If you’ve ever worked behind a bar on a busy shift, you already know there is no such a thing as a perfectly designed bar. Ill-devised layouts and poorly placed equipment can prove to be insurmountable obstacles and leave bartenders incapable of performing their duties behind the bar in a timely and efficient manner.
While there’s no such thing as the perfect bar, some layouts are much easier to work with than others. Every misplaced step a bartender takes costs the bar money in lost productivity. Operational folks are passionate about the logistics of drink production: how the workstations are configured, where equipment is placed relative to the workstation and how the inventory is merchandised. They are, after all, responsible for ensuring that the facility is designed to operate at peak efficiency; anything less negatively impacts revenue and service.
However, from a design standpoint, the bar is the central focus of the front of the house. The structure dominates the overall interior design and, therefore, falls within the operational staff's purview. They are, after all, responsible for creating ambience and visually delivering on the promise of the concept. Where the bar is placed, the shape of the structure and the traffic flow around the bar are crucial design considerations.
“The management point of view really is the prioritized melding of both the operational and interior design perspective,” says Jean-Pierre Etcheberrigaray, vice-president of food and beverage for Intercontinental Hotels. “Add a few curves to a bar for affect and you could wind up adversely impacting drink production, delaying service, increasing labor costs, detracting from the ambience, snarling traffic flow or undermining the concept.”
Etcheberrigaray contends that subsequent decisions pale in importance to choosing the design and physical shape of the bar. “Nothing one does can overcome a poor choice in terms of design. The physical layout of the bar largely determines the placement of equipment, liquor displays and workstations, which, in turn, dictates the speed at which bartenders can make drinks and provide hospitable service. A difference of 3 feet one way or another may not seem like much when you’re deciding where to position a glass-washer, but it can add up to hundreds or even thousands of extra steps for bartenders a week. That’s a lot of wasted time.”
What is the most operationally friendly bar design? Which best allows bartenders to quickly make drinks and service the guests? Which layout is most visually appealing and the most efficient use of space? Tackling the debate head-on, we polled beverage veterans regarding their take on these issues.
Engineering in Speed
Scott Young is a celebrated bartending trainer. Having spent the majority of his life behind a bar, the Vancouver native — owner of extremebartending.com — knows a workable bar design when he sees it.
“I think most bartenders would rather work a linear bar, one with a workstation positioned every 10 to 15 feet or so," he says. "This configuration allows unrestricted views of the guests and permits them to move freely behind the bar.”
Young adds that the most effective bar design is one that guides guests to where we want them, instead of forcing bartenders to constantly run back and forth wasting steps and precious time. He points out that efficiency of movement is crucial even behind slower bars. The time wasted on drink production is always better spent on service.
A linear bar allows for unobstructed vision of the patrons seated at the bar and often can be worked by one bartender in non-peak hours of business. The design also is the easiest of the various shapes in which to position equipment, outfit with workstations and properly merchandise inventory. It typically requires less square footage to accomplish the same volume of business and accommodate the same number of bar stools as other shaped bars.
“Linear bars are, unfortunately, the least interesting and appealing shape from a design standpoint,” suggests Tracy Finklang, corporate beverage manager at Rock Bottom Restaurants. “Working an exceptionally long bar, where to get from one end to the other requires marathon-type endurance, poses its own unique challenge.”
A proponent of the linear bar is Mark Grossich, CEO of New York-based Hospitality Holdings, whose portfolio of contemporary cocktail lounges include The World Bar in Trump Tower, Carnegie Club in CitySpire Centre and the Campbell Apartment in Grand Central Terminal. “In addition to being faster to work, linear bars afford bartenders with optimal face-to-face time with guests. From my point of view, there’s nothing more important than that.”
Horseshoe and oval bars also require constant movement on the bartender’s part to ensure all of the patrons seated at the bar receive proper service. These bars also are the most labor-intensive. Horseshoe and oval bars require more bartenders to work during peak business hours to provide the same level of service and are the most difficult in which to adequately position equipment and merchandise inventory.
David Commer of Commer Beverage Consulting and former T.G.I. Friday’s beverage director believes oval bars are faster for bartenders.
“It’s easier to survey what’s going on at an oval bar and provide outstanding service to the guests," he says. "The close proximity of workstations, equipment and inventory at an oval bar facilitates drink production and speed of service.”
A Room with a View
It’s interesting to note that up until about 60 years ago, the classic linear or “L” shape bars in America and Europe all incorporated large mirrors behind the bar. Etcheberrigaray believes that the mirror is crucial to the design. Without it, guests seated at the bar can only watch what’s happening behind them by turning around on their stools. That puts their backs to the bartenders and that’s bad for business. Drop the mirror, doom the design.
“In addition, bartenders rely on that mirror to extend their field of vision and catch reorder cues without turning around,” says leading restaurant consultant, Bill Main. From the patron’s perspective, Main believes the best bar shape is the oval or horseshoe. "They both create a sense of privacy, while still allowing guests to scan the room easily. People-watching is a great American pastime. Horseshoe bars have a high ‘see and be seen’ quotient.”
On a more pragmatic level, Main states that curved counters tend to engage people, while straight edges tend to repel.
“Customers gravitate toward curved kiosks in airports 20% more frequently,” he says.
Mark Grossich has built and operated cocktail lounges that featured all of the various bar designs mentioned.
“In the final analysis, I think this discussion renders down to ‘form follows function,’ or more specifically, form follows the optimal floor/furniture plan for the space,” Grossich says.
So go ahead and advocate putting an oval bar in a square space or a linear bar in a round space. You’ll catch an earful either way.