of the Invictus team, including “Bring Us Your Challenges—Open Consulting Session,” “REAL TIME Consulting for You: Tailoring the Guest Experience in Every Facet with Invictus Hospitality,” and “Wine in Bars: Why You Need It and How to do It.” Bring your questions, an open mind and the drive to succeed. If you haven’t yet, grab your tickets here.