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....



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I don't understand the making of sweet & sour, either. What cocktail asks for lemon AND lime juice AND sugar?

Camper English

In this case they were talking about lemon sour and lime sour separately, not lemon-lime-sour (that crappy bars have). So that makes sense for all your daiquiri, whiskey sour, gimlet, pisco sour, etc. needs.

Matt Robold

Hey, I'd love to get in on that kind of debate at a cocktail convention.

Actually an even better person than I would be my boss, Jason, who went from Las Vegas speed & flair tending to college town tending to opening a craft bar/restaurant.



I disagree here and there.

affordable well spirits are very important to some markets. in boston it has become a problem that so many bars are super premium only. young people are really strained because drinking has become so expensive here. bars are too often only half full. with ingenuity like fresh lime juice and fresh mint you can make a less expensive spirit into a beautiful drink and keep the party going.

most spirit enthusiasts do not know how to evaluate sensory "quality". they are constrained by their metaphors and use broken oversimplifications like good & bad instead of more scalable metaphors like ordinary & extraordinary. bad is bad but ordinary is useful when priced appropriately at matched to certain scenarios.

my next bar will be fairly high volume so that I can give a more affordable experience and it will be set up so some bartenders will be moonlighters from other art scenes. I know so many amazing starving artists in other disciplines that need extra cash and indirect support for their work. I want to provide a way to support their work while having them make a positive contribution to the bar. idealistic? maybe, but with small degrees of advanced batching and other advancements in bar program organization I think I can do it.

your bartender might be the wildest jazz guitarist in the city but unfortunately he can only serve you an affordable batched old fashioned or something funky I carbonated in magnum champagne bottles that was inspired by his playing the night before.


Interesting write up, especially on the heels of the recent NYT article (which you were quoted in). As a consumer/cocktail nerd, I consider it this way:

I pay premium prices (anywhere btwn $12 and $18 in NYC these days) for quality products, quality service and quality atmosphere. As these decrease, so does the value I assign the goods I'm buying.

That said, there are ways to reduce costs, such as batching, that have less of an effect on value. The challenge with these is still to create the feel of a finely crafted product (i.e. a sloppily poured/garnished batch cocktail is unappealing).

And yes, I want bars I frequent to be profitable because if they aren't profitable, they will cease to exist. So, I empathize with the business need. That said, I have no vested interest in them being as profitable as possible, a scenario which might involve cheaper/worse ingredients, higher prices, more crowding, etc.

Honestly, I think what we're seeing is a backlash from an overabundance of cocktail bars in a few popular markets. A decade ago it was much harder to find a quality cocktail and thus simply having quality drinks put you on the map, differentiating you from Sports Bar X. Now though there are business owners looking for new niches to fill and new ways to differentiate themselves, hence a shift back towards large crowds and at-scale serving.

I also think we're seeing a further reigning in of the "moody mixologist" who pulls a John Hammond and spares no expense as they pursue their craft. The simple truth is that if you invest in exotic ingredients or excessive R&D, you need to show a return on your investment or else you can't continue to operate as a business. It seems that some bar owners are deciding to forgo the adventure altogether rather than refine the end-to-end process.

Dave Stolte

The problem with this approach is that different Sours require a different ratio of citrus & sugar - they're not all 2 : 1 : 1. Some might be 2 : 1 : .75 or 2 : .75 : .75. So for the sake of expediency, the quality of the drink suffers.

Kate Gerwin

Count me in....

Kate Gerwin

Oh, and for the "if your well liquor is crap, then your bar serves crap drinks"....

As I mentioned in the seminar, this is for the people who come in and order red bull vodkas.... vodka tonics.... (if you ask what kind of vodka, they say, whatever is in the well). Why give them a more expensive product with less profit margin, to mix with their hand crafted red bull? That doesn't mean you serve crap drinks.


I don't go to bars that speed pour and order things that aren't beer/wine. I do think they made some good points but honestly quality and cocktail knowledge beats speed to me every time.

The topic was all about profit, so I'm surprised they weren't also touting bikini clad bartenders and speed chilled shot machines.

Timo Jan se-de Vries

Count me in for that seminar! As a former Financial accounting bachelor at the University of Amsterdam and a long time manager of "craft" cocktail bars, i would LOVE to offer my various insights. So far i agree wholeheartedly with Camper on this for a number of reasons. This should be interesting!

Rob Turek

Amen Kate!

Erika Szymanski

This may be off-base -- I'm a wine science writer, not a cocktail aficionado -- but something that seems to be missing from this conversation is the mid-section. We're all fine berating people who drink Red Bull vodkas, and most of the commenters here are (appropriately and expectedly for Camper English's blog) at the far opposite end of the cocktail-enjoying spectrum. I wonder how much some of these money-making ploys are aimed at the middle ground, people like my generally well-educated but non-specialist grad student friends. They know that cocktail culture exists and are interested in buying into it, but don't know squat about fine spirits or well-crafted drinks and, moreover, don't have the money to spend on the type of care and attention that commenters here appreciate. Ergo, tricks designed to mimic some of the feel of a fine drink without actually invoking the costly mechanisms necessary to create one would probably appeal to my friends very much. I'm sure that there are plenty of other mid-range drinkers out there who might feel the same way.


