Food & Drink

Five tips for breaking into the small-town bar industry from veteran owner Steve Carpentieri

A man walks into a bar... and loses thousands of dollars, years of his life, and any chance at retiring before 75. While every dude dreams of running his own watering hole (even Flanders!), very few succeed, so, to whet the pipe dreams of potential entrepreneurs, we asked two of the honchos featured in the new craft cocktail documentary Hey Bartender! (premiered at SXSW, national release June 7th) to give their dos and don'ts of opening a drinking establishment


Steve Carpentieri has run Dunville's in Westport, CT for over 25yrs, becoming an icon in his local community. After a visit to Tales of the Cocktail he successfully introduced a craft mixology program to a market born and bred on rum and coke. Read on to learn about the likelihood of your Little Bar That Could succeeding, what to do if someone else already snatched up your name, and how to make liquor distributors bend to your will. And after you're done, check out how some more tips from the founder of one of the world's best cocktail bars

Don't call your bar "The Dictator" unless you want to be called a "dick" "Names that can be abbreviated are endearing to the locals. Ebenezer Scrooge's will just become known as Ebby's. You want something that's easy to remember. Sometimes it's good to take your name from a location. Have a story you're not embarrassed to tell over and over. If you pick the name Pillars because you got drunk one night and hit your head on pillar on the way out of the bar, that's not necessarily a story you'll want to tell." BONUS TIP: "Trademark your name in case you're considering expanding. But if someone else has a similarly named bar and it's far away, don't worry about it.

Go local or go home "You can buy the best bar, put the best booze in there, have a great chef in the kitchen, but you're only as good as the people you attract and hire. Get names behind the bar that everyone knows. If you have to pay a little extra to keep them there, that's okay, you're essentially buying their knowledge and customer base. That's not to say you can't become local, but it's a hell of a lot easier to just find someone who is already established." BONUS TIP: "One bad apple spoils the bunch. If one person starts showing up 15mins late, everyone will, so be serious from the start.

The craft of the craft "If you're wanting to do a craft cocktail bar, ask for expert support. To actually come up with a cocktail, it's nearly impossible. If you have the ingredients that you think blend well, it might still take you 60 times to get it right! And after three tries, your taste buds are shot, so it might take you three weeks to come up with something. The true craft bartenders, all those guys are geniuses. They're the chefs of the drink industry." BONUS TIP: "Write everything down, including the order in which you mix the ingredients.

How to open The Arr Barr without walking the plank "There's a place for gimmicks and themes. But even with a theme, you've gotta choose an identity. You could make a pirate-themed place called The Arr Barr and it could be looked at two ways -- either it's a dark dive where people are swearing in eye patches, or it's a family place where there are parrots on every bar stool squawking, 'Are you ready to order?' The theme doesn't necessarily dictate the identity, and you don't want to give people a vague idea of what you're going for." BONUS TIP: "Theme bars have higher costs of entry, so make sure your train-themed Little Engine That Could bar is going to succeed.

Your margins will be marginal "Every bar has different costs associated with it. Whether it's a larger staff, higher rent, or that it costs more to heat the place. There are a lot of factors. There's no industry standard, but we don't like to run our liquor sales at more than 26, or 27%. Customers think that you're making $3 profit on a beer. But if beer is 25% of my sales, I have to factor in 25% of electricity, rent, staff. So on that case of beer that you think I made 30% profit on, I netted $7. I'd make more money if I bartended for someone else!" BONUS TIP: "Look for 'on post' discounts in the Beverage Journal. If you have the capital, these can really increase your margins."