Food & Drink

You Want to Open Up a Bar With Your Friends? Here's What You Need to Know.

Published On 10/21/2016 Published On 10/21/2016
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
FX

It's the dream: opening up a bar (with alcohol! and food! and fun!) with all your best friends, as you all rake in the easy money and then ride out off into the sunset as the most popular people in the world -- or at least in your neighborhood.

But the reality of opening up a bar with your friends doesn't exactly line up with the fantasy you perceive through your rosé-colored glasses. Frankly, it can be a bitch. 

Still, that doesn't mean it can't work. We talked to two Brooklyn bar owners (because where else would you want to start a trendy-ass bar with your friends, right?) who have been through the ringer -- Ben Wiley of Cardiff Giant, Mission Dolores, and The Owl Farm, and Katipai Richardson-Wilson of Dirty Precious. Here's everything you need to know, the good, the bad, and the straight-up harrowing. Choose your friends wisely, but your business partners even... um... wisely-er.

Be careful who you get into this with

Running a business -- especially in the service industry -- is incredibly difficult, and therefore debilitatingly stressful. You need to understand that even if someone is your best friend, they might not be the best people to get involved with, professionally. I know you love your best friend Brad -- but I doubt you want to invest any of your capital into the dude after that time he duct-taped you to your dorm room wall freshman year. Simply put: sometimes ideal friends don't make ideal business partners (especially Brad).

"You need to be with people you trust, and people you know you can go through hard times with," Wiley says. "It's not enough to just get along with someone socially. You need to know you can trust them with your livelihood."

You know how you love your best friend, but would never live with them even if pigs flew in a frozen hell-scape? Yea, it's kind of like that.

Assemble your cast wisely!

When opening a bar, you need to assemble a cast of partners who bring complementary skills to the table. It's about forming a competent business team, not hanging out with your favorite buds. 

"My business partner is an architect who ran the entire design build, and you need someone like that," Richardson-Wilson says. "You need someone who gets off on numbers and contracts, and someone that knows the business side. And obviously, someone that knows the bar industry. Getting a group of people that can all bring something unique and necessary to the table is more important than making your friends happy."

You need to realize it's not a "get-rich-quick" scheme...

"People think you are lighting your cigars with $100 bills if you are in the bar business, but that's just not the case." says Wiley. "And they think there's a much higher profit margin than there is."

It's easy to sit back and think, "well, beer doesn't cost a lot, but they sell it for a lot!" You aren't wrong necessarily, but you also can't be anticipating making $5 profit on every pint you sell. 

"If you are going to run a successful bar -- you're probably doing it in a place where the rent is extremely high," says Wiley. "Then you factor in electricity, cleaning, employees. It's a tough business to be in. You can live a good life -- I love what I do. But the fact of the matter is, you almost definitely will not get rich by opening a bar. "

It's definitely not as romantic as it seems

Don't expect to get a day off for the first year. "People think it's a non-stop party, all the time," Wiley said. "And it can be. Especially in the beginning. That goes away quickly once you get into the brass tacks of running a business."

Running a bar is NOT a glamorous job. It's akin to running any other business -- which involves a lot of hard work, long hours, and thankless nights. Despite what Tom Cruise and his tropical bottle flipping would have you believe. 

"It's not like just being a bartender, either," Richardson-Wilson said. "I remember thinking to myself, when I got my own bar: 'Oh shit, I'm the boss now. There's no one else to blame.' And that kind of sums it up. When the buck stops with you, it's a lot different."

When the toilet backs up and sewage leaks all over the floor, you can't just go home. 

Jiffry16/Youtube

Working with friends can sometimes be more difficult

Good, open communication is key to being successful business partners. It might seem like this could be easier working with friends -- but dealing with people you are close with can sometimes lead to hiding problems in order to maintain friendships.

One thing stressed by both bar owners was the need to prepare for the worst-case scenario -- you need to have a plan for hitting rock bottom (basically, your professional life going to shit) whether it's official (in writing) or just agreed upon verbally.

"You need to prepare yourself for the worst," Richardson-Wilson said, "to deal with anything that can come along, make it out alive, and still maintain a friendship."

Working with friends can certainly be more difficult, and working with family can call for an even greater degree of work-life/personal-life separation. 

"My brother is my business partner," says Wiley. "And it is difficult sometimes -- we try to not to cross those lines. At Thanksgiving, for example, we keep all talk about business out of it, out of our holidays. But it's not always easy. it's definitely complicated."

"Transparency, clarity, and a willingness to 'shut it off' when needed, is key to working with your friends," says Richardson-Wilson.

Whatever your budget is... it needs to be more

All sorts of unexpected costs come up when you're building a new business: construction takes longer than quoted, the pipes need to be replaced, someone breaks a crate of glassware. "Whatever you are planning on spending, you'll need about 30% more, for sure," says Richardson-Wilson.

Realize that your great idea is not always an objectively great idea

Be willing to compromise your first ideas: Just because you think a Family Matters-themed bar is a good idea doesn't mean the people will respond to it. 

"People do think they have great ideas for bars, or theme bars," Wiley said. "But at the end of the day, you have to know the area you are going into, and the audience you are trying to appeal to. It has to be about what they want, not what you want."

Be vigilant about avoiding the trappings of the industry

Running a bar -- though not as fun as you'd probably expect -- can be a gateway to a party scene unparalleled in any professional world. 

"You are around booze all day," Wiley says. "It's so easy to get wrapped up in that world, and indulge in your own supply."

The world of bars is also a door to drugs, and a bevy of other vices. It takes a strong will sometimes to avoid these trappings.

"It's fun to party with your friends, sure, but sometimes having reliable friends around you can be helpful for that, too," Wiley says. "You can lean on them, and depend on them. So it's a double-edged sword." 

Pre-planning is essential

Aside from getting more money than you think you'll need, there are a few other things everyone should be doing before they quit their day job.

"What I did at first was take people who did run bars out to dinner, and asked them all the questions to create basically a heat map of what is important, what they would do differently. I outsourced a lot of the pre-planning there," Richardson-Wilson says. "You have to use the resources you have, and consult people you can trust."

Logistically, Wiley says the first thing you should do is choose a place (like a neighborhood) for your bar to be -- that's the most important thing to lock down. The rest of the plan can flow from there.

At the end of the day, it is possible to make this work. And when it does, it's spectacular.

"I wanted the bar to be my baby -- I want it to have the heart and feeling that this is all of us in this together," Richardson-Wilson said. "I've definitely seen people's relationships get destroyed over this stuff. The customers in this business can definitely tell if there's heart, and love, and friendship in a business. And being involved with people you care about helps that shine through. If it's strictly business, it will reveal itself."

"It might be more difficult, but on a journey like this, being with someone you care about can it make that much sweeter," Wiley said. "I'm not sure if I could recommend this path to everyone, but I wouldn't want it any other way."

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Wil Fulton is a staff writer for Thrillist. He actually blames Gwyneth Paltrow for most of the world's problems. Follow him @wilfulton.

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