You might have imagined what it’s like to open your own bar. You might have even worked toward it at one point, but backed down when you realized how many buckets of blood, sweat and tears it’d require. Maybe you’re toying with the idea now and want to know what, exactly, you’re getting yourself into. Or perhaps you simply want to hear stories of success from your peers. Whatever the case, below are four tales from bar owners who endured the twists and turns of the bar opening process and lived to share their triumph.
Josh Mazza of NYC’s Seamstress
Josh Mazza opened Seamstress on NYC’s Upper East Side in 2015. Since then, they’ve established themselves as a trendy bar serving up classic American cocktails and more.
“I’ve been involved in hospitality since the age of 16 in various roles, so naturally, I always had my ideas,” says Mazza. “However, I first decided to open my own place when it became clear that my (at least immediate) future was in NYC, as I’d met the love of my life. That was around 2011.”
He says that based on his own industry experience, he knew that opening his own place would be a challenge. Still, he admits that nobody is ever fully prepared for the journey.
“Finding partners to believe in my vision was the first challenge and it wasn’t easy,” he says. “The first partnership I had fell apart and left me wondering if it was all worth it, but I believed in my vision, and once I found a partnership I knew was going to last, we got to work on Seamstress.”
Another difficulty: Learning how to navigate the pitfalls of small business ownership in NYC, specifically.
“It is not easy,” he says. “The real estate game is full of people who screw people over for a living, and they’re good at it. The regulatory bodies are like a pit of snakes. There’s 11 bodies to answer too. 11! I just wanted to run a bar. Trying to manage an audit and a bar at the same time is not something I want to do again soon.”
Despite the frustration, there’s a certain satisfaction in making it all come together. That all culminated for Mazza at Seamstress’ one-year-anniversary.
“That was probably the moment I knew we were doing it for real, and that it was going to work out,” he says. “Everything before that I always had a sense that it could all disappear at any moment.
As for wondering if he’d ever do it again, the answer is that he’s already in that process of doing so with Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s Belle Shoals.
He says, “These days I try to enjoy it. I know there will be successes and failures. I know that I’ll make mistakes, but I love the process of creating something. I love having the opportunity to share my vision with people and get them excited about it, then set about building it and seeing it come to life. I’ll always build bars, always. Wouldn’t know what else to do.”
H. Joseph Ehrmann of San Francisco’s Elixir
This “opening a bar” story is a little different from the others, as H. Joseph Ehrmann is the 11th proprietor of Elixir, a San Francisco neighborhood saloon that has been serving locals since 1858.
“In 2002, I had been working four jobs in a post-dot-com world,” says Ehrmann. “I had MBA debt and bartending was not only my most consistent money, but my most pleasurable work. I realized that I did not want to be in the tech world, nor the corporate world, and I decided to apply my MBA to the business I had been in since I was 16.”
He says he’d always thought about opening a bar or restaurant, but figured he’d do it when he was older and more settled. The reality of the job market, however, made him realize that the time was right to get into ownership, and so in January 2003, he wrote a plan, started a company, raised capital, and bought a bar.
“I had already worked in 18 different bars and restaurants before I opened my own, and I had seen every management and ownership style,” he explains. “I knew what the realities were. I was ready.”
Like anyone, though, it wasn’t completely smooth sailing for Ehrmann.
“I was too busy focusing on bringing money in and setting up systems to focus on my hiring and HR management. Then I finally realized that bad HR practices were giving me the biggest problems. Once I started paying more attention to who I was hiring and how I was managing them, life got easier,” he says. “Also, learning to outsource what I was not great at was worth every dollar, and it allowed me to focus on the strengths I bring to the table. You don’t have to do everything yourself and you shouldn’t do it all. Do what you do well, and let others do the same.”
Ehrmann says that one of the most difficult, but “worth it” moments that changed the game for him was when he fired most his staff, raised all his prices, and completely revamped the drink menu. It was a huge risk, but within six months, he says business turned around.
“[Opening a bar] is a lot of work, and you have to be excited to work that hard and that long, or you’re not going to do it well,” he says. “That kind of energy and enthusiasm is easier to execute when you don’t have a lot of other obligations, like kids and debt. If I had waited until I was older (as I originally planned), I might not have ever done it. And I don’t regret a thing.”
Josh Loving of Austin, Texas’ Small Victory Bar
“I started thinking a lot about opening a business of my own in probably 2006 or 2007, but I didn’t really get serious about opening a bar until about 2011,” says Josh Loving, co-owner of Small Victory Bar in Austin, Texas. Like many bar owners pursuing this dream, he was prepared, but still didn’t quite understand just how difficult the process would be at the time.
“There were problems and issues at every step — and throughout the entire process — that no one could have expected or predicted,” he says.
One of the primary hurdles was making sure they didn’t run out of money before opening the doors, which isn’t exactly easy to do when you continue to run into unexpected expenses. One notable, costly, example is having to demolition the bar’s concrete floor, then re-bar and re-lay it with cement. This proved particularly difficult considering the bar’s location, which was on the second story of a parking garage that’s leased by an adjacent hotel. Loving says the strict schedule for when the work could take place translated into “a very loud, dirty, messy, dusty job that would have taken about seven days total, but was dragged out over 16 weeks.”
Amidst the hurdles, though, are moments of relief and joy. For Loving, that’d be getting both their liquor license and Temporary Certificate of Occupancy on the same day, which just so happened to be the day before their first holiday party.
Loving says that if he were to do it all over again, he’d approach things differently the second time around.
Pete Cich of The Duck Dive, Miss B’s Coconut Club and Park 101.
“Opening a bar or restaurant is one of the most challenging goals I’ve ever set for myself, if not the most challenging,” says Pete Cich, a serial bar entrepreneur based in San Diego. He’s opened The Duck Dive and Miss B’s Coconut Club, and is currently in the process of opening a third bar, Park 101.
“The time invested was more like a wild and crazy chapter in a book with twists and turns, and ups and downs,” he says. “You name it and it happened. Staying the course wasn’t easy, but at one point you decide this is what you want to do for the rest of your life, and you make it happen.”
Cich says that he loves the life of being a bar owner, and gladly accepts the work that comes with it. And despite the frustrations that accompany opening your own place (or three), he wouldn’t trade any of it for a quicker path.
“It was worth every long night, and trust me, at times it felt like one big long night with no end in sight,” he says. “The key to our success was throwing our hands up after hours, or behind closed doors, and venting frustration, but never letting that frustrations dictate our path.”
His advice for anyone opening their own place is to stay on track and work toward your goal for as long as it takes, even when it gets really difficult — and not to take things too personally, which can be easy to do in a “chew them up, spit them out” industry.
“Consistency is key in achieving the goal of owning your own place,” he says. “Once you do pull it off, it’s one of the most satisfying moments you’ll ever have.”