Bar Owners: This Is What Your Customers Want
With all due apologies to Cheers habitués Norm Peterson and Cliff Clavin, Jay Larson and Sean Patton are the funniest barflies on TV. Each week the stand-up comedians belly up to the nation’s premier watering holes as hosts of the Esquire cable network’s Best Bars in America, knocking back signature drinks, sampling regional cuisine, picking the brains of rock-star bartenders and hanging out with personalities like actor-screenwriter Nat Faxon and celebrity chef Roy Choi. Larson and Patton spoke to Entrepreneur about good drinks, good people and good times.
ENTREPRENEUR: WHAT SEPARATES THE TRULY GREAT BARS FROM THE REST?
Jay Larson: It always comes down to the people. If you’re in a bar where the drinks are decent or the ambience is decent, but you have an amazing bartender who’s fun and interesting and welcoming, it supersedes everything else.
Sean Patton: I was talking to a guy last night who was telling me how he’s gonna open this bar in Hollywood and how the whole bar is going to feel like a VIP room of another bar. Everyone who walks in gets a bracelet and there’s gonna be, his words, “a hot chick behind the bar” and—
J.L.: [interrupts] When did you throw up when he was saying this to you, Sean?
S.P.: I didn’t—I pretended like I was taking a call from someone. But the first thing I thought when I’m hearing this is, “I can’t wait to talk to you next year, after this bar f**king bottoms out.” Jay said it perfect: It’s all about the people behind the bar and what vibe they’re creating. Any time a bar owner forces the ambience, it doesn’t work.
WHAT ABOUT PATRONS? WHAT'S THEIR ROLE IN CREATING THE RIGHT AMBIENCE?
J.L.: I went to this bar one time—it’s always been dead, but my buddy was like, “Trust me; on Sundays it’s fun.” And it turns out it’s a Minnesota Vikings bar, and all around the TV are Vikings fans wearing horns on their heads. We sat in the back drinking horrible beer out of pitchers and had one of the best times I’ve ever had watching football, because of the people that congregate there. It gave me a whole different appreciation of what that bar can be.
S.P.: In the bar world, it’s a 50-50 split between patron and owner. Jay and I go to some bars and, to be honest, they’re garbage, but the people that go there make it fun. You go because of the weirdos that hang out there. If there’s too much on the owner, you’re gonna get a f**kin’ over-produced, too-shiny, smells-like-bleach- in-cleaning-products roofie hut. But you can’t put too much on the consumer, either. You gotta meet in the middle.
SO WHAT CAN BAR OWNERS DO TO CULTIVATE THE KIND OF ENVIRONMENT YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT?
J.L.: Any time we go to a bar and the owner’s behind the stick, it’s an amazing experience. It means they care. When it’s some absentee owner, it doesn’t really mean anything. That’s why Sean and I don’t go to chain bars. We like to know where the money’s going.
You can do any kind of bar you want—just have passion for it, and respect the fact that people are coming in there and spending their hard-earned money. Especially in this day and age, a dollar doesn’t go as far as it used to, so you have to have respect for your guests, and that comes from quality of service, quality of goods and the quality of everything you put into the business.
S.P.: Whatever you’re going to do, stick to your guns and bear with it through the fads. That’s a thing a lot of businesses can’t seem to do, and that really pisses me off. If you’re gonna open up a bar that gives away free fried chicken with every pitcher of beer, stick to that shit! Don’t get weird and scared when the kale craze happens. Bar owners always end up going too far the other way and ruining any idea they ever had.
Fads are gonna come and go. In the ’90s it was vodka and mirrors; now it’s whiskey and wood; and probably in five more years it will be gin and stained glass. Whatever you want to do with your bar, stick to it, because that’s the kind of place people are gonna gravitate to: places that don’t change. We don’t want Madonna— we don’t want a place that reinvents itself every two years and does a different thing. That’s great for music, but not for bars. When I walk in, I want to know that Paddy’s behind the bar, there’s a great whiskey selection, and they have IPA on tap. Boom.
Also, lighten the f**k up. It’s a bar. That’s a thing a lot of bar owners lose sight of. We get it—you put your hard work and money into opening this place. But it’s a place for people to get drunk and talk to other people. It’s about fun. People come here to relax and blow off steam. That, to me, is most important. A lot of bars take themselves way too goddamn seriously.
YEAH, THAT'S DEFINITELY TRUE.
J.L.: Go, meet people, talk to people and get a buzz on. That’s what bars are for. Just enjoy it.
S.P.: It’s scientifically proven that taste is the first of your five senses to go as alcohol starts to take control of your system. By the time you’ve had your fifth drink, your taste buds are just gone. So if you’re gonna open up a fancy cocktail establishment, don’t roll your eyes if someone orders a whiskey soda. That’s what they want. Make a good goddamn whiskey soda. The same thing goes the other way: If you’re a dive bar and someone orders a Manhattan, make sure your bartender knows how to make a Manhattan—or if they can’t, make sure they have an amusing story about why they can’t. Just be cool, man. Have a good time.