"People will come back if you are different, and what makes you different is knowing why you do what you do."
Something you wish you had known then that you do now:
The most important thing to know before you open a bar is how to get out. If things do work out or if they don't, have a strategy that ensures that you have a way out. Even if you are successful, have a place and somebody to go to once you leave the business. Have all the legal documents and agreements sorted out. Not from a negative standpoint, but be prepared. Just in case, if things don't go as planned, know what you will do. That is good advice for anyone starting any kind of business—know your way in and know your way out.
On choosing a concept:
There were three of us bartenders living together in the '90s that were all working at Pravda [in Soho], and we decided that we should throw some dinners on Sunday nights when we weren't working. At that time we were all single and were meeting a lot of women bartending. We were cooking food and making drinks, and people were feeling really comfortable in our home. From there it evolved. We first thought we would open a members-only social club, but the smoking law made that too difficult. But it was a gradual thing.
On choosing a space:
We looked and looked. It's not just about finding the space that you like. If you are lucky enough to find a space that you love and it works out, that's great. You have to make a lot of compromises. You choose a place but you have to think of whether it will work—will the building department approve, will it have enough exits, etc. The choice should be contingent upon getting permits and things like your liquor license. You also have to become a jack of all trades where you become an architect and design the space for service and good execution. Then you have to choose materials for building. You have to wear a lot of hats.
On getting a liquor license:
It just depends on where you are; in California, there is a lottery and only two licenses are given out a year. Most times you have to buy one from someone who already has one. In New York, you have to deal with community boards and the SLA [State Liquor Authority], and basically nobody gets a recommendation. I suggest hiring someone for the entire process who can hold your hand the whole way, who specializes in the process.
On starting capital:
That depends on where you are. In NYC, for anywhere from 1,500–2,000 square feet, you need between a one million to a million and a half.
That's a modest estimate including build out and opening the place. Sometimes you can purchase someone else's business and acquire all of their materials. That is a good way to save money without spending a lot on new construction. You should raise the money and write a business plan, and if you don't have the money yourself you have to convince investors that it is a good deal for them and a smart idea. That is tricky because nationwide the statistics are terrible. Only 24% of U.S. restaurants will survive year 10, and only 3% in NYC.
On breaking even:
It depends on how much you have invested. Operational break even means bringing in the same as what leaves the restaurant, and that is a better place to be than below, but it is not a preferred scenario. Every Irish bar is in business because they know a secret, "Whatever comes in should be greater than what leaves the bar."
That just means that your rent, payroll, and recurring expenses like liquor, food, and insurance are covered. Beyond that you want to make more than that so you can pay money back and yourself a salary.
On a day in the life of a bar owner:
In the morning you get a report from the night before if you weren't there yourself. You have to put in those systems for the closing manager where they tell you what the closing numbers were, were there any problems, how was the service, who worked, etcetera. You read that and you follow up. The morning is a bar owner's evening. Then you visit the bar before opening and start doing inventory, you talk to the staff, and you prepare for service. Then you open for business and your night begins. Your shifts are long and life can be pretty hard, but you have to maintain a healthy lifestyle or you will crash. There is no way that a man or woman in their thirties can maintain a lifestyle of sex, drugs, and rock and roll for more than a few years.
Everyone is busy on Fridays and Saturdays, that is the only routine you can possible have in the business. The bar is made or broken on slow nights, Sunday through Thursday, and if you are able to attract people to come to your place on those nights than you have something special.
That is where you establish a long-term relationship with your clientele. The people who go out on Fridays and Saturdays are the people will talk about you over the water cooler and only come once every six month. Your regulars make you.
On the best and worst parts of owning a bar:
The best part is seeing your dreams come true and taking this responsibility that you have created for yourself and making it work. You get to feel and enormous sense of accomplishment for making something happen and for having people around you who believe in the same thing you do. The worst thing is that you are everybody's bitch
That is because you are the small business, and when you are the small business you pay for everybody else's tab.
Words of wisdom:
Know why you do what you do. It is easy to know what to do and how to do it—everybody knows what they are going to serve and how they are going to serve it. But why do you do it? It cannot be for the money, because money only comes when things are being done right. You have to know why so you can teach someone else. When you know this your guests see it too. That's when they come back. They identify with the reasons you are doing what you are doing. Otherwise they can go to the same speakeasy bar and get served the same unremarkable, super-balanced cocktail. People will come back if you were different, and what makes you different is knowing why you do what you do.
Visit the bar: Employees Only,
510 Hudson St (212-242-3021, employeesonlynyc.com)