Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

7 Ways to Get Paid What You're Worth as a Bar Consultant

Valero Doval

There are a ton of options for bar professionals to expand their craft by launching their own consulting practice: brand work, recipe and product development, freelance writing, even developing entire bar programs.

One of the scariest and least-talked-about aspects of consulting work is negotiation. Based on my experience, as well as drawing on the expertise of a few consultants, I’ve put together seven rules that will help you get paid what you’re worth.

1. Understand Everything Is Negotiable

Sometimes a client will have a limited budget that they can’t go over. If you’re looking to protect your time and stand up for your worth, suggest limiting deliverables instead—reducing the number of recipes or hours spent on-site—so you can keep your rate the same but still work within the client’s budget.

Consider alternative forms of compensation, as well. Some work in exchange for a wide range of things like legal services, media exposure, access to a PR firm or even meals at the client’s restaurant. Equity is also a form of compensation. For instance, if you’re working on an opening, snagging a bit of ownership in exchange for up-front cash is a bit risky but can ultimately pay off.

2. Remember Longer Is Better

Many of the industry veterans I spoke with suggest that consultants try to work out longer-term contracts with their clients. Of course, there will always be one-and-done gigs, but if you can, you should work out a way to stay engaged—and paid—for as long as possible.

Menu development projects offer good potential for long-term work, structured with an up-front menu creation period, with regular check-ins and menu refreshes. Not only does this keep you working longer, it’s a great way to protect your legacy, giving you a higher degree of control over execution. Just be careful of retainer deals with vague deliverables and time boundaries. Speed Rack co-founder and consultant Lynnette Marrero says her first year with one client was “open season” and she had to renegotiate in order to get a more fair deal.

3. Don’t Work for Free!

It’s unfortunate that this needs to be said, but it does. Many younger folks just starting out are often told they should be grateful just to be in the room. This can be especially true for women and people of color, who, according to Ashtin Berry of RadicalxChange, are “told to be gracious for the fact that they’ve even been considered or welcomed into a space or position.”

This is nonsense. If you provide something that has value, you need to be compensated. Beware the dreaded request to “pick your brain.” If you’re providing useful information to a commercial endeavor, you need to be paid.

4. Talk About How Much You Make

Berry notes another problem facing women and people of color. “They don’t know they should be charging for certain services and were just doing it for free because they had no clue what their own peers make and were scared to ask,” she says. It’s considered taboo to talk about how much you’re paid, but a fair economy is based on equal access to information.

5. Don’t Forget Taxes

Tonia Guffey, a consultant and brand ambassador for Highland Park, offers this: “The biggest hit for me starting out was taxes. ... Negotiate the salary to account for that and immediately put aside that money once paid, because it’s not yours.” Many consultants get hit with huge tax bills every year. My rule of thumb is to put one-third of my consulting income into a high-yield savings account and pay quarterly estimated taxes. It may seem like a hassle, but it will save you a lot of panic come April 15.

You will incur a number of expenses for each project: ingredients, equipment, travel, etc. Factor those costs into your rate, and keep in mind how they’re taxed.

6. Write Your Own Contracts

Provide the client with your contract, rather than working from theirs. This way, you naturally have your interests taken care of, whereas your client may not. Remember, the contract is a part of the negotiation, and if you come to the table with a rock-solid document, you’ll be on better footing. Writing your own contract can be scary, but Google is your friend, and a lot of templates exist. Hiring a lawyer may be expensive up front, but you can reuse the contract again and again, and it will likely pay for itself after a few deals. Good contracts should include clear deliverables and payment terms, as well as termination language for when things don’t work out.

7. Just Ask!

It can be scary to ask a client for more money, but most smart clients will come to you with an offer knowing that you’ll have a counter offer. And if you have the opportunity to state your rate first, give a slightly higher number and know how far down from that you’re willing to go. You won’t offend your client by standing up for yourself and your worth; the chances of them walking away are very slim. Anne Robinson, a consultant and former colleague of mine at NYC’s PDT, put it this way: “Nobody is actually going to be mad at you for trying to get a large amount of money, so stop wondering what the person on the other end must think of you.” And if you have to decline a too-low offer, don’t be afraid to do it. Remember: It’s not personal.

Asking for more is a skill you must practice in order to get better at. Laura Goode, a writer and former NYC bartender who now teaches pitching at Stanford University, says it perfectly: “You stand more of a chance of being taken seriously as a professional by simply showing that you’re willing and able to negotiate for yourself. Negotiation is a form of skilled self-advocacy, and you’ll get better at it the more you do it, so do it.”