Behind the Bar Bar Talk

How to Run a 4AM Bar

David Halpern of Estelle’s, The Owl and Remedy in Chicago

While most bars in Chicago close at 2 or 3 a.m., depending on the night, a few keep the drinks flowing until 4 a.m.—and 5 a.m. on Saturdays. Those extra rotations of the clock come with a unique set of challenges, from dealing with inebriated crowds to fighting stereotypes often associated with these bars as last-resort dens of ill repute.

David Halpern, the managing partner at Four Entertainment Group, has been navigating Chicago’s late-night scene for the past 20 years, since opening Estelle’s in the city’s Wicker Park neighborhood. Recently, he has helped open two additional 4 a.m. spots in Chicago’s Logan Square, The Owl and Remedy, bringing the group’s total number to three of the approximately 150 late-hour bars currently operating in the city. This is what he had to say about the do’s and don’ts of staying open until the sun comes up.

Estelle’s. Ryan Gac

What separates a late-night bar from a regular 2 a.m. bar?

It’s important to differentiate late-night bars from late-night venues. Our places are all about the bar. We want people to come for the bar itself, not for any particular entertainment other than our jukebox and staff. A lot of late-night spots have more gimmicks, like karaoke, or they’re more D.J. and promoter-driven, so they have a club feel. Ours are neighborhood bars that just happen to be open for two more hours.

What’s your secret to running a successful 4 a.m. bar?

Like any other bar, you have to have a great staff, a good-looking room and great music. But you also have to be smart. It does nobody any good—your customers, your staff—to let someone in who has obviously been overserved already. Most problems can be prevented at the door. If you’re a late-night place and you’re just letting everyone in because that’s what you think you’re supposed to do, or you’re trying to make as much money as you can in a short amount of time, you’re kind of shooting yourself in the foot. You’re not providing a great environment for people that are coming in. Again, it’s not just a bunch of drunks coming in. A lot of times, it’s someone’s first drink of the night, whether they’re industry or third-shift people. So it’s not just the doors open at 2 a.m. and the drunks fall in the door.

Bonds & Roots at Estelle’s. Ryan Gac

How do you spot trouble?

I’d say one of the biggest secrets is to make sure you have your security staff stationed outside. So many things can be caught as people are walking up to the establishment—somebody hootin’ and hollerin’, throwing up in the alley, pissing on the sidewalk. Again, it’s important to differentiate whether they’re coming from a 2 a.m. bar. A lot of people like to blame the 4 a.m. bars for all the problems, but if anything, 4 a.m. bars are a little more stringent about who they let in. We know we’re the target. A great bar staff has been there and done that. They can recognize problems before they occur.

What are some misconceptions of the late-night bar?

The biggest misconception is that people think everybody shows up at 2 a.m. and it’s the drunkest of the drunk in the city. If you’re a good 4 a.m. neighborhood bar, you have people there all the time. You’re what I call an anytime bar. You just happen to stay open two hours later. That’s what we strive to be.

Estelle’s. Ryan Gac

How has running an after-hours bar changed over the last 20 years?

When Estelle’s first opened, we were definitely the late-night spot go-to, especially within the industry. Through the years, with more competition, you sort of adjust your business model. We’ve always served food, but at some point, we saw getting people in early as an asset. We strove to be open and busy from 5 p.m. until 4 a.m., instead of opening at 7.

What’s your advice for anyone looking to open a 4 a.m. bar?

Understand that you have a lot of hours you can be open, so get creative without compromising your identity. Don’t try to be everything to everybody, but ultimately also don’t pigeonhole yourself. You can be open for 10 hours, 12 hours a day, and you’re only open for five. It’s hard to be successful in a certain amount of square footage in a limited amount of time, so get creative and think of ways that you can draw people in all night long.