Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

This Is How You Recession-Proof a Bar

Chris and Anu Elford

Seattle-based Chris and Anu Elford know a thing or two about running bars. Chris has worked at New York bars Amor y Amargo and Proletariat; Anu is the longtime owner of Seattle craft cocktail haven Rob Roy. So when the two teamed up for No Anchor, a beer-focused restaurant opened September 2016, and Navy Strength, a Tiki bar slated to open in spring 2017, they had some specific, and some unusual, ideas about how to make sure the new bars would thrive, including weathering a potential economic downturn. Chris, a certified cicerone, shares his tips on how to “recession-proof” a bar.

1. Choose a Location That’s Well-Populated with Potential Customers

“Belltown, the neighborhood that we’re in and that Rob Roy is in, is the most densely populated neighborhood in Seattle. But it’s very underserved. It’s not exactly the cool neighborhood, although it has had its times in spotlight in the last 40 years. But there are a lot of people who live here, and we found a lot of places with cheap rent per square foot. We thought that even if we’re not killing it for some reason, or have a recession or something, there will be enough people around us for us to weather the storm.”

No Anchor.

2. If You Can, Design the Space to Maximize Efficiency and Minimize Labor Costs

“Opening a restaurant in an existing space and putting a facelift on it is a much cheaper way of doing it initially. But for our purposes, we wanted to design things from scratch because we wanted to have a very efficient place. We wanted to have an efficient place, because there’s very steeply rising labor costs in Seattle and in many cities around the country. That’s something we’re excited about. We want people to be making more money. We’re not opposed to the labor costs rising, but it’s the responsibility of any business owner to look around, take stock and say, ‘Wait a minute. How’s our business going to survive then? How are we going to retool?’

“In both bars, we put in cocktail stations designed by Tobin Ellis, a Las Vegas bar consultant. It’s a modular stainless steel cocktail cockpit, basically, that a bartender can stand in. He squeezes in all of the elements of a cocktail bar well into a smaller footprint and maximizes all of the space. While they’re expensive, once you get them in there, it makes your time more efficient. So instead of doing three wells, we did two, which means we have two bartenders instead of three. Ideally, our bartenders make more money and the drink-making is more efficient that way.”

Rob Roy.

3. Batched Cocktails Can Save Time and Effort

“We designed these spaces as efficiently as possible, meaning you don’t need a lot of people on hand to run the room. At No Anchor, which is the beer bar, we batch all cocktails and either carbonate them and serve them in a bottle or we serve them on draft. The idea is that everything is the same speed as pouring a beer. So we can have one person or two people working a shift, and they can have a 10-top walk in, and that doesn’t take up 20 minutes of their time. It takes up five minutes of their time—taking the order, grabbing everything and coming back to the table. That means we need less people on the floor, and that saves us labor.

“Batching ingredients also reduces what we refer to as pickups. A Tiki drink might be a 10-bottle pickup—you have to pick up 10 bottles to make that drink. If you can put all of the shelf-stable things into one bottle, your bartender only has to pick up one bottle. That matters, because if you’re doing good volume, you can have one less person working if they’re picking up fewer drinks. It’s shaving off 30 seconds per drink at least. That’s one element that can save money for bars.”

Anu and Chris Elford’s Tomahawk Punch.

4. “Move Hands, Not Feet”

“We are also utilizing overhead space, which a lot of bars don’t do and I don’t really understand it. If you look at photos of old dive bars, they had old cabinets or glassware hanging over the bartender’s head that they could grab and utilize. So at No Anchor, our beer glassware is stemware, and it hangs right above the bartender. So while they’re in a conversation, they can reach up, grab a glass and start pouring the beer, instead of walking to another part of the bar where there’s room for glassware and walk back and start pouring the beer. There’s a phrase that I love, and I don’t remember where I got this from: “Move hands, not feet.” It’s always faster to move your hands than your feet.

“So at Navy Strength, in addition to these really efficient cocktail stations, we built these boxes that hang over the top of the bartender. They are basically full of glassware and bottles that normally you’d have to walk to the back bar to get. Instead, you just reach above you and it’s there. From a guest’s perspective, it feels like you’re in a little canopy, a more intimate space, a less wide-open space. And it gives our bartenders more time to interact with people, which is the part of bartending I always love.”

No Anchor.

5. Opt for Long Leases

“When you’re at the point when you’re looking for a space to open a place, you get really excited. It’s like looking for a new home. But you really need to be able to decide on a budget and look for deals, because that’s going to affect your bottom line for a long time. We got a 10-year lease with two five-year options. If everything goes well, we have the ability to have these bars open for 20 years. That gives us an opportunity to make our money back and hopefully make a profit over the course of that time. And because we found a place with low rent, it won’t skyrocket over that time. It will steadily increase, but we won’t be getting killed. If there’s a recession, we want to be paying the least amount of overhead.”

6. Know There’s No Cheaper Labor Than Yourself

“This should go without saying, but it’s something no one seems to say: I think people should design places they want to work in. If you’re a bartender or a chef opening a place or a bar manager, you should design yourself into the plans of the daily operation of the place. The reason you need to do that is if things sales do take a downturn or you have a slow month, which all bars do when they first open, there’s no cheaper labor than yourself to get in there. There are so many places where I’ve seen bars or restaurants close or I go into a place and I’m eating or drinking there and I hear the place isn’t doing well, and I look around and think, Where’s the owner? Why are all these people working here right now? One of these people shouldn’t be here. It should be the owner. That could be the difference between surviving or not surviving.”