Opening a bar in NYC can be quite a struggle. From pubs to dive bars to cocktail dens and more, New York City is filled with plenty of watering holes, all competing for a piece of the same pie. So what is the best place to start when thinking about how to start a bar in NYC? Learning from other restaurateurs and bar owners who have already gone through the process.
One person who knows this process inside out is Claire Chan, the owner and operator of Bar Beau, a hidden cocktail bar and kitchen located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She also operates a small specialty coffee shop chain called The Elk, which has three locations in downtown Manhattan.
However, Claire didn’t always imagine herself opening a bar. She came to New York City from Vancouver, British Columbia, to find a job in fashion and retail. Without seeing a future in that industry, she turned to hospitality restaurants since it had always piqued her interest, even from a young age. “I remember being a toddler and my parents bringing me to hotels and being so blown away by the little things, like we’d come back to the room and our bed was turned down, the lights were on, and there was a little note and mints on the pillow,” Claire says.
Starting a small coffee shop was a choice that felt digestible to Claire. She learned how to own and manage an operation, and four years later started Bar Beau in the same location as her first coffee shop. Bar Beau was a new concept for Claire: A cocktail bar and kitchen that serves delicious drinks and meals infused with Asian flavors. Claire wanted to offer her guests a relaxed and friendly dining experience similar to a gastro pub or a neo-bistro style.
Throughout her entrepreneurial journey, Claire has accumulated a lot amount of first-hand experience on how to open a bar in NYC, which she shared with host Justin Warner on episode 15 of the RestoTalk Podcast, including how to:
- Find a location for opening a bar in NYC
- Build a strong restaurant community for your bar
- Create a profitable bar business you can be proud of
Find a Location for Opening a Bar in NYC
So how do you choose a location for opening a bar in a city like New York? There are many considerations to keep in mind for picking a bar location, like understanding the area’s demographics, who your competitors will be, and how your bar’s concept will stand out.
Based on her experience, here are Claire’s tips for how to find the right location for opening a bar in NYC:
Choose a Neighborhood that Energizes You
Starting a bar comes with many questions, like who do you want coming through the front door on a day-to-day basis? For Claire, her top priority was finding a young demographic who is interested in trying new things – that’s how she landed on Williamsburg, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Brooklyn.
“Williamsburg is an interesting place with a lot of young people with high standards and high tastes. It’s home to some of the top talent in New York City in terms of people trying new things, innovating, testing, and then there’s certainly a captive audience to go along with that,” Claire explains.
In addition to finding the right demographic, Claire also wanted to find a location that made her feel inspired. By finding inspiration in her daily work life, she knew she would feel accepted, engaged and confident enough to innovate and successfully run her business.
“New York is just so full of acceptance, opportunity, and different personalities,” Claire reflects. “Every time I leave the city and come back, I’m always struck by how much I love the city and how inspired I feel when I’m here.”
Claire’s special connection with Williamsburg shows just how important it is to find the right location for your bar. Just like Claire, consider taking into account factors like finding the right demographic groups and determining which of New York City’s boroughs will inspire you to run your business long-term.
Define Your Bar Concept
As you are choosing a location for your venue, you should also be thinking about how you will define your bar concept. To achieve business success, it’s essential to define a bar concept that is different from your competitors.
To leave the most room for opportunity, Claire chose to start with a space that was plain and simple. She figured that by starting with a blank slate, she would have more room to make her bar concept unique.
“Before we came in there, it was actually a woodworking shop which was exciting because we could just apply our image and our opportunities were endless with such a raw space,” Claire explains.
To give her bar a pop that would give her a competitive edge, she decided to infuse her bar design with hints of the Pacific Northwest. This would create a bar atmosphere connected to the natural elements, a concept that is important to Claire, who grew up surrounded by nature in British Columbia.
“We tried to infuse some of that coastline color palette into the design as well as some of the shapes of the ocean,” Claire explains. “We incorporated a lot of colorways, like how the B.C. coastline has this stripped colorway of almost an off-green from the moss, the grays, and the dark woods.”
