The formula for opening a successful and renowned cocktail bar in current times is more complicated than ever before. Back in the early aughts, when there weren’t much more than a handful of bars mixing proper cocktails, opening your doors with a creative drinks list and some talented bartenders was good enough to get both locals and tourists through the door and more than likely gather national and international recognition along the way.
That’s not the case anymore, and hasn’t been for years. With noteworthy cocktail bars no longer relegated to major cities like New York and London but also plentiful in much smaller cities and towns, bars that aspire to win awards or gain a spot on some of the bar industry’s most elite lists have a lot of work in front of them. Which, of course, is not to say that bars on these prestigious lists are necessarily any better than lesser-known bars that strive merely to be successful businesses and pay their employees fairly. But if one of your bar’s goals is to make a name for itself via those lists and awards, bar-industry experts offer their tips for achieving that type of success.
1. Establish Your Bar’s Goals and Develop a Strategy for Achieving Them
You can’t achieve your goals if you don’t set any. Just because you’ve opened your doors with a concept that you feel is interesting doesn’t entitle you to any media coverage or recognition within the industry. If you’ve always wanted to be featured in a specific newspaper or magazine, or be on a “best of” list, develop a strategy for reaching those achievements. If you don’t, then it’s less likely that your bar will break through the noise. Just as your bar should set financial goals for its business and growth benchmarks for employees, the same notion applies for media and awards goals as well.
That said, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. If your bar’s aim is to be featured in magazines, then consider inviting editors and journalists from relevant publications to experience your establishment in its early days or for a preview. If instead you’re just looking to build local buzz, perhaps influencer marketing is the way to go, often achievable by offering some drinks at your bar to individuals with significant social media followings in exchange for posts about your bar.
While these strategies do require a minor expense on the bar’s behalf, the awareness built and potential new business acquired makes it a relatively small price to pay.
Danil Nevsky, the founder of Indie Bartender who goes by @cocktailman on his educational bar industry-focused Instagram page, believes that media and award ambitions should be divided into local, national, and international levels. Each requires a different strategy, and one is likely to suit your bar better than the others.
If your aim is for local success and recognition, the formula is relatively simple and achievable. “Bars are inherently part of the local community, not only from a brick-and-mortar perspective, but rather from a social perspective,” says Nevsky. “As a result, the homegrown talent it nurtures naturally forms a relationship with the community and becomes an integral part of it. As your bar succeeds, the community inherently supports your wins, which builds local buzz, which is great for both business and press.”
If your bar offers guests exciting ways to interact with your business, whether it be via special branded events for the community, happy hours and other programming, or even just through your bar’s standard service, you’re likely to build a loyal following who will serve as a solid foundation for growth and prosperity.
“To garner national buzz, you generally need a recognized bartender with enough press and mainstream consumer clout to come on board,” says Nevsky. “This talent will always draw people to the establishment to ’see the new show pony’ and test the waters. The trick here is to help the new name integrate within the team and within the new business and community comfortably, so it doesn’t create a negative effect of ‘arrogant big shot moves in and community rejects them.’” The strategy for garnering international recognition is similar, Nevsky says, but points out that more money and experience is required.
To differentiate your bar from others, no matter the level of success you seek, Nevsky recommends considering what he calls the “ABCD” branding model when developing your media and awards strategy. He breaks it down as follows:
A | Appearance: What does the bar look like, and does it match the concept, location, and name?
B | Behavior: How do the people working at the bar behave, and what are the politics and policies of the venue? Meaning, what type of environment is the bar staff creating? Is it serious versus playful?
C | Competencies: What does this bar do best? What are its greatest strengths? This usually becomes its unique selling proposition.
D | Differentiation: How does this concept set itself apart from similar bars? Is it via talent, cocktails, and/or location?
As an example, using the well-known NYC bar The Dead Rabbit’s business concept, Nevsky suggests possible answers to the above questions:
A | Very beautiful and modern Irish Pub with cocktail trappings
B | Irish “craic” coupled with American service excellence
C | Guinness and Irish coffee “best in the world”
D | If cocktail bartenders’ attention to detail was applied in a classic Irish pub
2. Consider Hiring a PR Agency
It’s hard work to constantly create compelling social-media content for your bar’s social channels. It’s equally difficult to build a network filled with media contacts and noteworthy industry peers. These are just two of the ways in which a specialized PR agency can help your bar.
“While specialization and outsourcing aren’t the answer to everything, hiring a social-media-savvy PR agency is the quickest and most effective way to get on the media map,” says award-winning bartender and author Jim Meehan, formerly of PDT and now the bar manager at Takibi in Portland, Oregon. “But you’ve got to make time to provide them with assets, be available for queries, and back up the hype with operational execution.”
For renowned cocktail bars like Two Schmucks in Barcelona that receive a significant amount of media attention for their work, whether it be new-menu releases, one-off events, or guest-bartending appearances in other countries, PR has been an instrumental aspect of the bar’s success.
“We’ve gotten a lot of help from our PR agency, LXPR, over the last year,” says Moe Aljaff, owner of the Schmuck or Die Group, which includes Two Schmucks, Fat Schmuck and Lucky Schmuck. “It’s helped us evolve our business by tightening up our messaging and spreading the word about what we do to even more people in a targeted way that’s true to our brand.”
To meet the bar’s press goals, “They’ve secured several bigger features for us that have helped tell the story of our brand and how we’ve grown,” says Aljaff. “As a bar group that’s known for having a good time, it’s been great to have coverage that tells the story of our commercial growth and business plans, as that obviously supports our investment opportunities.”
Beyond that, though, says Aljaff, “They’ve also helped us budget, communicate, and present our proposals to brands for sponsorship opportunities, which helped us get the right amount of money to execute our ideas. Obviously, this approach is a lot better, and more professional, than having a couple of bartenders asking you for a ton of money to throw a party—i.e., a pop-up.”