One will never make much money at a cocktail bar. Which is a real shame. People often get very tired of working in cocktail bars. What would you rather do? Make $300-$500 a night serving vodka tonics and pouring beers. Or make $200-$300 a night making a 100 or so cocktails? 100s of craft cocktails takes a toll on ones body. Cocktail nerds may tip well for their 3 drinks. But 45 min of conversation is not worth $10. And most people tip the same whether you've made them a good drink or you pour them a beer.


Not only that, what if your drinks require multiple sweeteners? Honey, agave, infused simple syrup, Cointreau, etc?


Well I think what you have to do it outline your personal goals and then make the best drinks you can. I don't see my bar ever making crap well drinks. We don't have to yet we don't delve into a lot of esoteric drinks except for special occasions because we don't have to. We try to present the best drink we can to meet the customer's expectations, exceed them if possible. If money is purely the bottom line, well there are lots of other ways to make money a whole lot easier than serving the drunken masses.


"Equipment: For cocktail bars, some time/space-saving equipment can include approved open-ingredient refrigerators (a new thing, apparently), and refrigerated garnish/ingredient drawers."

Who makes these open-ingredient refrigerators and refrigerated garnish drawers and what do they look like? I'd love something like these, but can not find out who manafactures them. No luck at restaurant supply stores. Any info?

Tobin Ellis

Jay-- Perlick corporation. The only NSF approved "open food storage" refrigeration in existence in North America currently. Since the time of this seminar I've helped engineer a set of equipment that takes this into account. You can find out more here: http://www.perlick.com/bar-beverage-equipment/stainless-steel-underbar/tobin-ellis-signature-cocktail-station/

Tobin Ellis

JFL- had you attended the workshop you'd probably have walked away with a different point of view. I've devoted the last 17 years of my life to traveling the world helping bartenders, operators, and the industry make high quality beverages... in a faster, more efficient manner. Best of both worlds. But thanks for trivializing my life's work without knowing a thing about me, my work, or my professional values.

Tobin Ellis

Dave--- I see what you're saying, but... not exactly. There really aren't that many different ratio acid to sugar recipes out there, or at least, there does not need to be. In fact, as I have done on multiple occasions, you can make house lemon sours and house lime sours that produce the same daiquiri, bees knees, or Pisco Sour that using a more 'purist' approach would yield. I'm tempted to take your further down that rabbit hole but this isn't the right place. Point is, when you are trying to ensure the success of a bar doing a fresh classic and/or craft program, you have to shed some of your purist views. Have to. This is the lesson we learned this last decade--- if we don't start figuring out DIFFERENT ways of approaching our holier-than-thou mantras on what it means to make and serve high quality cocktails, the public is going to grow irritated and tired of our arrogance. Which is precisely what is happening. So instead of saying "you can only be either fast or serve quality drinks" (a load of rubbish, by the way) the true trailblazers we all know are out there actually figuring out how to do exactly that. And there's been tons of progress. One method, which I was speaking about, is to develop and use house lemon (and/or lime) sours. It works for many reasons, here's a couple. First of all, nobody is saying you use these sours for EVERY cocktail call you get. Instead, you use them for your MOST called recipes like Daiquris, Margs, etc. Consistency, speed of service, beverage cost, wastage... all improved greatly and with no loss of cocktail quality. Second, instead of modifying your sugar syrups to fit some pre-conceived idea of what proportions you "have" to use to make a cocktail, we posed the question: Why not modify the recipe to fit one syrup? Because what really should matter is not the puritan or philosophical mindset of the creator or blogger, but the taste of the drink. I've done this so many times and it's only when someone is told or stares at the process they claim to know the difference. If you knew how many times I've served some of the most famous palates in the world from a BOH service bar and experimented on this very subject, you'd be floored. Anyway the point I was making in Hawaii several years ago was... if you blow through a ton of some fresh citrus juice + sugar syrup for your program, combine them and you will improve many key metrix in your program. Yes, you still need to have honey, agave, etc on hand. You can always go to a la minute as the situation dictates, BUT you can massively improve operations and profitability with this approach without compromising drink quality. So while i understand what you're saying, it's not actually the case.

Ross Tonkin

Tobin, been following you for a while now, (btw you've got one of the best jobs ever) I am in the process of writing a business plan for a small bar with a good program and I'd love your team's help if you guys have the time?

Ps: love your cocktail station depending on my location I'm getting one or two I already have the quotes haha

Ross Tonkin

*food program not good program ... That doesn't make much sense

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