Bar Design Tips and Faux Pas

Can you say "awkward?"

Can you say “awkward?”

More often than not, wealthy (or well backed) owners have far too much discretion in designing and building a operational bar. Those folks are typically focused (arguably) on aesthetics – form over function. The problem? From what I’ve experienced over the years, the owners spec’ing out bar architecture, construction, and equipment procurement have little to no experience bartending. That tends to create a myriad of long-term problems which lead to all manner of bartender frustration, O.S.H.A. risks, employee collisions, re-stocking difficulties, guest annoyances, and in general – reduced income through all those inefficiencies. Let’s take a look at some of the most common mistakes in bar design…

If you’re operating a single-staton 8-foot bar in a small Italian restaurant, where the 98% of the income is derived from table service, and the bar is primarilly (1) decorative (2) a waiting area and (3) a service bar, then there’s not a whole lot of thought required (relatively) in mapping out bar logistics. However, if your bar is like most other bars – let’s say a straight, 65-foot behemoth of a lounge bar, intended for 3 or 4 bartenders at a time, with anticipated weekend/nightly revenue of – let’s say – $12,000, then it behooves you get off your ass and engage some consulting services. That may mean professional, paid contractors who do nothing but engineer restaurants, pubs, hotels, lounges, casinos and the like. Or, it may mean cheaping out and simply soliciting opinions of experienced barkeeps. Either way, far too many owners have mistakenly relied on their own misguided “expertise” in crafting a bar they expect to efficiently service guests and generate revenue.

Bartender Stations

Every individual bartender’s station calls for certain requirements:

  • Dedicated Register. This is at the top of the list because it will cost the bar the most lost revenue in the short-term. I’ve worked in several clubs where management/ownership cheaps out and forces 2 or even 3 bartenders to share a register, drawer or P.O.S. When the bar gets slammed, what happens is bartenders queue up waiting to ring in drinks. They’re doing absolutely nothing for valuable seconds/minutes but looking dumb, holding cash/credit-cards, picking their noses while politely holding up their index finger and mouthing “1 sec” or “I’ll be right with you.” This can easilly result in hundreds or more dollars in lost revenue. Additionally, when sharing cash drawers, it’s almost impossible to hold a single bartender accountable for cash, mistakes, theft, etc. You have to hold all of them accountable and that’s a liability.
  • Drink Prep Stations: Every bartender should have a dedicated (1) drink ice bin (2) directly next to it, a Wunderbar [soda gun] (3) a seperate iced bin for commonly used cold spirits, wines and Store-n-Pour juice containers (4) a condiment tray (5) a Speed Rail consisting of the most commonly-used spirits (6) a back-bar stocked with the most popular call, premium and super-premium spirits.

The drink prep station must be directly across from the register for optimum efficiency. This is a common, and costly, oversight in many bars.

  • Speed Rails: They’re called so for a very good reason. They should hang from individual bartender station drink ice bins and be stocked with basic well/house spirits as well as the best-selling non-well (sidebar: misnomer because you’re placing them in the “well”) bottles. At minimum, your speed rail should contain: Vodka, Rum, Gin, Tequila, and Triple Sec. Ideally, you should have one large enough to accommodate the preceding plus Dry Vermouth, Sweet Vermouth, Roses Lime Juice, Grenadine, common Schnapps, and house liquors. By far, the most ideal speed rails will be double wells. That is, they have two rows that can house up to 20 or so bottles. In those cases – depending on your bar’s clientele – you’ll want to keep things like Jack Daniels, Dewars, Black Label, Jameson, Grey Goose, Belvedere, Titos, Seagrams 7, popular puckers, etc. Again, this will vary by location.

Few things are more annoying, or more time/money consuming than to have to traverse 40 feet of bar space and 3 other busy bartenders to grab a dash the bar’s single bottle of Angustura Bitters or Cinzano Bianco. 

  • Garbage: This is probably the most overlooked design aspect I’ve experienced. It’s usually an afterthought which again, contributes to inefficiencies  excessive filth on the floors, and potentially – violations. Every station – including Service Bar – must have dedicated garbage (rubbish for you Europeans) bins. And for God’s sake, don’t try to kill your staffs’ backs by throwing 55-gallon behemoths back there. Those monstrous contraptions take up far too much real estate. More importantly, they sometimes require a 2 to 3 man team to drag out and bench-press into the dumpster when they’re filled to the brim with wet slop. 20 to 25 gallon narrow garbage bins work best behind the bar.
  • Glassware Storage: Each bartender should have extremely easy access to glassware. A stash of Pints, Rocks, and Highballs (the most commonly used glasses) should be stacked and maintained somewhere by the front bar for the utmost in efficiency. A large store of backup and other glasses should be within an arms-length on back-bar shelving. Ideally, an investment in a glass chiller (cocktail glasses and pints) should be considered. Frosty pints and ice-cold Martinis are a big crown pleaser – I assure you. An array of these seemingly insignificant details are what separate a mediocre bar (and mediocre revenue) from a stellar bar with repeat business and monumental income. 