Aljaff admits that when he first opened Two Schmucks back in 2017 with his business partner at the time, neither partner really understood the role of PR and marketing for a bar. Now, it’s become such an integral aspect of the Schmuck business that he believes it would be difficult to do without it.
“Don’t get me wrong: If you’re content with running your bar, taking care of your guests and your regulars, and doing what you do just a little bit better every day, that’s dope,” says Aljaff. “But if you’re looking for growth in your brand or bar business, then I believe a PR agency can be of great help. Now that we have three bars, it has helped us to focus more on creating a guest experience as opposed to managing the day-to-day while also figuring out how to spread what we are doing to the world.
“I would say, if you’ve worked your ass off building something absolutely incredible, don’t be shy about shouting to the world what that thing is,” Aljaff continues. “And if you or your company doesn’t have that reach, then a PR agency can definitely help.”
3. Recruit Top Talent or Grow Your Own
As Nevsky previously mentioned, talent is essential to a bar’s overall success. Many bars recruit a balance of experienced and inexperienced staff when opening. The former serves as the strong foundation for pushing the program forward, bringing credentials and buzz to the bar, while also being able to train the newbies. Meanwhile, the less-experienced bartenders offer your bar the opportunity to shape talent in the way you’d prefer, with your ways of working and hospitality style, hoping that one day they’ll become a well-respected ambassador for your bar.
“Hiring well-known bartenders whose recipes and relationships will drive interest from locals and the media is a huge opportunity, especially if your bar’s management embraces the values needed to leverage them,” says Meehan. “In some cases, the gifted individual is more influential than the organization they work for, so they have to make compromises to be part of a collective, and the organization needs to make concessions for them as well [if they’d like to reap the benefits of having an influential bartender]. Each side's willingness to hold each other accountable and work towards goals they set together with the whole staff’s visibility and sign-off paves the possibility of a fruitful partnership in the future.”
Alex Jump, the bar manager at Death & Co. Denver, shares a similar sentiment, believing there is value in raising your brand’s profile through noteworthy talent, but only if they’re a right fit for the team’s chemistry. “You can teach someone how to make a great cocktail,” she says. “What’s more important is being cognizant of your team’s culture when you’re looking to hire, and really taking the time to find the person that is the right fit. When it comes to bartenders who are well-established in the community, I think that’s a great thing to have on your team—but only if those team members are still positively engaging with their own bar team, and not just the bar community at large.”
If your bar isn’t located in a major city with a deep pool of bartenders who’ve worked at top bars, fostering talent will be key. For young bartenders looking to make a name for themselves on a national or regional scale, competitions and social media are a couple of great avenues for building their personal brands while simultaneously raising the stature of the bar as well.
“Definitely encourage your team and—if you have the means to do so—even support them financially to participate in competitions, conferences, and other community events,” Jump recommends. “A lot of bars these days also have PR and social media teams. Perhaps offer some classes and sessions on how to build their own personal brand, etc., as this can boost your bar’s profile while also helping your staff.”
4. Make an Effort to Network and Build Your Brand
“Networking isn’t a skill in this industry; it is this industry,” says Meehan. “As networking—or building relationships, as I call it—pertains to recognition for your bar, I’d say that all depends on the recognition you desire. I would rather be respected and admired by my employers and coworkers than anything else, while others would rather have the high estimation of other experts in the field, celebrities, social-media influencers, or brand ambassadors,” with the latter often leading to growth opportunities such as brand trips, media opportunities, and other content- or event-related happenings that build your bar’s brand. Ideally, however, a balance of both should be the goal.
Networking today can be done in many ways: in-person at bar conferences, brand events, through team bar crawls and trips to connect with other bar teams, and last but not least, via social media.
“Before the internet, TV, and radio, humans went to bars, saloons, or tea or coffee houses to socialize, share our ideas, meet to chat with friends, and basically do everything we do on the internet but in a physical location,” says Nevsky. “Fast-forward to the modern world of Instagram and TikTok, and I think it is important for bartenders to use the modern tools provided in order to do so. Times are changing, and careers are being forged on social media in the hospitality world, so you need to adapt or face the consequences.”
Nevsky, who has gathered an impressive 36,000 followers on Instagram in the year and a half that he’s been actively posting, has used his social platform to gain business opportunities with brands, consulting gigs, and more. As an independent bartender no longer associated with a specific bar, he demonstrates the potential of networking on social media.
Bars such as Two Schmucks, Satan’s Whiskers, and Drastic Measures utilize Instagram effectively by posting an array of engaging videos, images, and even quizzes (in Satan’s Whiskers’ case) to connect with dedicated followers and prospective guests. It’s a great way to reach not just people from within your local community but internationally as well.
“Most people check Instagram for a bar or restaurant to see if they like the way the food and drinks look, in addition to the decor and vibe,” says Nevsky. “Potential guests—who could be journalists, influencers, or fellow industry peers—always see the first nine pictures of your Instagram grid when they find you, so you have to make sure in those nine pictures you always establish and highlight exactly what you want the guest to see. At a bar, that’s the drinks, food that’s available, a wide shot of the venue, and images that showcase your team’s personality because that’s what sells. Then you can get creative after fulfilling the basic requirements.”
By balancing a sharp, clean, and engaging social-media presence with real-life connections within the industry, your bar will be primed for potential opportunities from brands, media, and beyond that help put your brand on the map. But be aware that it’s still far from simple.
“Building a good reputation takes a long time and occurs one relationship at a time, day by day, year over year,” says Meehan. “Relationships require maintenance and investment. There are no shortcuts or hacks to building a genuinely good reputation, so treat everyone you encounter with dignity.”