Opening a bar is an exciting and potentially very lucrative business venture.
In fact, there are few other businesses that offer such a blank canvas for you to put your personal stamp on – but the current financial climate means that if you’re going to succeed, you need make sure you’re leaving nothing to chance.
We’ve conducted in-depth research and talked to a massive range of industry professionals – from small independent bar owners – to the directors of national chains, and compiled their advice into 23 essential boxes to tick before you get up and running.
We’ve broken the list down into 5 categories; the premises, necessary inventory, paperwork, staffing requirements and marketing advice. If you’re serious about starting a bar, this is your step-by-step route to doing the right way.
Finding the right premises is one thing – but kitting it out appropriately is quite another. We’ll take you through each element to think about when getting your premises in order.
1.) Location and Property
We’re starting with a big consideration – and it’s important to understand why we’ve put your location and property at the top of our ‘premises’ list.
Your choice of location can make or break a bar very quickly – but it can also have a big impact on your budget and the amount of paperwork you’re going to have to do before your doors open.
If you look at a location that’s already popular and has bars, restaurants and pubs nearby you’re likely to gather some natural ‘footfall’ – that is, people who are looking for bars and passing your premises between their regular venues.
A huge bonus with a premises in a location like this is the fact that it’s likely to come with the right local authority ‘use class’ – and maybe even some existing fittings that you can use.
If you’re not familiar with ‘use classes’ this article might be some help – in short, a bar is considered a ‘drinking establishment’ and therefore requires A4 planning permission. Understanding the use class of the properties you’re looking at can save you a lot of time, hassle, cost and legal work that’s associated with applying to change the class of the premises.
On the other hand, you’re likely to pay less for a premises that’s in a slightly less desirable location – but you’re potentially going to need to work harder with your marketing to bring people to you.
Understanding the customer demographics in the areas you’re considering is a great step to take. The Office for National Statistics provide some excellent tools to help you do this – a bonus for your marketing plans – as well as gauging whether or not any application for a change of usage is likely to come up against local resistance.
2.) A Kitchen
Although a kitchen doesn’t represent a ‘must’ – if you’re planning on serving food, it’s a must that you understand the a big difference between opening a bar and opening a bar that has some eating or restaurant facilities – not least the difference between A4 (drinking establishment) and A3 (restaurant and café) local planning usage.
We’re not here to advise you one way or another, the choice is entirely yours – but it is going to have a big impact on your opening hours, staffing need and premises facilities.
If you’re planning on adding a kitchen to a premises that doesn’t already have one it’s likely that you’re going to need to spend a lot of money to do so. Commercial kitchens are not cheap – so if you do have culinary aspirations, finding a place with an existing kitchen is a huge bonus.
3.) Electrical Testing
Opening a bar is going to need you to become familiar with various aspects of health and safety law – and electrical safety is going to be at the top of that list when you’re arranging suitable premises.
The Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) is the organisation who provide the Health and Safety Executive with their electrical expertise – and their wiring regulations for commercial properties are going to come into play when you’re looking at potential venues.
The IET recommend that commercial properties have a through inspection and testing schedule carried out by appropriately qualified electrical contractors every 3 years – or upon any change of occupancy. Unless a landlord has had the work done – you’re going to need to make sure the property is tested – and it’s going to be useful to use the same contractors who you plan to use to install any equipment or wiring you need to get set up.
Not only will electrical testing keep your business, team and customers safe – it’s also likely to be a requirement of any business insurance cover you have.
4.) Commercial Flooring
You might consider it a small detail to consider when there are so many other elements to cover – but trust us, having the right flooring can make a massive difference to your experience of owning and operating a bar – which is why you shouldn’t settle for something that’s less-than-ideal.
Flooring can impact enormously on your customers and staff team, one dropped drink can make for an unpleasant experience – with slips, trips, falls and worse highly likely if you get it wrong. You’re going to be operating in a sector that sees higher failure rates than you’re likely to see elsewhere – so these are the kind of accidents and reputation damage you don’t want to leave to chance.
It might seem extreme to think about these worst case scenarios, but accidents definitely happen – and they happen more frequently when customers are mixed with alcohol.
Whether your priority is in practicality or aesthetics, have a look at some of the flooring options we recommend when you’re refurbishing a bar or club. If you’ve got flooring that can handle everything your customers are going to throw at it, you’re going to save yourself an tremendous amount of work – while looking great.
