Chris Elford and Anu Elford, both Seattle-based, know a lot about running bars. Chris worked in New York’s bars Amor y Amargo and Proletariat. Anu is the long-term owner of Seattle’s craft cocktail haven Rob Roy. The two of them teamed up to create No Anchor, a beer-focused restaurant that opened in September 2016 and Navy Strength, a Tiki bar set to open in spring 2017. They had some unique ideas and strategies for ensuring the bars thrived, even in the face of economic downturns. Chris, a certified Cicerone, shares his tips for “recession-proofing” a bar.
Pick a location that is well-known to potential customers
“Belltown is the area that Rob Roy and I live in. It is the most densely populated in Seattle. It’s also very underserved. While it isn’t the most popular neighbourhood, it has seen its moments in the spotlight over the past 40 years. Many people live here, and many places rent for cheap per square foot. Even if the economy isn’t in decline or there’s a recession, we thought there would be enough people to help us weather any storm.
Design the space to maximize efficiency and minimize labour costs if you can
It is cheaper to open a restaurant in an existing space than to renovate it. We wanted to create a place that was efficient for our purposes. Because of Seattle’s rapidly rising labour costs and many other cities across the country, we wanted an efficient place. This is something that we are excited about. We want people to make more money. While we aren’t opposed to rising labour costs, the business owner’s responsibility is to take stock, look around, and say, “Wait, a minute.” How will our business survive? What are our plans for retooling?
“In both bars, we installed cocktail stations designed and built by Tobin Ellis. This Las Vegas bar consultant also designed the bars. It is a modular stainless-steel cocktail cockpit that a bartender could stand in. He manages to fit all the bar components in a small footprint, maximizing the use of space. Although they are expensive, your time will be more efficient once you have them. Instead of doing three wells, we did two. This means that we now have two bartenders. Our bartenders are more productive and make more money.
Batched Cocktails Save Time and Effort
“These spaces were designed as efficiently as possible. This means that you don’t have to have a lot of people around to manage the space. No Anchor is the beer bar. We batch all cocktails, carbonate them, and then serve them in bottles or on draft. It is supposed that everything can be done simultaneously as pouring beer. One person, or two, can work a shift and have a 10-top walk-in. It doesn’t take them 20 minutes. They spend five minutes taking the order, getting everything and returning to the table. This means fewer people to serve us, which saves us time and labour.
“Batching ingredients reduces the number of pickups. Tiki drinks might have a 10-bottle pickup. To make it, you would need to collect 10 bottles. Your bartender will only need to pick up one bottle if you can fit all shelf-stable items into one bottle. This is important because you can have one less person to work with if you make good volume. This is a 30-second reduction in the average time to make a drink. These are one-way bars that can save money.
“Move your feet, not your hands”
“We also use overhead space, which a lot of bars don’t do, and I don’t understand why. Old cabinets and glassware were often hanging above the bartender’s head in photos of dive bars. They could be grabbed and used. No Anchor’s beer glassware is stemware and hangs above the bartender. They can now reach up and grab a glass while having a conversation. Instead of moving to another bar area with no glassware, and then walk back and pour the beer. It is a saying I love and don’t recall where it came from: “Move your hands, not your feet.” It is always quicker to move your hands rather than your feet.
When you reach the stage where you are looking for a space to open your place, you feel excited. It’s almost like searching for a home. You need to be able to set a budget and search for deals. This will have a lasting impact on your bottom line. We were offered a 10-year lease and two five-year options. These bars could be open for up to 20 years if all goes well. This allows us to return our investment and possibly make a profit during that period. It won’t go up because it was a low-rent place. While it will continue to rise, we won’t get killed. We want to pay the lowest overhead in a recession.