Six months before he opened Broken Shaker in the Freehand Hotel in Manhattan, the bar’s founding co-owner, Gabe Orta, moved from Florida to an apartment a few blocks from the hotel with his girlfriend and their eight-month-old baby. As he and his business partner set up the elaborately designed tropical-themed bar, he took a deep plunge into New York’s culture, visiting bars and restaurants as if it was his job. Because it was.
As a result, the fourth Broken Shaker has the look and feel of the flagship Miami location (the two other locations are Chicago and Los Angeles)—from the hodgepodge of tropical tchotchkes to the servers’ beachwear-style uniforms—but there’s a vibe that’s distinctly New York City, and not just because of the vertiginous view from the balcony of the 18th-floor bar. The drink menu, for instance, has a section featuring cocktails that nod to local traditions, people, and places, including the nearby take-out Indian restaurant Orta and his staff frequent. The glassware is custom designed. Even the decorative plants were chosen because they’re from the New York region. “You have to play to your audience and let them know it,” Orta says. “You can keep the soul, keep the branding. You just have to understand your plan and core values.”
Orta is just one example of a small but growing number of bar owners and managers who have run a business so successfully that they want to do it all over again somewhere else. While there’s no playbook on how to open a second bar or restaurant, there are rigorously researched protocols that have repeatedly been borne out and that global chain restaurants abide by to ensure uniformity in food and drink and decor.
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But when you’re a drinks industry veteran with excellent street cred, the idea is not necessarily to replicate but to riff. It’s a tactic that Alex Day and Dave Kaplan, the founding co-owners of the East Village institution Death & Co, demonstrate with their bars, the second of which they opened in Denver in May.
“We wanted to do something new,” says Day, who is also a co-owner, with Kaplan, of the bar consulting group Proprietors LLC, “to articulate the Death & Co voice through Denver. It’s about answering the needs of an individual property—what community it’s in, who’s going to be your guest. You can’t talk at a community, you have to converse with it.”
But even if you base a new bar’s operations on a functioning model, there’s no guarantee it’ll work. Things continue to change once the doors open, Day notes, and that can be used to a bar’s advantage. “It just makes it more fun and interesting,” he says, “more compelling and exciting for people on the ground. They have something that’s their own.”
SevenFifty Daily interviewed several owners and managers for suggestions for those who’d like to follow their lead in opening several bars:
1. Establish Direct Communications
Kaplan says if he could offer one piece of advice to owners opening a new place, it would be to use Slack, a group messaging platform. He has a channel set up for each of his bars, as well as channels dedicated to each position across the company. That means bartenders, managers, and dishwashers can communicate with others in their position throughout the company, sharing tips and best practices.
For the channels dedicated to each bar, the platform helps streamline communications so everyone at the venues is aware of problems or challenges as they arise, in real time. Implementing Slack has helped reduce the load of meetings required to run the bars smoothly. “It’s relatively simple but really important,” Kaplan says. “It lets us see what’s going on and monitor the lines of communication, but gives us the ability to step away.”
2. Follow the Numbers
“The number one thing is numbers,” says Cameron Bogue, the director of beverage operations for Earls Kitchen + Bar restaurants, based in Vancouver, British Columbia. Since starting the job eight years ago, Bogue has opened at least two restaurants a year. Now there are 67 locations across the United States and Canada—each with its own bar menu designed for its particular audience and location. “I’m very analytical,” Bogue says. “You have to know how and why you’re making money already—and what that looks like in a new city.”
Distributors are Bogue’s go-to resource to learn regional purchasing patterns. Many distributors use detailed analytics that break down buying behavior to the neighborhood level, and they’re willing to share the information, so Bogue schedules time to talk through local preferences. The data will show whether nearby bars are buying greater amounts of bourbon, rye, Scotch, or other brown spirits, for example. That data informs Bogue’s purchases. As a next step, “once you decide on inventory,” Bogue says, “look at pricing on other menus to make sure you’re an equal competitor.”
3. Hit the Streets
Getting an intimate understanding of the new bar’s city and neighborhood is vital—this is part community building and buzz marketing, and part field research and investigation. Just as Orta moved to New York City before opening Broken Shaker, Kaplan got an apartment in Denver before opening Death & Co so he could research the city’s nightlife patterns.
Bogue, meanwhile, says he spends about six months in a region before opening a new Earls. In addition to learning the city’s culture and local products, you can put the word out that you’re hiring and quickly develop a local industry network.
But even within a city, neighborhoods have microcultures to consider, says Jackson Cannon, the beverage director of seven restaurants in and around Boston, including the popular Eastern Standard. Elements like decor, menus, and pricing that work in one neighborhood may not work in the next. Make modifications as needed before opening, says Cannon, so you “hit the notes expected in the area.”
4. Use a Range of Training Tools
At Dead Rabbit and BlackTail, Gregory Buda, the bars’ director of education, has developed an elaborate three-tier program that involves a three-month in-person apprenticeship, followed by a series of online lessons with corresponding instructional photos and videos that cover and test apprentices on a range of basic industry knowledge—from products to techniques. The third tier is an ongoing program that includes master classes and tastings.
“We’re not a big company,” Buda says. “There aren’t a lot of us. Our time is valuable, and we try to be efficient. Rather than me saying the same thing over and over again, we can pinpoint people’s weak spots and target their education.”
Director of education Gregory Buda designed and implemented an education plan like no other
When one-on-one consultations are not possible, though, video becomes an even more essential training tool. Bogue, who has to reach more than 800 Earls bartenders across his network, makes training videos, often using only his phone. The videos are tied to the restaurants’ scheduling software. Each week, Bogue embeds a training video that employees are required to watch before they can access their schedule.
Running one bar is tough enough. Adding new locations presents fresh challenges at every level—from decor and menus to staffing and training. But seasoned bar professionals have shown that the right combination of research and operational tactics can help you build the groundwork for your own growing empire.
Liza Weisstuch is an American contributing editor of Whisky Magazine and the senior editor at Budget Travel. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and Whisky Advocate, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @livingtheproof.