5.) Fixtures and Fittings
Whether your bar is going to be traditional, ultra-modern, industrial, shabby-chic, themed or anything in between, at the least, you’re going to need the basic fixtures and fittings that suit your plans.
Talking to a professional fit-out provider, shop-fitting company or local individual contractor is a great step to take here – they’ll be able to give you a realistic view of prices and feasibility of the work you’d like to have done. Speaking to fitters and electrical contractors at the same time is also useful and is likely to save you some project management communication headaches – especially when you consider how your bar is going to be lit and how appliances will fit.
In terms of ‘essentials’ – the way your bar is decorated might be another thing that seems inconsequential – and from a function point of view you’re likely to be right; the colour of your walls won’t impact your customer’s ability to order, drink, dance or socialise.
That said, your bar is going to need to stand out as having some kind of unique selling point (USP) – and the way you decorate is a simple and extremely effective way of stamping your brand and identity on your business. In reality, it’s probably only going to be décor and your choice of music that immediately differentiates you from a host of other similar businesses, so thinking about how you’re going to present your bar is paramount.
7.) Smoking Area
The end of 2018 marks 10 years since the smoking ban in bars and restaurants came into practice – and since then, the popularity of smoking areas outside drinking venues has exploded.
Although the numbers of people smoking has decreased as a whole, it’s still estimated that just under 7.5 million adults in the UK smoke cigarettes and other tobacco products – a chunk of the market you’re likely to want to keep onside.
Consider your venue’s capacity and take a look at the size and design of similar bar’s smoking areas to get a handle on the size you’re likely to need. Once again, having an appropriate commercial flooring solution in place is going to save the heartache of burns, stiletto damage and spilled drinks – not to mention the health and safety issues around people slipping and falling.
When your premises is looking great, it’s going to be time to start filling the cupboards, drawers, counter tops and shelves. There are some bar-essentials that you don’t want to forget – as well as some options for how you operate your business.
A fundamental of running a bar is having stock to sell to your customers. While that’s likely to mean beers, ales and ciders ready to go – it’s also extends to less obvious bar items, like furniture, appliances, promotional material and so forth. Having trusted, reliable suppliers for all your items is an absolute must.
The good news is, drinks suppliers realise the landscape of running a bar is changing – so they now offer a lot more than just a drop-off of drinks. A fresh look at the market has seen established suppliers like Matthew Clark and LWC Drinks offer training, wine tasting, product suggestions, marketing support, menu design and much more.
When you register as business and apply for your licence, it’s likely that you’re going to be contacted by a number of account managers for suppliers that cover all your needs. Meet with them, discuss how they can help and don’t be afraid to play one off against the other to get the very best deal for your bar in a competitive marketplace.
Drinks, glasses, music and a few sliced lemons will suffice if you’re having a house party, but running a bar involves a lot more. This list will give you an idea of what most bars will need to get started:
- Music system
- Soft drink dispenser
- Cocktail shakers, strainers and stirrers
- Bottle pour tops
- Hand wash sink
- Spirit measures
- Glass racks
- Bottle opens
- Knifes for fruit and garnish preparation
- Glass cleaner and washing racks
- Cloths and cleaning equipment
- First aid kit
As well as this, you’re going to need a comprehensive range of glasses, which at the very least should include:
- Pint glasses
- Half pint glasses
- Wine glasses
- Generic cocktail glasses
- Shot glasses
- Champagne glasses
- Hi-ball tumblers
Again, talk to your drink suppliers about what they can offer you, as many will provide glasses that compliment that brands and drinks that you carry.
10.) Stock/EPoS System
Understanding and monitoring your stock levels in a bar is useful for a number of reasons – not least maintaining a healthy cashflow through your business.
This is where EPoS – or ‘electronic point of sale’ systems come into their own. On the surface the system appears to be a ‘till’ – electronically accounting for money and products sold. However, the software backing up the system does a lot more than just calculate change.
Tevalis provide EPoS systems that are designed specifically for bars, pubs and nightclubs. Their software monitors your stocks, staff performance, ordering and much more, collecting data that helps you to understand what and when people are buying. With the data it creates, you can adjust your stock accordingly – and ensure your margins are being applied in the right places.
There are a host of great EPoS systems out there, so shop around for something that suits you.
