The Secrets of a Successful Bar

Jerusalem Post, Metro; November 24, 2006

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In the past four years, bars in Tel Aviv have been popping up like mushrooms after rain, with an estimated four or five bars, dance bars, resto-bars and/or mega bars opening monthly. Some of them close at a loss after a few months; some of them close after two years after raking in a nice profit; while others become nightlife institutions.

The bar business is a tough business, and if nightlife entrepreneurs aren’t prepared for hard work, chances are their ventures will fail.

While standing behind one’s own bar may seem fun and glamorous, bar owners must to be prepared to mix their cocktails with sweat and tears. Metro visited several successful bars in the city to find out from their owners and staffers the secret of a successful bar – it turns out, the secret isn’t so sexy.

Sound planning
It’s not enough to design the structure, order liquor from suppliers, hire bartenders and start mixing drinks. A bar is a small business, and opening one involves preparing detailed budgets, dealing with countless suppliers, understanding and adhering to municipal laws, and overseeing day-to-day maintenance.

‘Most people don’t know what they’re getting into when they start,’ says Gidon Marco, owner of Temptation on Rehov Allenby which is in its fourth year – quite an achievement for a Tel Aviv bar. A former bartender, Marco researched the field for five years before opening Temptation.

‘People come at night and they see everything working – the fun, the magic, the good times, friends – but someone has to change the lightbulbs, take care of the police, go to the bank… It’s a hard business because you’re leading two lives: You have to play hard at night and work hard by day.’

Husband and wife team Haya and Zvika Shichor didn’t come from the nightlife field but dedicated themselves to researching and navigating the nightlife business before opening the funky Florentine bistro bar Bugsy. Recently, they opened up its baby brother, a heavily invested, stylish, sophisticated bistro bar called Benjamin Siegel in the Opera Towers on Allenby.

Prior to their nightlife ventures, Haya worked as VP of operations at a textile company; Zvika, a former aeronautics engineer, ran his own water conservation company. They do not view their experience in the corporate world as a contradiction to their experience in the nightlife world. According to Haya, a nightlife establishment can make it only ‘if you do things seriously and have business sense. It’s a business in every sense of the word.’

As with any business, a sound and conservative business plan is a must.
Says Temptation’s Marco, ‘You have to take into account 100% more than what you think you need. A lot of businesses close down because they don’t have enough capital. People go in very optimistic, but places in Tel Aviv that are now nightlife cornerstones wouldn’t be around today if they didn’t have enough capital to last two to three years.’

Plenty of cash has to be stored for a rainy day, as many unforeseen circumstances can affect any nightlife establishment, especially in Israel. A war can break out and tourism drops, or the city decides to renovate the street and close the walkways. Furthermore, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality has many strict guidelines relating to health, sanitation, safety and security. They could demand that a bar install fire sprinklers or improve ventilation, and costs can add up tremendously.

The major mistakes starters make is lack of professionalism. ‘There are no miracles in this business,’ explains Haya. ‘You have to do the work as it’s supposed to be done.’

Before opening Bugsy, she tested the nightlife waters by first opening Carmina, a small cafe off Ibn Gvirol. Only after she saw that they were equipped to handle the business did she and her husband expand their endeavors to Bugsy.

Haya and Zvika split their responsibilities. Zvika takes charge of operations and logistics, while Haya serves as the creative overseer. On any given night at Benjamin Siegel, she can be seen standing by the counter, examining each dish as it comes out of the kitchen.

Running a successful nightlife establishment requires expertise in an array of fields such as music, sound, lighting, management, design, service and liquor. ‘If you don’t have all the know-how, you have to hire a know-how team,’ says Marco.

Any bar, dance bar, resto-bar, or pub has to have an identity. Nightlife entrepreneurs must know what kind of place they want to open: a sleazy dance bar, raunchy pick-up bar, friendly neighborhood pub or sophisticated lounge. ‘When you walk into a bar, you should be able to know within five to 30 seconds what kind of place it is,’ says Marco. ‘Then you decide if it’s right for you.’