All About Sinks

Here’s an area that many bars could use a lesson on. At minimum, you’ll want three types of sinks behind your bar.

  1. By NYC code, you must have a dedicated hand washing sink at every bar, stocked with hand soap as well as towels.
  2. Additionally, you’re going to want a “slop sink.” That is, a sink provisioned with a large strainer of some sort in which to dump drinks residue, used ice, straws, napkins, etc. prior to washing. This is far too often overlooked. Bartenders/Barbacks will then be left with little choice but to dump that same slop directly into trash receptacles. You cannot use the hand-washing sink as a slop sink or you’ll get dinged by the Health Department. This is a very common violation.
  3. Lastly, you’ll want a set of glass-washing sinks. This usually consists of one wash sink, and two rinsing sinks. If your bar opts for a behind-the-bar dishwasher, or better yet, glass racks and dedicated kitchen glassware washing, you can skip these. I’d recommend installing them anyway because that commercial dishwasher in the kitchen has an uncanny habit of breaking down on Saturday nights at 11pm. It’s always a good idea to have a Plan B.

The best bars, typically designed with extensive ex-bartender/consultant input, will fork over the initial extra cash for foot-operated hot and cold water controls. I can’t begin to describe to you the utter luxury and significantly increased efficiency this nifty feature brings to the party. No longer do you have to bend down and waste time searching knobs to turn your water on/off while you’re engaging customers. Step on, step off. Wash hands, containers and you’re done! I can’t stress enough what a great time-saving feature this is. Time is money. Unfortunately, foot controls are rarely found.

Beer Taps

So you want to rock draft beer? Who doesn’t? Aside from bottle service, draft beer is typically translates into the highest profit margins for any bar (300 – 500% profit) when implemented correctly. In other words, when your inexperienced bar staff isn’t pouring pitchers of foam down the drain or serving pints without head. Excessive foaming is usually caused by (1) warm beer coolers (2) un-insulated lines (3) excessively long beer runs (4) dirty, un-maintained lines and (5) improper pour technique.

  • Tap Placement:  Far too many bars place their gargantuan beer taps directly in customer’s  line-of-sight. It makes for awkward conversation with the bartender. It also makes it difficult for bartenders to properly service guests. Any such mechanical disadvantage or any process your bar employs which detracts from proper and speedy service will suck money directly out of you and your employees’ pockets. In my not so humble opinion, it’s best to provision all of your beer taps below eye level. If they’re required to be placed on the bar itself, they should be mounted at such a height where the handles and brands can still be seen but not so high as to interfere with guest-to-bartender conversation and service. If room and budget permits, back-bar beer taps are a wonderful idea.
  • Handles: Also frequently overlooked, is the forethought to decide which tap beers will be sold. Why is this important? One reason is that branded handles come in all shapes and sizes. Often, handles simply don’t fit next to each other or cause neighboring beers to spill open unintentionally. That’s money literally down the drain. Blue Moon and Goose Island IPA are notoriously problematic.
  • Drainage: All beer taps should have adequate drainage directly beneath them. The drains should be directed to drain pipes, not to the floor, buckets, ice bins, or anything else. Drains should be cleaned regularly. This is a common oversight.
  • Beer Walk-Ins: These are large “walk-in” refrierators. Far too often, their physical location is an afterthought. Ideally, they should be as close to the bar as possible. The shorter the lines are, the less likely the beer is to foam due to – previously mentioned – temperature variations. Furthermore, the easier the beer lines will be to keep clean. Lastly, the quicker barbacks/bartenders can change a keg, the more time they have to sell. Simple, no? Yet, countless owners routinely design bars with walk-ins literally hundreds of feet away or even on different floors (usually cellars). Yikes. Admittedly  there are sometimes few options due to physical constraints. In those cases, I’d probably look for an more suitable location for my bar from the get-go.

