How Thoughtful Bar Design Improves Operations

Not a signature Tobin Ellis Perlick bar station. Image: oneinchpunch / iStock / Getty Images Plus

One of the most important sections of any hospitality venue is its bar. And yet, it’s often the area given the least amount of consideration during the design process.

Dedicated, highly designed cocktail bars receive the lion’s share of the designer’s attention, but they’re not in the majority. And now that bars are popping up in unexpected locations—coffee shops and retail stores, for example—and more venues are entering the delivery space, proper bar design is more important than ever.

Tobin Ellis, one of the very best bar designers in the business, shared his observations at the 2019 National Restaurant Association show. Ellis revealed the challenges operators and bartenders are facing, along with what can be improved.

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We asked industry leaders to weigh in on what metrics they were tracking to ensure proper cash flow, increased profit margins, and operations setup for future growth.

The reality is that the design system is backwards. Most people who design bars and workstations don't fully understand the systems and bartenders’ jobs. This is just one reason that Ellis stands out: he has spent years behind bars in all sorts of concepts.

First and foremost, remember to make certain that the bar is where it needs to be to drive profitability and begin the hospitality experience: front and center. All too often, Ellis has encountered—and continues to come across—venue designs with nothing more than a square drawn in for the bar with zero other details.

“Operators will spec things down to their chairs and then just draw in a box where they'll put the bar,” said Ellis.

Restaurant and hotel operators, and those who operate bars with dining areas, must treat their bars and beverage menus with the same reverence they do their food menus and dining spaces. As Ellis pointed out, people don’t order another round of steaks. People don’t stand right behind other guests and eat their meals. But they do exactly that at the bar.

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The bar brings fun and enjoyment, said Ellis, and since people love bars we should love the bar back. That means paying attention to design elements that non-bartenders may take for granted. Ellis has seen countless bars designed and built without the basics in every workstation. One common error he sees is the lack of dump sinks. This is more evidence of a broken system: a bartender knows what they need but many designers do not.

“You don't build a car from the body inward,” said Ellis. “Design matters.”

Interestingly, one change that has impacted bar operations are beverages themselves. Ellis pointed out that beverage trends across every category—cocktails, beer, spirits, coffee and more—are making things more difficult.

Guests are continuing to seek beverage education, complicating everything. Proof of this major change is easy to find and telling: even bar experts like Ellis don’t recognize every bottle behind the bars they visit.

The need to keep up and carry what’s new along with the moneymaking standards means back bar space is at a premium and deserving of proper attention before buildout begins.

Another space consideration that operators must contend with is the growth of delivery and to-go. Spotting Uber Eats or Postmates drivers standing at the bar to pick up a delivery order is becoming more commonplace. Entering the on-demand delivery space may be lucrative and help keep an operation relevant, but Ellis said it’s not fair to bartenders.

Think about it: Bartenders are already greeters, hosts, servers, bartenders of course, and entertainers. Now, they’re expected to participate in the delivery process. Moving forward, it may be smart for bar operators and designers to create a delivery workstation.

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The workload of a bartender isn’t just compounded by the roles they’re expected to play. The physical demands are taxing on the body, with back, shoulder and other injuries common. Bartending isn’t just a job for those working their way through college anymore—it’s a career. Careers demand longevity, and poorly designed bars and workstations are hazardous to bar professionals. Perlick partnered with Ellis a few years ago to design purpose-built, much improved workstations that improve their workplace and health. It may seem like this paragraph is an infomercial but it’s not—these workstations really are worth the investment.

“To a bartender, every inch—every millimeter—counts,” said Ellis. Make those millimeters count by including your bartenders in the design process. They know what they need to do their jobs, the movements they make every shift to get their jobs done. Let them share that information with you.

Workstations designed for bartenders enhance the employee experience. Such a design element shows the bar team that they’re important to the operation, improving employee retention. The challenge of recruitment and retention has been rearing its head more and more; thoughtful bar design is one solution.

“There is no immersion without people,” said Ellis when addressing the need for improved employee experiences. A happy, confident bar team is a high-performance, highly profitable bar team.

Another challenge facing operators is culture driven, said Ellis. Draught beer is an excellent example. Generally speaking, we’ve all been conditioned to believe that draught beer is superior to bottled beer. This is despite the fact that what has been conditioned in the bottle is the ideal product crafted by a brewer because it isn’t affected by PSI, temperature, and other factors inherent to serving draught beer.

Another example is the soda gun (which Ellis has ideas to redesign but that’s an entirely different topic for another day). Again, we’ve been conditioned to believe that what comes out of the gun can’t be high quality, leading to the use of premium mixers in bottles. It may not seem like that big of a deal but skipping the convenience of a soda gun for craft bottled mixers isn’t exactly efficient in high-volume bars or during crazy rushes.

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Along the same line as draught beer and soda guns are pre-batched and draught cocktails. The challenge in adopting pre-batched cocktails and drinks on tap is perception, once more. At the risk of provoking an argument, pre-batching or kegging cocktails doesn’t mean sacrificing quality. And yet, many guests and bar professionals think otherwise despite these drinks being more efficient and, because more can be served per hour and per shift, potentially more profitable.

Challenges don’t have to be viewed as negatives. See them as opportunities and you’ll set yourself up for success. For instance, bars showing up in nontraditional spaces like coffee shops can be viewed as a good thing for more traditional operations. Coffee bars that serve beverage alcohol are taking a page out of the European operator playbook: transition from coffee bar in the morning to aperitivo bar in the afternoon to traditional bar in the evening. Capturing more hours from multiple dayparts can translate to more revenue.

Tobin Ellis Bar Design Takeaways

The most common mistakes of bar design:

  • Not having a bar consultant or bar workflow expert involved from the start. This means someone who knows OSHA, NSF, and other requirements. (Trivia: Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, is the strictest health code county in the United States.)
  • Having a double rail (bartending is hard enough and terrible enough on the body)
  • Not having garbage cans
  • Lack of sinks

Bar design best practices:

  • Every single bar workstation must be identical.
  • Don't start with compliance, start where the productivity happens—the bar workstation.

Industry bar trend to consider:

Japanese bartending ethos of Ichi-go ichi-e, which translates to “one encounter, once chance.”

  • Physically, right now, we only have this moment and it will never come again. (The real idea of presence which is the core of hospitality.)

Design for the bartender's ability to engage with guests in the moment instead of running around behind the bar to fulfill orders.

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