A Few Whiskey Discoveries
Making Mineral Water: Starting from Scratch

Designing Bars that Make Money

Dollar houseDuring Hawaii Cocktail Week I attended a seminar called Designing Bars that Make Money at the cafe/gallery Loft in Space. The seminar was lead by Tobin Ellis of consultancy Bar Magic, Kate Gerwin of the bar Imbibe in Albuquerque (and also of Bar Magic), and Julian Cox of Rivera and several other bars in Los Angeles.

Here are some notes on what I thought was interesting - with some of my thoughts at the end. 

Design and Philosophy

  • Tobin Ellis says, "Everyone is saying 'I love craft cocktails but my next bar will be a sports bar that makes money.' You will never pay your bills on cocktail aficionados. You gotta get the Cosmo drinkers, and you gotta get the Bud Light drinkers." 
  • Most people talk about the menus and cocktail program first, but Bar Magic believes in business plan first - market analysis, concept, feasibility, and then design the cocktails. 
  • A lot of clever bar designs have the bartenders turn their back to the customers when making the drink - which is the opposite of what you want; the interaction.
  • For cocktail bars Julian Cox recommends batching, cocktails on tap, bottled cocktails to speed up service. Note that these techniques aren't legal in many states.
  • If you're a small bar opening, the one place you can save a lot of money is by not buying an expensive POS system.  
  • Don't share all your recipes: having specialty cocktails/ingredients gives people a reason to come to your bar versus one down the street.
  • Customers who follow drink specials aren't loyal customers. Have drink specials if you want, but don't expect that to increase business over all.
  • Working with food trucks can save all the effort of having a food program. 


  • Bar2For cocktail bars, some time/space-saving equipment can include approved open-ingredient refrigerators (a new thing, apparently), and refrigerated garnish/ingredient drawers.
  • Spindle mixers can make your Ramos Gin Fizzes a lot faster than you can shake them.
  • The reason Hoshizaki doesn't sell the freezers that make 2"x2" cubes in the US is because they are not energy-compliant, not because they don't exist. 


  • According to an experiment by the French Culinary Institute, the best time for citrus juice is 4-8 hours after squeezing, so there is no need to squeeze to order. 
  • If the menu supports it, consider making lemon and lime sour mixes in advance of shifts - the sugar extends the life of the citrus juice by a few hours,plus it's like mini-batching.
  • Use shitty vodka in your well as it makes the most profit. "If your crowd doesn't care, you shouldn't care," says Gerwin. She also said they don't make much effort to up-sell to premium vodka brands, because they make more profit on the well vodka than they do on the premium brands. 


  • Let bartenders bartend (read: sell). Hire bar backs and janitors for everything else and let bartenders just focus on making drinks and talking to customers, not cleaning things.
  • Consider having a back-of-house service bar for seated/served guests, as they don't need to see the bartenders.
  • Kate Gerwin says that having consistent drinks between all bartenders is more important than having one person who makes "the best" version of some drink. All drinks should be made to the same standard unless it's an up-sell.
  • That said, at Imbibe most of the bartenders are pros at speed and accuracy, not at arcane cocktail knowledge. Thus when a cocktail nerd asks for a drink, the bartender may ask Kate or the other expert; likewise when it comes to bachelorette drinks Kate may hand the order to another bartender. 
  • Consider having a chart of what each bartender rings nightly and how much they collect in tips - this encourages healthy competition and reduces employee theft.
  • Give every bartender working that night a bonus on any night where a sales record is broken. 

My Opinions on All This

  • First I should note that the speakers for the most part were talking about building bars from the perspective of profit. As a consumer, I don't care about the bar's profit, so these are my opinions from the cocktail nerd consumer perspective.
  • High-volume bars cater to the lowest common denominator of customer.
  • If your well liquor is crap, I don't care if your mint is fresh. Your bar serves crap drinks.
  • If every bartender isn't of the same quality at a venue, then I'm not a fan of a bar, I'm a fan of a bartender and will follow them to the next place when they leave for a better job. 
  • A bar is as good as its worst bartender. 
  • Fast bartenders are concerned with speed and profit, not with quality. Cocktails at high-volume bars, even ones that claim to be perfect with their speed pouring, are never as good as they are at craft bars. 
  • I'd rather pay extra for the luxury of time for bartenders to do it right, and for the space in which to enjoy it.
  • I think this would make a fun debate at a cocktail convention....