Bricks, lies and measuring tape: How to open a bar, part one

Andy Mil

21 April 2016

Want to know how to open your own bar? Andy Mil – he of Cocktail Trading Co Brick Lane and others – tells you how to avoid the pitfalls and get the refurb right first time. 

The following isn't a sugar–coated ‘Dummies Guide’ to opening a bar. Rather, it’s an honest breakdown of costs and the general procedure that every bar opening will go through.

Having just spent five months developing, designing and generally project–managing the new Cocktail Trading Company, I will be using the experience as an anecdotal reference point throughout. In short, I’m going to outline the differences between opening a cowboy venue and a damn good bar. It’s the practical stuff that you generally only pick up from making many costly mistakes.

Opening a bar, any bar, is by far one of the most exciting, stressful and enjoyable things I have ever done. Every little detail has to be thought through. I have something I like to call the ‘bouncy ball effect’. Imagine you have a ball that never stops bouncing and you chuck it into a room – everything it touches, no matter how small or seemingly unimportant, is a detail. It must be planned for.

Before you do anything else, find a property solicitor. They are not cheap but when it comes to parting ways with tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of pounds, it’s obviously good to have someone to ensure that you’re purchasing what you think you are.

Finding a venue
Finding a venue is by far the hardest part, especially in London. As with all industries, all the good spots get given to the big boys, and cash is king when it comes to any kind of property. You can Google ‘bars for sale’ until the cows come home, but everything that actually makes it online has already been picked through by the bigger bar companies.

The best thing to do is Google every commercial estate agent you can find. Chuck all their contact details into a spreadsheet, so you can record when you’ve contacted them. Be methodical.

Now you need something to send the estate agent. This is where a professional appearance is seriously important. The best thing to do is make a landlords’ pack – essentially, a brand book that has every detail a landlord or estate agent will need when focusing on finding you a venue, making it easy and beneficial for them to work hard for you. Below is a breakdown:

Brand identity and business model: What are you actually going to do in the venue and how are you going to do it? You should also incorporate a good logo and preferably a posh generic company letterhead. Include every contact detail and ensure you have a landline number – it makes you look more professional. We use a landline app call Buzz, which diverts calls directly to my mobile.

What sort of property you’re looking for and where: Ground floor, basement, upper floor, leasehold, freehold, sublet, with premium/without, A3/A4, etc. All these things make it a lot easier for an estate agent to put you in contact with a landlord. The most important thing, though, is where you would like to open and what size venue you are looking for. Your desired location and size must reflect your business model. You talk about venue size in square footage – the new CTC Brick Lane has a property footprint of 1,600sq ft with a finished tradeable space of around 400sq ft.

Quotes, quotes, quotes:
Get as many quotes as you can for each job, then average them together to work out what you should generally be paying. This gives you a sense of the middle ground and also of outliers – remember, you get what you pay for.

Your budget and timeline: Be honest about how much you can afford per year – this comes down to your P&L and forecasting. How quickly you can turn around on a property is also very important. Do you have the cash to fund a refurbishment or are you looking to borrow it once you’ve found a property? A landlord is well within their rights to ask for proof of funds.

The best and quickest way to gauge how much a refurb is going to cost vs what size property you can afford is to take the full amount of funding you have and divide that by the square footage of every venue you go and see. Refurbishment generally ranges from £90 to £160 per sq ft depending on the quality of the fit–out. CTC Brick Lane worked out at £97.50 per sq ft (ex VAT).

Generally, a landlord will ask for a deposit of six months’ rent. There’s always a chance you can negotiate a rent–free period. Landlords do know it takes time to refurbish a property, so a rent–free period of around three months is the norm, but it’s been known for properties to come with up to a year rent–free.

Your CV: Put in a bio of yourself and any business partners. Include any occupation achievements (ie winning cocktail competitions, press and media clippings etc), any other businesses you have been involved with and any companies you’ve run. Don’t just attach a CV – the landlord doesn’t care that you can use MS Word and Excel.

Tune in next week for more detailed, practical advice from Andy about planning and financials, as well as every aspect of the first fix, from plumbing to audio, via HVAC and CCTV.


Related articles

Spirits & Cocktails

Bricks, lies and measuring tape: How to open a bar, part three

In the previous two parts of this series on how to open a bar, Andy Mil ran you through finding a venue, as well as all the planning and financials.


Bricks, lies and measuring tape: How to open a bar, part two

In the first instalment of this series, Cocktail Trading Co's Andy Mil explained where to begin finding a venue, so you can build your own bar. Planni


Bar owners share advice on how to open a bar of your own

The past 10 years have seen Paris grow an innovative and quality bar scene from the ground up, and yesterday some of the entrepreneurs behind the city


Part 2. Ballin’ on a budget: how to promote your bar without spending a fortune

Following on from Iain McPherson of Panda & Sons and Hoot the Redeemer, Part 2 of Ballin' on a Budget shares tips and hacks on how to get your fledgli