Opening your very own bar kind of sounds like a relaxing retirement project — until you realise that creating a sustainable hospitality business is a laborious undertaking in an unforgiving landscape. Pour yourself a drink, you might need it.
To learn a little about the realities of owning and operating a bar, we spoke with Den Hospitality, a company comprised of three men: Adam Fulton, Kyle O'Brien and Gavin Moseley. The trio own and operate two bars in New York and Jersey City and are working on a third. These guys aren't slinging drinks themselves, mind you — they create the destination and try to keep customers happy by hiring skilled bar tenders to do the work.
Tell us about your current position, and how long you've been at it
Adam: My name is Adam Fulton and I'm the Creative Director & Founder of Den Hospitality. As a group we are opening intimate bar-centric hospitality properties in the greater NYC area. We opened The Garret, a hidden cocktail bar in 2014 located above a burger joint in the West Village and recently opened the doors to dullboy, a cocktail bar and restaurant in Jersey City a few months ago.
What drove you to choose your career path?
Adam: I've always had a piqued interest in restaurants and bars, even before I knew one day I would try to open them. There are so many aspects to the experience from the decor and lighting to product mix and service; every tactile aspect is an opportunity to tell a brand story. I would find myself eating dinner and wondering why a given restaurant decided to put X on the menu, or why they chose to play a certain kind of music. It was probably annoying to those I dined with, but it let me realise I had an interest in the industry!
How did you go about getting your job? What kind of education and experience did you need?
Adam: People in the hospitality industry come from every possible background. There are guys that start as bus boys and learn from within and one day find the opportunity to open something of their own. There are also people that go to hospitality schools and come from a "business-first" mindset. I wouldn't say there is one right way. I personally studied Marketing and Finance at NYU and launched a marketing agency after that.
While I worked for clients (many restaurants and bars, in particularly) on the side, I was writing a business plan for The Garret and one day, that plan was able to come to life. I personally don't have all the education or experience needed to bring a bar or restaurant to life though, I handle the concept, brand identity, and then day to day marketing. The only way we've been able to be successful is through knowing what I don't know — I have great partners who know a ton about operations, or how to make a great drink. I think the industry is all about being great at collaborating.
Did you need any licenses or certifications? I imagine the bureaucratic aspect of opening a bar is quite a hurdle.
Adam: The biggest part of opening a bar or restaurant in NYC is securing a liquor licence. There are attorneys, paperwork, background checks and community boards that must welcome your idea into their neighbourhood. It took us a couple years to learn how to navigate all of that before we were able to open the doors of our first place.
What kinds of things do you do beyond what most people see? What do you actually spend the majority of your time doing?
Gavin: Most of my job is behind the scenes, not during operational hours. If a guest has a seamless, enjoyable experience from entering to exiting the property then my job is done. I do whatever is necessary to set up my employees for success — they are the faces of the bar, brand, and company. If that means helping set up the bar because an employee has a last minute audition, I do it. I need to make sure inventory is stocked, machines function properly, and attitudes are pleasant. There are many moving parts to any operation so I do things to make the employees' life easier when they arrive to work. I spend the majority of my time planning, running errands and worrying. The restaurant/bar business is often spontaneous and unpredictable and there is also so much that could go wrong at any moment.
Adam: My job exists a lot in the daytime hours when the bars aren't open, so in general, people don't see a lot of what I do on the day to day. Right now we have two bars in operation and then other concepts we are working to bring to life, so my day is spent jumping between the creative elements of those two worlds. For the open bars, I might work on some social media posts, or taste test new drinks and menu items. I might be searching eBay for some new decor elements or a cool glass that we can make a new cocktail in. For the new properties, I am working to design brand identity, source furniture, and develop a vision for what the properties might be. At night, I often stop by the locations and just observe customers in the space and see if we need to make any tweaks.
What misconceptions do people often have about your job?
Adam: In general, I get a lot of assumptions that I'm out late every night. Really, my job is much more of a normal format. My partners who handle operations are a different story though!
Gavin: That it's glamorous. A lot of dirt and unpleasantries are beyond the guests' perspective to create a functional and fun atmosphere. People might see me schmoozing at the bar and merely scanning the room with a smile, and I love those moments! But earlier that morning I was abruptly awoken and notified that the police were called for a disgruntled guest or that a pipe burst in the basement and is flooding with dirty water. Truthfully, I love it all.
What are your average work hours?
Gavin: I'm not the one serving the guest as much as I used to. So, I no longer have the 4am closing nights but my hours are certainly later than Adam's. Adam's an early riser and an early setter. I'm late and late because I like to have the pulse of the spots at various hours of operation. I oversee all the operations; observing different employees on different days and hours. So, I'm always popping in to get a feel.
Adam: 10-6 in the office or jumping to meetings and then a couple hours at night being on premises, but really being an entrepreneur, exact hours are cloudy. Even when not sitting in front of my computer, I'm thinking about something creative that we can or should be doing or going to new bars and restaurants to see what is on trend. Work bleeds into life, but at long as there is passion to the work then that's ok!
