The Essential Bar Setup Checklist
What makes a truly great bar is not that easy to define. Sure, it’s a place for a good drink, a delicious snack, and a fun time. But the best bars are ones that are friendly, professional, and, above all, well-stocked — whether you’re serving $30 Martinis or fruity frozen cocktails. Opening a bar is just like the recipe for success in any business: you have to be organized.
Ambitious drink recipes, exacting techniques, full kitchens, and honest hospitality are just a few of the factors that make your favorite local hangout so awesome. The bar and nightclub industry hit $36 billion in 2023 and is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 5.09% until 2027, according to Budget Branders data.
Opening a Bar Checklist
Essential Bar Equipment Checklist
We’ll bet your new bar will draw the customers in night after night, but before you mix even one manhattan, some decidedly un-thrilling but essential bar infrastructure needs to be on lock. The following isn’t a fully comprehensive list — you’ll want to tailor this to meet your bar’s unique objectives — but it’s a good starting point to get your new bar up and running.
It would be very simple if all drinks were served in the same style of glass, but most bars have at least 20 to 30 different types— and we’re not even talking about the food! A high-volume industrial dishwasher is a must-have and, if properly maintained, could last for years. Don’t forget to add enough dish racks and proper cleaners to your shopping list for all those coupes, tumblers, highball glasses, and mugs.
Alcoholic Beverage Storage
Just like the great chefs have their mise en place down pat, a bartender or mixologist will need their ingredients and tools organized and within easy reach. For displaying and storing spirits and mixers, shelving should be at the top of your list. Refrigerators and freezers are also essential for perishable ingredients.
Think about under-the-counter models or units with glass doors: The best storage solutions allow bartenders to see and grab what they need quickly. Preferably, everything will be organized and pre-portioned to cut down on waste.
Ice, Ice, Baby: we cannot underestimate the importance of ice to bars. It’s just as essential as the liquor (well, almost). Don’t skimp on ice-making machines; pick one with sufficient capacity to meet demand when you’re slammed.
Don’t forget the ice accouterments, including ice scoops, storage bins (which will require proper sanitary measures), crushed ice, and specialty ice molds. You know that barrel-aged whiskey is calling out for a fancy ice ball.
Bar Stations and Counters
The art of mixology is alive and well, which means the bar station is more dynamic than ever. A well-designed workstation with enough space for the numerous trappings for mixing, muddling, and measuring should be a top priority. The design should also include sinks for efficient drink prep and cleanup, easy access to electrical outlets, and adequate lighting so the bartender can see what they’re doing.
Drink Preparation Equipment
Small appliances have a huge importance in the world of bars. Think blenders, coffee brewing equipment, and, yes, even margarita machines.
Benji Yashio, owner of Bar N9NE in Port Angeles, Washington, swears by a good juicer: “You think they’re all the same, but when you’re making two quarts of lemon juice every day, you quickly realize they aren’t. I prefer the manual ones. When you use power juicers at a high volume, there’s so much citrus gunk, it’s hard to clean,” says Yashio.
Point of Sale (POS) Systems and Management Tools
An efficient POS system with integrated restaurant technology will be a lifesaver, helping you to stay on top of inventory. You’ve put a massive amount of time and thought into your bar startup (not to mention a huge chunk of change), and you don’t want your investment to be in jeopardy due to operational mishaps.
Managing the people who work at your bar is a core part of your business, and to do that efficiently, employee management software is another must on your checklist.
Essential Bar Supplies Checklist
Here, we’ve narrowed down the list of Bar Inventory Basics.
There’s an expectation that all bartenders should know how to mix up any obscure drink under the sun, from Salty Dogs to Road Runners. At the very least, you’ll need a diverse selection of spirits, wines, beers, and non-alcoholic options to meet customer demand.
“Liquor trends are crazy,” says Yashio, but they come with the territory of owning a bar. “At Bar N9NE, we buy eight cases of alcohol a week. Our inventory is always packed.”
When buying liquor, getting the best you can afford is important, according to Yashio. Spirits fall into three categories: well (generic), call (name brand), and top-shelf. Be sure to specify which type when buying from suppliers.
Mixers and Garnishes
Can you imagine a martini without the olive? We shudder at the thought. Today’s garnishes and mixers, however, go way beyond the humble olive or splash of club soda. We’re seeing dehydrated fruit, edible flowers, yuzu juice, fresh coconut water, and various spices in addition to the stalwarts of bitters, fruits, and herbs. The key is the garnishes don’t just sound cool; they must complement the drinks they’re put in and be consistently restocked to maintain freshness and taste.
