For many bartenders, making the transition from behind-the-stick to bar owner is a dream that seems, if daunting, still largely within reach. Opening multiple bars and on two coasts? Now that’s a different story.
“Transitioning to management, and eventually ownership of multiple venues, was a big identity crisis for me,” says Alex Day of Proprietors LLC, who co-owns a fleet of bars in New York and Los Angeles including The Walker Inn, The Normandie Club, Honeycut, 151, Nitecap and, of course, Death & Co. “While operating multiple venues is an exciting idea, especially to those masochists among us who see management as a good thing and not a way to work more for less money, there are plenty of reasons why it can be a challenge.”
Day outlines the perks and drawbacks that anyone should consider before shifting into management or taking the plunge into the multivenue bar game.
1. You’re not on the front lines anymore (mostly).
“As someone who started as a bartender, the transition wasn’t easy. You spend so much of your career learning a craft—one that interfaces so much with guests and, ultimately, is about taking care of people. Stepping further and further away from the bar meant setting aside the very things that defined my success and were inseparable from my passion for the industry. Taking that step requires a refocus and an acceptance that your role is no longer usually on the front lines of hospitality but there to support those who are.”
2. Understand the “hidden machine.”
“I aspire to be a good operator, but I fail constantly. Those who do it well are masters of systems and disciplined in their dedication to a big picture. They understand that the hidden machine of restaurants and bars—the stuff that no guest ever sees—is hugely important to making everything run smoothly. You never notice when it works well but always when it doesn’t. This can often feel thankless as an operator, but it’s just part of it. You have to develop a passion for that machine and for constantly wanting it to be better. That’s what I aspire to every day. The struggle is real.”
3. Multiple venues mean more opportunity for creativity.
“It’s not all sour grapes, I promise! The most gratifying moments in my career have been the chance to express the things I love—great food and drink—in many different forms. There’s nothing more fulfilling than seeing an idea come to life in physical form, be it a bar or anything else. Similarly, there’s nothing better than walking into an establishment that’s been in your head for years, then open for only a short while, and seeing guests having a great time. That makes every little moment of struggle worth it.”
This doesn't really explain how he runs multiple bars. I bartend in Minneapolis and have worked under Toby Maloney at the original Bradstreet in the graves hotel while he was managing the Violet Hour in Chicago, and the Patterson House in Tennessee. He was very adiment about seasonality, freshness of juice, technique, etc. He made sure to do quarterly training and continues to expand his involvement with Pouring Ribbons in NY.
Here in Minneapolis I now bar manage under Jesse Held, one of the hardest working bar men in the industry. He is the man behind Parlour, Borough, Monello, and Constantine in Minneapolis. He makes a point to educate his staff weekly, develop new cocktails, and support his staff.
Managing bars across country would definitely have its challenges and it would be awesome to hear more about how Alex handles the travel and who he has working on the front line of those bars. When, and if, they all meet. And how he stays relevant in an ever changing world of cocktails.