Behind the Bar Bar Talk

Derek Brown’s Essential Tips for Opening Your Own Bar

Derek Brown wants you to think—no, really think—about why you want to make the leap from bartender to bar owner.

“My first word of dig deep: Why do you want a bar? Is it for money? Fame? A place to party? Or is it because you want to work endless hours and replace the bar back on Tuesday when he calls out 10 minutes before his shift begins? You really have to check your gut here.”

The celebrated co-owner of numerous Washington, D.C. bars, including Mockingbird Hill, Southern Efficiency and Eat the Rich, Brown understands firsthand that being a bar owner is more about grit than glamour.

“If your reason is because you love the idea of creating your own nook in the world and no hassle is too much then—ding, ding, ding—you have the right idea. Money, fame and parties aren’t forthcoming. But skipping your own pay and hearing someone complain about their meager $300 shift behind the bar is.”

Reality-check aside, Brown has four tips that will help lay a successful foundation for any aspiring—or fledgling—bar owner.

1. Build a strong team.

“Make sure you enjoy the company of your core team and that they believe in your vision. You will have to work through some pretty stressful issues and that requires both resilience and a little humor. My team is goddamn tight. I would go to war with them—but then we have also been at war among ourselves. What healed us is our vision and common goals. That, and we truly care about each other.”

2. Find the financial middle ground.

“Familiarize yourself with all costs associated with opening. Then raise more. Once you open, having unpaid bills can be a drag on your daily operating expenses. But don’t raise too much. You have to pay it back, after all. It’s tough to establish a specific metric. Try to create a financial model. It won’t be 100-percent accurate, but it can be informative.”

3. The bottom line doesn’t care about your fancy garnish.

“Being a good bartender has nothing to do with being a good entrepreneur. It doesn’t mean it won’t help, and I suppose you could abstract a few qualities that they tangentially have in common. But I’m talking specifics: You need to learn accounting, finance, marketing, employment law and more. You need a crash course in being an MBA or—in my case—work with two of them.”

4. The buck stops with you.

“When your bar back accidentally cuts open his leg with a broken bottle jutting out from a trash bag he was swinging into the dumpster, you better damn well have some first aid nearby. And know your claim information. That you make a great Sazerac, or have a super-neato shake won’t help a potentially life-threatening wound. Take this part seriously: You’re responsible for every soul on the ship.”