11.) Credit Card Machine
The ability to pay with a card is now an expected norm for customers – so without a card machine you’re going to literally be turning people’s money away.
You might find that your EPoS system comes with its own card payment device – which is great if so, but if it doesn’t, talking to the bank you have your business account with should be your next step. This article from The UK Cards Association gives detailed information on how each type of card machine works and which is likely to be the most suitable for your business.
Behind all great businesses there’s a large pile of paperwork! This is what you’re going to need to have in place to make sure your bar is legal, safe and thriving.
12.) A license
You’d be breaking the law if you sell alcohol in your bar without the relevant local authority licence granting you permission to do so. To acquire your licence you need to apply with your Local Licencing Authority. The gov.uk website offers a comprehensive overview of what you’re going to need and what to expect from the licencing process.
In order to apply for a licence you’ll need to hold the appropriate qualification that shows your understanding is at a certified level. A complete list of accredited qualification providers is available to download here.
The nature of the leisure industry means that appropriate insurance is absolutely vital in keeping you, your team, your business and your customers safe. Fortunately, there are specialist insurance packages available specifically for licenced premises and they’ll generally cover the following:
- Employer and public liability
- Loss of alcohol licence
- Damage or loss of inventory, equipment and stock
- Damage to fixtures and fittings
- Personal accident and assault
- Business interruption from external sources and construction
- Employee claims relating to employment law
Although these are the norms, it’s always worth checking that any cover you’re offered includes these things. For convenience, you might want to use a specialist comparison service that will help you find the right cover for you.
14.) A Bank Account
It would be virtually impossible to run a bar without a dedicated business bank account – and as such, setting one up is going to be paramount.
If you don’t already have a business bank account, consider talking to the bank you use personally – it can save you a lot of time when compared to starting a new working relationship with a different organisation.
It’s also important to consider using a bank that has a branch local to your bar. While there are some fantastic online only options, you’re going to be taking a lot of cash – so being able to pay it in locally is a safe option that’s going to save you a lot of time.
15.) A Licence to Play Music
It’s almost universally acknowledged that music and bars go hand in hand. If you want to enhance the atmosphere in your venue with music you’re going to need to apply for a PRS licence.
PRS for Music is the body that ensures music is being played legally – compensating musicians for their work by paying a small royalty each time a track is broadcast. The organisation provide bespoke licences based on your specific needs – so visiting them at prsformusic.com is the best first step toward getting fully legal.
16.) Health and Safety
Although health and safety is often low on the list of glamourous leisure industry topics – when you’re opening a bar a lot of your working practices are going to be informed by this important area of the law.
Operating a bar carries a lot of risks – from seemingly trivial acts like the cutting of fruit – to more serious instances, like the handling of violent customers – and whether trivial or not, you’re legally required you to consider them all.
This Health and Safety Executive guide to the catering a hospitality industry offers some insight into the kind of issues you should be considering – and this case study of a risk assessment for a pub gives an indication of the paperwork you should be holding on your files to ensure you’re covered from a legal point of view.
It’s widely accepted that running a bar is hard work! That said, having a good team of people around you can ease the strain and make your life considerably easier.
Staffing your bar is something you don’t want to leave to chance. For that reason, getting a pen and paper out and doing some quick and simple maths is a great plan.
You’ll want to think about how many staff members you’ll need to run your bar smoothly – there may be some trial and error involved here, but you’ll quickly work out which are your busiest periods through the week, month and year – then recruit staff numbers accordingly.
This article by howtorunapub.com offers a concise guide to what’s involved in employing staff – from registering as an employer with HM Revenue and Customers (HMRC) to creating contracts and performing some simple human resource duties.
You’ll also want to consider whether or not you’re going to need door staff. The Health and Safety Executive give a little more information on the subject here – and contacting a specialist security provider who operates locally will give you some greater information about your specific circumstances.
If your bar is going to reflect industry standards, you can expect a turnover of just less than 50% of your staff team each year – which means you’re going to have to get comfortable with recruitment.
Starting your employee hunt with a detailed job description is useful – then following that with a relaxed interview helps to avoid nerves and give you a true indication of who you’re talking to – and whether or not they’re going to be the type of person you want representing your business.
There’s an increasing attitude from employers that you should hire based on someone having the right attitude, rather than simply coming to you with masses of experience. Skills can be taught – attitudes are harder to realign.