Just like Claire made her bar concept stand out from her competition, consider how you can do the same for your own restaurant or bar. To find inspiration, start by thinking about how you want your guests to experience your venue during their visit, from your design layout to the music you will play.
Build a Strong Community for Your Bar
According to Claire, another major step in the process of starting a bar is to build a strong community that will support your business long-term. In part, this means creating a space and atmosphere that helps your guests connect with others.
“Restaurants are so vibrant and that’s the one thing we have in common, as people, is that we all like to dine and we have to eat. Claire explains. “That shared experience really does bring people together.”
From big group gatherings to holiday meals, there are many parties celebrated at Bar Beau that are great for business too. At the same time, Claire wants to be doing even more to harness her power of being a restaurateur.
“If we have some sort of influence in our small community, then let’s use it for something that’s going to help,” she explains. “I’d like to use my time and energy, and the restaurant’s energy for doing something that’s really good for the world.”
As Claire’s own experience demonstrates, turning your restaurant or bar into a gathering space is not just good for business, but it can also be good for the larger community. In your own restaurant or bar, think about different ways you can invite the community in and create a welcoming space. Thankfully, there are countless ways to build a restaurant community around your bar – from hosting events to becoming a neighborhood advocate.
Create a Profitable Bar Business You Can Be Proud Of
After you figure out how to open a bar in NYC, it’s important to understand how you will make your venue profitable. After all, the only way to keep your business going in an expensive city like New York is to generate a healthy profit each and every month.
Here are two steps Claire took to create a profitable bar business that she’s proud of:
Hire Talent Who Understand Your Business Vision
When opening a bar, finding and hiring the right staff can be the difference between success and business failure. Especially in the hospitality industry, having a team that can identify new and creative ways to grow your bar and satisfy guests is vital to your success – something that Claire knows well.
In 2018, Claire hired Gemma, a native New Yorker from the borough of Queens, to be the head chef of Bar Beau. Since Gemma already had a lot of exposure to Asian cuisine growing up, Claire knew she would be the perfect fit to help improve the bar’s food service.
“She really does set the tone for a lot of the food direction,” Claire says. “But it really is a conversation between me, her, and our general manager. Just constant fluidity with what we’re seeing people react to, but also what we want to represent and what people want.”
To constantly improve the bar’s service offering, her team discusses questions together like, “What will they want in the future?”, “What’s working for us?”, and “How do we reduce waste?”
There’s no question that open communication with the right team members can be essential to business growth. This includes talking about new ideas, opportunities, wins, and challenges, to constantly uncover new ways to overcome roadblocks and improve your business.
Share Your Success Through Marketing and PR
Lastly, sharing your successes publicly can help your bar build more connections, improve your brand’s trust and credibility, and help both guests and restaurant investors see you in a new light. For example, avenues like marketing and PR help to generate visibility for restaurants and bars in newspapers, magazines, social media posts, press releases, and other outlets.
For Claire, putting herself out there was something she had to learn over time. It was something she wasn’t initially comfortable with when starting The Elk at just 28 years old. As time passed, she found the strength to become proud of what she created and Bar Beau was even featured in Vogue as a “Hotspot You Need to Visit.”
“Vogue, like come on. That’s just the cream of the crop in the fashion world, and I think even beyond the fashion world.” Claire recalls. “For me, it’s an incredible honor. I guess it’s an acknowledgment of what we’re doing and that what we’re doing is on the right track and it feels good. It feels really good.”
Whether it’s Vogue, Eater, or even the local newspaper, the right PR can really make a difference when it comes to standing out from competitors. If you’ve found success starting a bar of your own, it may be time to consider sharing your story in the media to build trust and loyalty with a larger audience that goes beyond your existing customers.
In addition to these three tips for how to start a bar, Claire also points out one of the biggest restaurant mistakes to avoid: Not following your calling and exploring the ideas you have.
“Creating something in hospitality is definitely not easy. There are risks involved,” Claire tells other restaurateurs. “But if you’re feeling some sort of calling towards it, then you’ve got to follow it because you never know where it’s going to take you.”
To successfully open a bar in NYC, Claire suggests finding the right support, asking questions, and doing research when you need to. But most of all, follow your inspiration!