Omer Gershon is director of marketing and PR for Whiskey A Go Go, Rivendell, and Shalvata, all of which are frequented by attractive Tel Aviv yuppies and celebs. Active as a publicist and promoter in the Tel Aviv nightlife scene for more than a decade, he says it is imperative to understand the clientele in advance. ‘Before you build a place, you have to think which kind of crowd you want: rich kids, artsy, celebrities, hip-hop, suburbia. You have to decide beforehand, [because] you can never bring everyone.’

Often, to preserve a certain clientele, several nightlife establishments enforce strict selection, based on age, looks or energy. Selection, while technically illegal, can be crucial to maintaining the concept and clientele.

Location, location, location
Whiskey A Go Go, Rivendell, Shalvata and TLV are all located at the burgeoning Tel Aviv port, which is easily accessible by the northern Tel Avivians, often considered an elite, educated crowd. Bar owners must take into account issues such as parking, neighborhood and accessibility. Bar compounds such as those around Rehov Lilienblum or Yad Harutzim offer a steady flow of bar-hopping traffic.

Haya, however, disagrees on the importance of location. ‘When I opened Bugsy, people asked, ‘Why Florentine?’ I think if the place is good, people will come.’

For this reason, she named her bistro bars after Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel, the mobster credited with founding Las Vegas. ‘Bugsy was the type of guy who went to the desert and said, ‘I want to build something here.”

One of the most important aspects of a nightlife establishment is design, as it reflects the concept of the place. Roy Roth of Roth-Tevet Experience Design has designed some of the most successful nightlife joints in the city, such as the lounge bar Lima Lima on Lilienblum and Saluna in Jaffa.

‘Sometimes you have to create an alternative world – so when they’re outside, they don’t think about it; and when they are inside, they forget about the outside. It’s a lot about escapism,’ he explains.

Lighting is especially important for a bar. Roth likens a bar to a stage, where a sense of drama is created by carefully placed spotlights. ‘It’s a lot about being sexy. Not to reveal a lot. In retail you shine light on a product to show it off; in a bar, you have to show off people, so the light has to be dim. You want to see the people and illuminate them nicely to make them look good.’

No matter if the design is classic, themed, eclectic, sexy, warm or white cold, the place has to be workable as well as conform to city standards. That is why interior designers should ideally have experience in the nightlife field.

‘Music has crucial influence on the success of a bar. Music takes you through the night, providing the main ambience,’ says Gershon.

The type of music and the DJ can stamp the atmosphere and character on a place. For some nightlife revelers, the motto is ‘God is a DJ.’ The Shichors have placed the DJ on a platform above their customers at both Bugsy and Benjamin Siegel.

Oded Adam, who now spins and books DJs for Helena, a New York-style bar in Tel Aviv, thinks music serves as a natural selection device. ‘There are two kinds of music for bars: one is the more intelligent and soothing, and the other is more commercial and communicative. If you play jazzy stuff, as opposed to something that just passes through your ears like Britney Spears or hip-hop, a certain kind of crowd will come.’

When Adam spins, he likes to create an experience for the bargoers – to hold their interest with music that develops over the night rather than play loud radio versions of popular hits. The latter are more suited for raunchy pick-up bars or dance bars, which get people to loosen up and dance. Electronic genres, on the other hand, provide ambience and more subtle sexiness. ‘For me, the music is a very big part of a night’s success. Music can make the evening last longer,’ he says.

Yuval Dor, a DJ producer who has spun at the artsy Abraxas bar on Lilienblum and the Jewish Princess on Yehuda Halevi, believes that the music is a reflection of the owners.

‘Music with a good sound system says something about the person who stands behind the bar. If they just put on regular music, it says something about them. If they’re really into the music, it shows that they’re more interesting and that there’s more to look for.’

‘You need hype; you need someone who knows how to make a buzz,’ says Gershon. ‘You need a person who will adjust a crowd to the place.’