NOTE: Numerous bar owners neglect beer tap management. That is, they fail to have a company contracted to routinely clean the lines and taps. This leads to skunky-tasting beer, bacteria-infested taps, and general filth. Unfortunately, filth is systematic. Bad habits stem from the top. Poor upbringing and ingrained bad habits are extremely difficult to be “un-learned” once you’ve reached adulthood. If you’re one of these owners, hire and invest in O.C.D. type management or consultants who are life-long Neat Freak Anonymous charter members.

Glass Management - Washing

I’ll state this first and in bold: You do not want your bartenders stuck washing glassware. This is especially true of a traditional three-sink, manual washing operation. If they’re washing and restocking glasses, they’re not engaging customers and generating revenue. The busier the bar is, the more of an income drain this issue becomes. In old-school pubs, this setup was/is pretty much the norm. If there are no other options, you’ll want you barback doing the heavy lifting.

The most efficient bars will have slop-sinks and glassracks readily accessible, and high-speed, commercial dishwashers either behind the bar or in the kitchen’s dishroom to process them. Again, you’re going to want to assign the primary responsibility of sending full racks through the machines, as well as re-stocking glasses, to your barback. The more you can have your bartenders focus on guests, alleviating them of support tasks, the more revenue you’ll generate.

Bar Tops

This is one area where folks like to get all kinds of creative. I’ve witnessed bar tops designed of various stones (including Slate), copper, stainless steel, brass, tile and of course, traditional wood.

The problem with just about everything other than wood, is that there is little “give.” This is particularly true of stones. I’d avoid them at all costs. It may be pretty but it becomes in incredibly easy to break glasses. It happens routinely.

Copper and brass require extensive routine maintenance – not fun.

If you’re going to go the traditional wood route, which I recommend, it behooves you to (1) use a dense solid wood such as Oak, Maple, Mahogany, Ash, etc. Softwoods and plywood, no matter how well sealed and finished, will simply not endure as much physical abuse and humidity for nearly as long.  Don’t be short-sighted.

Troughs

What the hell is a trough? It’s that 4 or 5 inch shallow well on the bartenders side of the bar… the area where you generally see branded rubber barmats. Incidentally, don’t ever ask or drink a “Barmat Shot.”

The purpose of a trough is to catch and properly drain spills. Without it, you have liquids draining all over the place – into areas where you really don’t want them to go. Furthermore, the trough is the bartender’s space – a prep area. As a customer, please don’t stick crumpled napkins, empty gum/cigarette boxes, empty glasses and such in there. It’s not helpful.

Your trough should be designed in such a way to allow for proper drainage - not for drainage over an ice bin, supply area, etc. This is a common problem. Drainage is often not considered at all or improperly implemented, creating a significant health hazard.

Soda Stations

Given the choice, you want to delegate the task of filling soda and water to your waitstaff at the Service Bar. I reiterate, any task which detracts from your bartenders main objective – customer engagement – is a money-losing proposition. Why in the hell would you not have an ice bin, water spigot and soda gun available for your waitstaff to take advantage of? It’s kind of glaringly illogical not to. Yet, this problem is far too common.

Service Bar

For those not in the know, the Service Bar is an area of the bar dedicated to preparing drinks for diners or cocktail tables. Aside from casinos and massive clubs, most Services Bars consist of a small area of the main bar – typically one end of the bar or the other.

Frequently, restaurant bars neglect to give the Service Bar any thought at all until construction is completed. This tends to  make for strangely awkward drink preparation.

Service Bars should be clearly sectioned off. Most often, this is accomplished by the installation of a brass rail/divider or two, a dedicated rubber bar mat area, condiment tray, and soda gun. Service Bar stations have the same requirements noted above as any other bartender station. Quite often, the volume of drinks flowing through the Service Bar is substantially higher than the cash bar. Therefore, it’s critically important to get the design elements correct, minimizing the need for the bartender to wander far from the area.

More than one bar I’ve worked at has failed catastrophically with the simplest task of placement. Those establishments chose to place their Service Bars somewhere near the middle of the cash bar. Not only does this create terrible distractions amongst customers, but in relatively narrow bars, it’s incredibly difficult for servers simply to navigate the crowd to get their drinks when the bar is packed.

This list is obviously just the tip of the iceberg in terms of bar design. Hundreds of pages of  books could be filled on the topic. I didn’t even mention obvious – important – issues such as space management, traffic flow, music, aesthetics, seating, etc. I couldn’t possibly detail every one of those issues in a single post. Well, this is just the beginning.  Stay tuned.

 

 

 

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