The world of bar glasses is vast, making it difficult to pinpoint which glasses to buy and how many. Your bar menu will dictate the style of glassware, but a good rule of thumb is always to buy more than you need (there will be breakage) and keep a cache of specialty glasses (say, a Brandy snifter) for unusual customer requests.
Start with rocks glasses, highball glasses, shot glasses, wine glasses, beer mugs, steins or pint glasses, Champagne flutes, cocktail or martini glasses, and margarita glasses. Don’t forget the stirrers, straws, cocktail picks, and napkins!
To get a better handle on how much glassware you’ll need, look at sales and customer data from your peak business hours and buy a bit more than that. You’ll need sufficient variety to accommodate drink variations as well.
Bartending Tools and Accessories
New cocktail recipes seem to appear every day, and so do the numerous gadgets for mixing and muddling. However, many new contraptions are simply variations on a core set of tools.
Here are the essentials: a long-handed bar spoon, bottle openers, muddlers, coil-rimmed cocktail strainers, jiggers, cocktail shakers, mixing glasses, corkscrews, large and small funnels, ice tongs, and bar blades for efficient drink prep.
The all-important garnish demands its own tools, such as ice picks, cutting boards, zesters, paring knives, citrus peelers, and nutmeg graters.
Drinkware Cleaning and Sanitization Supplies
Of course, procuring the alcohol and equipment is just the first step. Now, you will need some basic cleaning supplies to get those glasses sparkling. On your cleaning checklist, include dishwashing detergents, sanitizers, and special rinse agents (preferably low-foaming and non-corrosive) that won’t leave streaks. Glassware also requires copious dedicated brushes and cleaning tools.
Bar Towels and Bar Mats
Stock up on absorbent bar towels for wiping spills and cleaning surfaces. Non-slip bar mats are a must to keep your staff accident-free and working efficiently.
Cleaning and Maintenance Supplies
Low lighting may stoke a cool, moody atmosphere but can also hide spills and messes. Routine scrubbing and cleaning of a bar should extend from the bathrooms to the farthest corner and all places in between (including wiping down the bottles at the end of the night).
Add disinfectants, surface cleaners, and trash bins to your shopping list, as well as brushes for stubborn stains and hard-to-reach areas. Proper waste management procedures should also be a priority.
Additional Bar Setup Considerations
With your bar stocked, glasses sparkling, and shaker in hand, you’re ready for the adventure to begin. But there are a few considerations before you can fling open your doors.
Licensing and Permits
You’ll need to get your licenses and permits in order before opening night, and the process can take weeks or months, so it’s best to start your research early.
A liquor license, a business license, a food facility health permit, and a certificate of occupancy all have varying requirements depending on the state or county you’re in, and you’ll want to familiarize yourself with all the legal intricacies in your area. An excellent place to start is our guide to a handy list of 15 Licenses and Permits Needed to Open a Restaurant. We also share tips for avoiding health code violations in our feature, How to Make the Health Inspector Happy.
“Every single person has a different strength,” says Yashio, who susses out new hires by putting them through a working interview, where they train by doing. Everyone at Bar N9NE hits the ground running, “Most of my bartenders will barback at first, so they’re getting ice, setting up the well, organizing, setting up straws.”
Once they’ve mastered that area, “we start training slowly in bartending by putting them on during the daytime, mixing simple drinks. People who are really good make it into night-time bartending. The idea is more of a working interview because we’re so busy.”
Bartenders are responsible for the safety of customers and have every right not to serve someone if they’re three sheets to the wind. In fact, they’re required to call the police if they know a customer is choosing to drive intoxicated. Responsible alcohol service and safety protocols are also key to any bartender training.
Keeping up with the industry trends and best practices can be the most challenging part of onboarding, underscoring the need for ongoing training. “The hardest thing about training someone new is if they’re not familiar with alcohol, it’s all the different types of alcohol,” adds Yashio.
Ambiance and Décor
Some may be only looking for a warm welcome and a comfy bar stool, while others want a boozy night out of dancing and high-octane revelry. The key is to choose décor elements that complement your bar's unique theme and atmosphere. Whether you’re a speakeasy sneakily hidden down an alleyway or a sports bar with big-screen TVs, the music, lighting, and seating arrangements must align with your vision. But one thing nearly all successful bars have in common: they provide a comfortable setting for imbibing.
These days, there is no shortage of places where you can find a proper pour. Standing out in such a crowded field requires a lot of planning, knowledge, organization, and a hefty dose of creativity.
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