To create a buzz, bar owners need to know a lot of people, or they have to hire promoters and publicists who do. Generally, people who come from the field, such as managers, bartenders and DJs, have already built a reputation and will attract a pre-established following.

It always helps to appear in gossip columns. ‘If you want a place to be hip, you need many items in newspapers,’ says Gershon.

However, hype may only sustain a place for so long. Haya prefers to keep the hype on a low. ‘You can make a buzz, then a lot of people come – and then it falls. It’s better without the hoopla.’

As with any business, word of mouth is the best publicity. ‘Once the place is good, celebrities will come,’ she says.

Bartenders do more than just pour drinks – they gauge bar-goers’ wants, needs and desires. He or she should know what kind of mood the customer is in and if he/she wants to talk, be entertained or left alone. ‘A bartender is like a psychologist,’ says Marco.

It’s not enough that bartenders graduate a bartending course. They have to excel in interpersonal relations, a skill that cannot easily be taught.

‘If your staff is good and they know what they’re doing, customers will come back,’ says Gidon. ‘It’s easy to bring people in the first time and harder to bring them back the second.’

Gershon agrees: ‘You have to make people feel at home and welcome. Taking care of regulars – that’s very important.’

Haya instructs her bartenders that ‘the bar is a stage.’ She interviews each bartender to make sure they are professionals who can contribute to the energy and atmosphere of the place.

There’s another important criteria for hiring bartenders: looks. ‘It’s very important for bartenders to look good,’ she says. ‘The men don’t have to be muscular, but they should be fun and pleasant.’

Attention to detail
‘If you’re not willing to go into the small details, it won’t work,’ warns Marco.

Bar owners should understand that the smallest glitch in service or operation may affect the customer’s willingness to return. If the lighting is too bright, the air conditioning too strong, the music too loud, the beer poured sloppily or the mojito not mixed right, customers will notice, even at the subconscious level. This means that bar owners or managers cannot spend the night sitting at the bar chatting with friends. They have to be behind the scenes, paying careful attention to staff and customers and making sure that everything runs smoothly.

The Shichors believe that for a bar to have a long shelf life rather than close after two years, it must offer an added value, something unique. When they opened Bugsy, they decided to offer a rich food menu open to customers at all hours. The owners of Temptation, who also see the importance of added value, offer homemade cocktails.

Heart and soul
Only someone who loves the business will survive the initial, difficult stages. If a place has a heart, it’s because heart went into it.

‘I see places in Tel Aviv that have a great location, music and look, yet they fail,’ says Gershon. ‘Then I see places that put in little money but have a lot of spirit. Spirit counts for a lot.’

Owning a bar, in any of its variations, is a 24-hour job. ‘You have to dedicate yourself to it,’ says Haya. ‘It has to be your life.’ Marco thinks luck wouldn’t hurt, either. ‘You need a little of it with everything in your life.’

Sidebar: How to pass selection
Several bars and dance bars enforce strict selection, and rightly so. Often, people go to bars because they want to feel beautiful – or go home with someone beautiful. If sloppily dressed stragglers, youngsters or ‘Mafia’ types are allowed in, the atmosphere and mood can be killed in an instant. So while selection may seem like an annoyance, better not to fight it and learn to work with it – and eventually appreciate it.

Omer Gershon, director of marketing and PR at some of the hottest bars in the city, reveals the secrets of passing selection:
* Be as attractive as possible (especially women)
* Be a celebrity
* Be rich
* Dress really well
* Know the owners or managers

If you lack the above, the following might help:
* Always be polite to the selector and say ‘Thank you.’
* Get noticed inside the bar for next time. Be nice to
bartenders and tip well.

How not to pass selection
* Argue with a selector
* As a guy, come with a group of guys. It reminds the selectors too much of the army.
* Say to the selector, ‘Don’t you know who I am?’
* Say to the selector, ‘This is the last time you work in this town.’

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