It’s one thing to have a great idea for a bar – but unless people know about it, you’re going to struggle to keep your doors open. This is where having a solid marketing plan comes into play. Assumptions can kill even the best businesses – so don’t be guilty of assuming that people will hear about you without some effort on your behalf.
19.) A Plan
Putting together a marketing plan for a bar is no mean feat – but it’s important, as no defined plan around awareness and growth can be a recipe for disaster.
You should start by thinking about what you’d like to achieve over the coming months – it’s good practice to plan a year in advance. Start by asking yourself a simple question:
“What do I want to achieve for the business?”
Why not set yourself a series of goals that you’d like to have ticked off after that one year plan is complete? Think about what they might be – some examples could include:
- Increasing awareness amongst particular target groups
- Emulating or improving on what some of your competitor venues are doing
- Creating reasons for your customers to spend more time in your venue
- Encouraging people to spend money on products with greater profit margins
- Engaging with the local community or charitable causes
- Growing your staff team and range of specialist products or services you provide
When you have some goals defined, you should break down exactly what’s needed on a day to day basis to get you to those goals. A marketing plan shouldn’t be something just used to present to banks or investors then hidden away in a drawer – if you’re going to flourish in a very difficult marketplace, it’s going to need to be the cornerstone of your activity on a day-to-day basis.
20.) A Website
Getting a website online can be done cost effectively and quickly – and gives people a great place to discover a little more about your bar and what you’re doing.
Recent years have seen a growing emphasis on ‘brand’ – and while many people think of brand as being their name, logo and perhaps colour scheme, there’s actually a lot more to the concept – and taking full advantage of it is going to give you a jump start on your competitors.
Think about your bank for a second. If they send you a letter, an email, marketing material or you see their point of sale – you know it’s them. The same applies when you visit their website, download their app – and so forth.
That’s because they have a particular ‘voice’ to go along with their look. This voice is a way of communicating and interacting with you and conveying certain values. Think for a second about the kind of place you’d like to open. A website is the perfect place from which to grow this overall brand voice and look. If you’re unsure where to start, talking to a good web designer or marketing agency will give you some great pointers.
21.) Social Media
While it’s not quite a replacement for a website, having a strong social media presence is an equally important part of the bar marketing puzzle.
Social media marketing is so powerful because of how prolific our use of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social platforms is. You can’t expect people to visit your website every 20 minutes, but the chances are they’re going to pick their phone up almost that often.
If you want to break into their newsfeeds and general consciousness there are two main routes:
- Organic sharing, liking and discussions relating to your business
- Pay per click advertising
While you might be adverse to paying for marketing at such a financially crucial phase in your business development plans, understanding how specific you can be when you target your audience might change your mind.
Let’s consider Facebook for example:
If you’ve got a age range in mind, you can target people exclusively in that group. Think it’s unlikely that people are going to visit from more than 20 miles away? No problem, you can adjust your targeting so only people within your age range and prescribed geographical area see your adverts. Planning a salsa night and only want to attract fellow salsa fans? Again, no problem, target people within your audience who have an interest in Salsa.
Now, there’s a balance to be struck between how niche your audience becomes and your adverts still being seen by a reasonable number of people – but that’s going to be for you to decided based on how your adverts perform.
22.) Traditional Marketing
Although it’s tempting to focus your efforts on digital marketing it’s also important that you take advantage of the masses of traditional advertising that you have at your disposal.
Local newspapers are often keen to report on things that are happening in your area, so getting in touch and asking them along to your opening – or to review your new bar – is a great way of getting your marketing message out to people at zero cost. Talking to local student unions, businesses and retail groups also gets your name and message out there and into important audiences.
23.) Get set up with Google
When you have your premises confirmed registering your business with Google My Business is a great step to take for raising local awareness. The process is free and involves Google sending a postcard to your business location with a code that confirms your business address.
Then, when people search for bars in your local area, your business listing is likely to appear, with opening times, telephone numbers, directions, website links and much more – making it easier to stand out on search engine results pages. Take this a step further by optimising your business to rank higher in Google too!
You probably realise by now that opening a bar isn’t likely to be the easiest venture – but when you get it right, there are few feelings that match the pride you’ll experience watching happy customers and a professional team rubbing along perfectly together in a leisure business that you’ve created.