Susan Forsey sends her Cheese Mac Hushpuppies (deep fried fritters of macaroni and cheese with corn, bell peppers and onions) back to the kitchen to concentrate on the interview. “Just put them under the heat lamp,” she says. Today, in late July, Forsey is managing the floor at her second bar, the newly opened, 4,500-square-foot Rocky Mountain Icehouse on Edmonton’s Jasper Avenue. But at any moment, she might slip back over to the 1,300-square-foot Cask & Barrel, the first bar she opened, in 2012. After all, it’s less than two blocks away. Is the proximity of her two bars a rookie mistake? “You don’t ever want to cannibalize your own business,” Forsey says, unprompted, noting, however, that the locations help her work at both places. “There are always dangers to any new venture that you do …”
“This is why most people don’t take up coal mining after they’ve retired. Coal mining doesn’t look easy and the people who do it have no interest in making it look easy.”
The lure of opening a bar makes it a common dream for those with entrepreneurial flair. Take, for instance, Forsey’s co-owner and business partner, Wayne Jones. He’s worked in the hospitality industry for decades and, over time, developed several bar ideas. Now, Jones has opened two with Forsey – the Cask & Barrel (modelled loosely on a neighbourhood pub in Scotland) and the Icehouse (again, based loosely on a Texas “icehouse,” a bar tradition that grew from cold ice-storage houses before refrigeration, which also offered cold beer and simple food).
But the pitfalls of the bar business are ever-present, too. Jones remains cognizant that a good idea does not equal a good business, and that cannibalizing customers and dozens of other potential missteps are always lurking in the bar industry. “The biggest mistake people make is that they forget that it’s work, that it takes a lot of work to put this all together,” he says.
Experts agree: opening a bar appears glamorous, and that’s why so many fail. “Who doesn’t want to work in a bar, or better yet, own a bar,” says Philip Duff, director of Liquid Solutions, a bar consultancy based in New York. “I think it starts with Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, this image of wearing a dinner jacket and flaunting around with beautiful women and shady types.” But the truth of the business is different, Duff says. “The reality is you’re probably going to learn more than you ever felt you need to about mopping toilets. What attract the dilettantes are excellent bartenders, waiters and owners, who make it appear effortless,” he says. “This is why most people don’t take up coal mining after they’ve retired. Coal mining doesn’t look easy and the people who do it have no interest in making it look easy.”
So, starting and owning a bar is not easy, despite appearances. Does that mean it’s a bad business idea? Not at all. Here are some real-world tips from those who know where the pitfalls lie.
Beware the Time Suck
If you’re planning on opening a bar, get used to being tired. “The bar business, contrary to what people say, is not a more difficult industry than others,” Duff says. “However, it’s a lot of work … you have to put in an awful lot of time and not lose your focus.”
Forsey agrees. “When we opened the Cask & Barrel, our staff costs were sitting at 12 per cent [of revenues], which is unheard of. But that’s because I was working [as a server]. I was on site all the time. I opened and closed for the first four months.”
Back to School
“You need to know the nuts and bolts,” Duff says. “If you were going to any other industry, having perhaps been successful in your own industry, you’d spend time learning about that industry.”
Trouble is, few work their way up into bar ownership these days, with some exceptions (see below). Most new bar owners want to put down their money and go, Duff says. “They don’t want to deal with the pregnancy – they just want you to give them the baby. That’s the big problem right there. People don’t know how bars work.”
“You need to make it a financially successful business, that’s number one,” Duff says. “All those people who say you have to put the guest first are wrong. If you put the guest first and go bankrupt, you haven’t helped anybody.”
But you also need the right customers, he says. “The biggest mistake that rookie bar owners make is they don’t have a clear vision of who is going to be their customer,” Duff says. “Say a bar has a capacity of 100 people. A rookie bar owner will typically allow in 200 people [during the opening weeks]. So there will be too many people in the bar. Staff can’t cope. The bar is not shown off to its best. So what you’ve got is maybe 100 of the bar’s target customers who dragged along 100 of their friends – people who didn’t particularly want to be there, seeing it at its worst. And they’re the ones saying ‘This bar was shit.’ They haven’t been selective about who they actually want in.”
On the Other Hand
“You’ve got to get into it for the right reasons,” Forsey says. “It’s just like a server – if you go in with the attitude that you just want to make money, you’re not going to do your job well. If you come in as a bar owner and you’re doing it because you like people and want to add something to their lives, the money will come.”
The Rise of the Gastrogrub
Few people work their way up to bar owner these days. Except, that is, for ambitious chefs. Pubs will never be the same because of this trend, Duff says. “They want their own place but they don’t have enough money,” he says. After working in a nice restaurant, “they open something that they could run, which is a pub. They might repaint it but it’s still got dodgy furniture; however, the food is excellent and it’s relaxing. You could go there and have a ham sandwich but it’d be an amazing ham sandwich.”
The ambitious chef owners behind gastropubs (think Woodwork in Edmonton, or Model Milk in Calgary) push an ethos of quality without as much worry about the decor. Their pubs may be a bit small, edgy or run down, but their staff value quality. It’s a return to roots, Duff says, and it will change all pubs in the future. “They will make exquisite cocktails but just as happily they’ll pull the cap off a beer. That’s something that I think has real legs and potential. The place not to be is the middle, where your bar is just ‘Meh.’ ”