What personal tips and shortcuts have made your job easier?
Adam: Patience. I'm learning it slowly.
What do you do differently from your coworkers or peers in the same profession? What do they do instead?
Adam: The hospitality world is so varied, the way people fall into it, everyone's experiences [are different]. There isn't one right way to own a bar or restaurant. I think everyone's setup is a little different. Sometimes the chef opens a restaurant, or one guy does it all and has no partners. We have a few talented partners that all do different things. I'm not saying that's reinventing the wheel, but it's what works for us. My position in general, [as] someone overseeing the creative direction of the properties, might not be one that gets as much attention by others in this profession. I think the differentiation we have in our roles is what is allowing us to grow a bit without overextending ourselves.
Gavin: I think what I did prior to being an owner distinguishes me. I went to school for hospitality and I've never had a single job outside of the industry. I've seen a lot and when things happen outside of my scope, I seek advice. I have no shame in asking for help. I also live and breathe the industry every day. If I'm not in my own establishment, I'm in someone else's. I like to see what people like, what they don't like, and relay those preferences to my operation. I think other operators are more hands on and micro manage. I give my employees more discretion than most in the profession. Most places are extremely structured which is essential. However, I like to give point A and point C within the structure and trust my employees to remain between the lines but innovate between the points. I think that allows more room for personality and character to a place and every day is different.
Do you ever get behind the bar yourself?
Gavin: Sadly no. I wish I had the skills of my employees. I envy owners that are ambidextrous in that way.
What's the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it?
Gavin: Not pleasing everyone: employees and guests. My parents told me when I was young that I gave too much time to others and not enough to myself. I think they just wanted me to study for my midterm but there's some truth in that. Some employees won't like the shifts they get or their wage or my management strategy. Some guests won't like my service structure, or the food, or think I should have three bartenders on duty instead of two. And I do my best to please everyone. I deal with that reality by accepting the fact that it's a fairytale to believe you can please everyone. But I commit my efforts to trying to do so every day.
Adam: Dealing with negative criticism or an unhappy guest experience is tough. It was something I really had to learn how to navigate right when we opened. You put so much work and effort into something and then someone doesn't have a good time for whatever reason. It's really hard to hear that. Obviously we want to fix every issue and provide an amazing guest experience, but sometimes things just happen. It's important to look at those isolated issues in a vacuum. If they become a trend, then it's a different story.
What's the most enjoyable part of the job?
Adam: The pride that comes in sitting back and watching people buzzing at The Garret or dullboy, watching people just have a really good time. That, or overhearing a conversation out in the streets where someone brings up one of our properties in a positive light.
Gavin: When I walk into one of my bars and the employees greet me with a smile and a handshake. If they're happy, then chances are the guests are happy. It also means they're set up for a successful shift and have the mise en place to create an atmosphere enjoyable for the guests.
A lot of people try to open their own bars or restaurants and quickly fail. What do most people do wrong?
Adam: There are so many factors that could lead to a bar or restaurant having a tough time. Most of the time it's about rent in NYC. It's really hard to find good deals where the economics of a restaurant or bar actually work. Being conservative and honest in projections I think is the biggest issue. People may want to open something, but forcing a deal if it doesn't make sense increases the risk of an already risky business.
Is opening a bar in NYC a different experience than other cities? I'd imagine there's more attention and scrutiny, if nothing else.
Adam: Attention to bars is kind of a new thing, but it goes with the trend of increased interest in food and beverage operations in general. The amount of media, blogs, and Instagram accounts that cover the industry now is staggering. But it's great too! I think while that may bring scrutiny, it also brings attention and excitement. The most unique aspect of NYC is the exploding commercial rents. You really have to have all your bases covers and your numbers buttoned up to compete.
What kind of money can one expect to make at your job? I usually ask people what an average starting salary in their field might be, but I know there's no typical answer here.
Adam: The structures in the industry really vary. There might be bar owners who own 10% of their business or 100%, it all depends on how they were able to raise money or fund the project and open. They might own 10% of four bars, or only have one — and there are properties that don't make a lot of profit and those that do. In general, a mid-sized ok bar should be able to generate a couple hundred thousand dollars a year in profit.
How do you "move up" in your field?
Adam: It really depends on goals. One option might be to open more properties, or larger, more high profile properties. Many hospitality companies want to get involved with hotels and provide food and beverage in a hotel property. I think just doing what you enjoy is enough moving up, whatever direction that takes you.
What do people under/over value about what you do?
Adam: Right now people really respect the food and beverage industry as a real "job" — I don't think that was the case a while ago, so people are properly valuing the work and effort involved. There are a lot of real business-savvy people doing great things in hospitality, so there's a good amount of competition and keeps everyone continuing to strive for perfection.
What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?
Adam: Make sure you have a passion for the industry first before jumping in. There are ups and downs, ego knocks, critics and long hours.