Having recently opened his fifth bar, Edmund Weil offers fellow existing and aspiring bar operators some advice learned from his experiences
One of the silver linings on the storm clouds which enveloped our industry for the pandemic years is that there’s rarely been a better time for independent bar operators and entrepreneurs with ambitions to get their dream project off the ground. With the property industry doing some soul-searching as it surveys acres of empty retail space, this post-crisis lacuna represents an opportunity for would-be bar owners to snag great sites with favourable lease terms that would be unthinkable to landlords in normal times. Having recently opened our fifth bar – Nightjar Carnaby – in just such circumstances, I thought it might be useful to share a few of the lessons I have learned along the way.
Get your concept on paper…
Although the UK commercial property market is starting to heat up again, we’re still in an environment where landlords will take a punt on a new independent operator with a bar or restaurant idea that inspires them. It’s a big advantage to have a Powerpoint deck outlining your concept in detail. You’ll want to include design references and inspirations, branding, and information on your target market, as well as some basic financials including capex (capital expenditure) breakdown and sales forecasts. If you’re serious about opening a bar, all of this stuff should be in your head anyway. Getting it down into a coherent, slick document may turn the head of a landlord, but it will also be indispensable in seeking investment, instructing a designer or architect, and planning your business. I recently looked over the deck Rosie [Stimpson] and I did back in 2009 for Nightjar, our first bar opening. The presentation leaves a lot to be desired, but it did do an effective job of laying out what we wanted to achieve, and really helped keep us on course during the rollercoaster ride of our first-ever bar opening.
…and pick the right spot for it.
There’s always a case for paying eye-watering rent to access the footfall and spending power of an already kicking area. This strategy might work for operators with deep pockets, but is unlikely to appeal to the bootstrappers I hope might benefit from this article. On a tight budget, juggling the priorities of location, layout, landlord and rent always represents a gamble. The more research and preparation you put in, the more you can minimise your risk. Don’t hesitate to grill your prospective landlord – they may have information on the demographic of the area and other factors that will help you assess its suitability. Spend as much time as possible in the area, getting a feel for the residents and the crowd. Picture them in your bar. Do they look at home?
The potential upside of this level of research is huge. If a bar
or restaurant lands in the right area at the right time, it can create a sort of alchemy where they begin to define each
other and evolve together. The openings of Callooh Callay, Nightjar and Happiness Forgets within a couple of years of
each other helped to transform Shoreditch as a drinking destination over the following decade, while reaping the
benefits of that very transformation.
Raise more than just enough
This is perhaps my most challenging, but also my most important, piece of advice. Bar fit-outs simply do not arrive on time and on budget. Whether it’s right at the beginning of the project, or even after you’re open, there will be nasty (and costly) surprises. For instance, at Nightjar Carnaby I discovered well after putting my budget together that material and labour prices had soared around 30% since the pandemic. If you haven’t included a healthy contingency in your budget, put one in. If you have, double it! I’ve also lost count of the number of times I’ve come to regret ‘value engineering’ decisions made because of stretched funds during a fit-out. Compromising on quality of finishes, materials or equipment (especially back of house) very often leads to much more expense (not to mention anguish and inconvenience) in the long run.
You’ll also need to plan for a lengthy period of slow sales as your bar finds its feet and word of mouth starts to spread. It’s happened with every bar I have opened; even Swift – with its flagship location in the heart of Soho – took a year or so to properly get off the ground in this respect. I’ve seen too many potentially brilliant bars flounder and sink in their first year or two because of cashflow issues – don’t be one of them.
Raising that extra money won’t be easy but it could make the difference between success and failure in the long term. If you’ve got a solid enough concept to attract investment or a bank loan, you should be able to negotiate a good rent-free period with your landlord, and in some cases even a small contribution to the improvements. Likewise, get talking to drinks brands early. A good deal on your listings and activations will provide a much-needed cash boost when you most need it.
Make friends with everybody
This seems like an obvious one. Bar owners are friendly people. They’ve decided to dedicate a big chunk of their lives (and their savings) to showing people a good time. Being gregarious and hospitable with your guests goes without saying. I’m talking about everyone else. All the people who won’t be spending money in your bar, but upon whose good grace the success of the business may one day depend. Make friends with your fit-out contractor. Make friends with the local licensing officer. Make friends with your doorman, your cleaner, your plumber and your fridge engineer. Greet them cheerily, find out a bit about them, offer them some refreshment when they’re in, and think about ways you can make their lives easier. Make an effort to get to know your account managers at your bank, your EPOS provider, your card acquirers, even if it’s over the phone. At some point down the line, you are likely going to need a favour from every one of these people. And they are infinitely more likely to go above and beyond for someone who’s treated them with respect, humility and warmth. It’s one of those happy instances where what’s good for your soul is good for your business.