Year Two: Preparing for Long-Term Operations

Image: Julep

When it comes to bar or nightclub ownership, much is made of preparing to open doors, surviving the first 3 to 6 months of operations, and making it to the one-year mark. That one-year anniversary is obviously an incredible achievement but what about the long-term operations? Alba Huerta, owner of Julep in Houston, shared her experience as a long-term bar owner at a recent industry conference that took place in Texas.

In its first year of operation Julep received a lot of attention from customers and the press. Many nascent bar owners would be compelled to think the spotlight is great but it made Huerta nervous. In her eyes, being concerned with staying power was difficult enough and having to contend with star power added much more pressure. That's not to say that she didn't want press; clearly Julep benefited from being featured in newspapers, magazines, and top 10 lists. But running a bar and keeping it open can be overwhelming without the added challenges of living up to expectations thrust upon you by the public and media.

Julep hit its groove with Huerta at the helm, and she learned many things along the way to the one-year mark. One of the most important things she learned is that the one-year anniversary is not the finish line. The finish line is the closing of doors or the termination of a lease.

"You're only a bar owner for as long as you have a lease," said Huerta. So, rather than looking at your one-year mark as a finish line, look forward to the feeling of comfort and accomplishment you'll experience for surviving and thriving for 12 months.

The owner of Julep also learned that maintaining weekly reports can help an operator establish realistic and achievable goals. They can also make it easier to predict all manner of things that may impact your business in several ways, such as weather. Huerta recalled that Julep experienced a flood during a particular month and is now able to plan ahead to deal should it happen again. Commit to the weekly report - it can only help you.

You'll also want to commit to weekly meetings. Huerta doesn't believe in keeping her employees in the dark and uses a 10-minute weekly meeting to let them know what's going on with Julep. This meeting also gives Huerta's employees the chance to give her feedback, making them feel that they and their input are valued. This is important because as you enter year two you'll need to consider the tenure of your employees. How will you keep them happy? Who will you move up? What positions will they move up to? What costs can you cut to balance the increase in labor costs?

"Always know your labor costs," says Huerta.

It's important to also realize that everything involved with opening a bar is nothing, as Huerta said, compared to keeping it open. In the interest in giving you the best chance at keeping your doors open, these are the other lessons Huerta learned about bar ownership:

  • It's more expensive to not have a lawyer than to have one. This is particularly true when having to deal with the Affordable Care Act.
  • Hire a payroll company.
  • In fact, hire the right experts for different situations in order to save money in the long run.
  • Know the governing bodies and regulatory agencies that will be overseeing your operation.
  • Answer your emails.
  • Stop buying things that you don't use and therefore don't need.
  • Some cities host free or inexpensive seminars that help operators learn various facets of business ownership; take advantage of these.
  • You can't always be your best employee. Instead, adopt better hiring practices and hire better employees.
  • When hiring, be honest about pay and expectations.
  • Don't be a stranger in your own business. Huerta maintains one bar shift a week to keep up with her staff, techniques, trends, and her customers.
  • Treat your regulars well and appreciate that they enjoy your bar so much.

"I wanted to open a bar that would outlive me," said Huerta.

It looks like she's well on her way to achieving that goal, and following at least a few of her tips can help you accomplish the same. If you're a bartender or are otherwise working in a bar and aspire to ownership, Huerta suggests going to the area that has all of the permits and learning what each of them means. Learn who the insurance company is for the bar. Find out who maintains the fire extinguishers. Many of the things you need to know when opening a bar and keeping it open are free to learn. Ask questions and find out where you can get answers. If you're passionate about opening a bar, you'll find ways to educate yourself.

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