‘Do not get married to your concept.’ Sven Almenning on what to do before opening a bar

Sven Almenning, founder of the Speakeasy Group.

Last year, Sven Almenning (of Speakeasy Group fame) wrote a great series of articles on how to open a bar in this magazine, and during the Business of Bars Conference at Sydney Bar Week, he crystallised his advice into an entertaining, inspiring, and expletive-laden talk to would be bar owners. (For what it’s worth, Almenning blames his profuse usage of profanity on the fact that he learned English from watching Eddie Murphy’s movies as a kid).

Here, we’ve pulled some highlights from the first half of his talk, in which he discusses what you need to know before you get the doors open to
your bar — from the simple question of why on earth are you opening a bar to begin with, to location, concept, and aiming for amazing.

Have you really thought about why you want to open a bar?

The first question you should ask yourself, Almenning says, is why on earth you’d want to open a bar in the first place.

“A lot of people don’t know why they want to open a venue,” he says. “They have the idea that they want to do it, but they don’t know why.”

It’s not enough to have the idea, or to have just the opportunity unity because you’ve been offered a killer space. Instead, you need to first examine what the motivation is behind opening your own bar.

“It’s a question that people don’t ask themselves enough: what’s my motivation for opening this bar?” he says.

“Is it money? Get this right in your head. Are you opening a bar because you want financial freedom? If you do, don’t open a 40 seat cocktail bar in fucking Newtown — this is not going to give you financial freedom, what it’s going to do is buy you a job.

“Are you doing it because you want to be creative and build the dream of something you’re passionate about? OK, but be clear on that beforehand, because when you don’t have money, down the track, and you’re struggling to make ends meet, it’s because you made that decision, that very clear decision, that you’re not doing it to make money, but to realise a creative dream.

“Creative dreams and turning a profit are not necessarily the same fucking thing. It’s very important when you open a bar that you’re clear on this thing.”

Almenning says you need to be clear about why you want to do it, and you also need to understand the the business consequences of why you want to do it.

“You want to be your own boss? Alright, that’s cool, that’s a good motivation,” says Almenning. “But again, how does that impact your life? Being your own boss means that you are 24-7 — you have to be available, because you are the fucking boss and people need to see the boss all the time.”

Understand that opening a business — any business — means making sacrifices.

“If I had known the sacrifices that come with opening a business I don’t think I would have my own business,” says Almenning. Almenning lists a number of sacrifices any prospect business owner should be willing to make — and some of which they don’t tell you about beforehand, like losing some of your dear friends.

“The reason you end up losing loads of friends isn’t because you turn into a dickhead when you have a business (although being a dickhead is a big part of having a business — sometimes you have to be), but to do with availability,” he says. “If you’re working 70, 80, 90 hours a week, you can’t just pop out to a friend’s birthday party, you can’t just go to a christening, you don’t have that opportunity sometimes.”

And owning a business will affect your family life.

“You’re going to see your family a whole lot less. Being your own boss doesn’t mean that you get to, at the beginning anyway, waltz into work at noon and go home at two and play with the kids in the morning and have sex with your partner after you’ve put your kids in kindergarten, that’s not how it works. We wish it did. For some of those at the top I’m sure that’s exactly how it works, but that’s a long way in, when you have a lot of bars. In the beginning when you set up your own business you are there the whole fucking time.”

You also need to be prepared to lose some of life’s luxuries, like, say, good meals.

“Unless you’re willing to live in on five minute noodles and beans, for 12 months, why the fuck are you even considering setting up your own company?” Almenning says.

It’s all because at the end of the day, when you’re the owner of the business, the buck stops with you — and you best be prepared for that.

“You are responsible for people’s lives, their income, their livelihood, the well-being of your staff, and you’ve got to be there for them. That means you’re sacrificing things in your own life: a lot of the times it’s friends, a lot of the times it’s health, you’re not going to be able to go to the gym seven days a week necessarily, you’re not going to be able to have kale shakes and healthy salads all the time because you’re on shift all the time. It’s a lot of sacrifices to make.”

If you’ve got to choose between location and concept, location should win.

Almenning has written before in this magazine about the importance of finding the right location, and how to win the right site when you find it. But it’s important that the location take priority over the concept, and that you’re flexible with your concept — the site will dictate what’s going to work and what’s not.

“Do not get married to your concept,” Almenning says.

“You need to be able to change the concept based upon where you are. The place where you open your business is crucial. The location of your business is going to determine your trade probably more than what you’re doing. Say your lifelong dream is to open a casual pub, just a nice relaxed area where you can come in and drink beers that everybody else has, and whiskies that everybody else has, and eat fucking food that every other pub serves, that’s your dream because it’s a beautiful thing to do, right? Then don’t choose a hard to find venue off a laneway off a laneway with no sign. Because the people who are coming for that kind of experience aren’t willing to hunt it out, because there are a thousand other places in town that do exactly the same.”

Having a concept to match the location is just as important if your venue is on the main drag.

“Likewise, if you’ve got this crazy thing happening in your venue, with performers up there, and drinks aflame, and the chef gets nude when he serves your food and it’s fucking brilliant, if you open it on the main street, 90 percent of people are there for a fucking beer — they don’t want your crazy shit.

“So your location and concept have to marry up.”

It’s when the location and the concept of a venue doesn’t match up, that you start to see venues struggling.

“If you hold on too strong to your amazing idea when you finally find a location and you’re not willing to change it, then you know what? Someone else will change it for you when you go out of business, because that’s what’s going to happen,” he says.

Make the money you spend make you money.

“Don’t blow your dough on the toilets,” Almenning says. Instead, you should be spending what money you have on areas of the business that will make you money — and the bathrooms won’t do it for you.

“I have not once in my life refused to go to a bar because the toilets are shit,” he says. “Who cares? And I’ve never gone to a restaurant or a bar because the toilets are incredible, like, ‘we’ve got to go there because the toilets are amazing.’ Fuck. It’s never happened.”

Instead, your money works hardest for you in the bar, and with your staff.

“Get the bar in, get the layout of your venue right, get your equipment right, get your stuff in the kitchen right, get the right fucking staff. Pay extra for a great manager rather than a chandelier. Pay extra for a great bartender rather than imported hardwood floors. Spend money on stuff that’s going to make you money,” says Almenning.

Get three quotes for everything.

It’s simple advice, says Almenning, but if you’re going to be spending money then make sure your spending only what you need to.

“Three quotes for everything,” he says. “Don’t get lazy. It is so easy to think that the first person who gave you a quote gave you a great quote because he’s a nice guy.

“It’s the most basic advice, but I promise you, if you stick to it you’ll save tens, hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years. It’s super important.”

Aim for fucking amazing.

This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s more important than ever.

“I have no time for people who aren’t trying to be awesome,” Almenning says. “I just don’t care. Why would I go to your venue if you’re not even trying to be fantastic?”

The key to getting people into your venue these days — particularly if your location isn’t great — is word of mouth, and to have that happening you need to be doing something that gets people talking.

“If you don’t have a vision for your business that’s going to make it brilliant, if you don’t have a vision of what’s going to make it go viral if someone made a video of your business, if you don’t have a vision of what’s going to make it stand out in your area, then go back to the drawing board and come back with something else,” he says.

“It’s got to be amazing.”

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