Mike Baxter owns bars. The job’s not what you think, he says.
If you think running a bar is all high fives and raiding the back bar, get ready to fall. The reality is very different. And if you’re thinking of opening a venue, the best bit is, there’s no real training.
My introduction into ownership was, like many, a little accidental. I met someone with money who wanted a bar, but didn’t have the know-how. So I played the part of the guy with the know-how. And to a degree, I guess, I did have some know-how but when we opened our bar I quickly realised it was more of a “No... how?” that I was best at.
Excel spreadsheets, meetings with accountants, city councillors, licence reviews, security and balancing the books, landlords, tenancy agreements and promotion, suddenly became my jobs, along with my well-honed expertise in menu building and Jägerbombs.
So if you’re thinking of taking that first step into venue ownership, you will also come to the realisation that most of your time is spent doing things you mostly have no idea how to do. Life as a business owner in any field requires a certain seriousness, a level of mundaneness and a degree of problem-solving you’ve simply never faced before – there are just certain tasks you cannot escape.
And these tasks don’t exist within shifts. There are no set hours, your life is work and your phone becomes an unrelenting free-time assassin. There’s no glamour in a Sunday night phone call that the toilets flooded out into the service area, or that a health inspector has just walked in and chef's gone AWOL. But if you’ve been a GM before, you know all about bar hours and late nights. So, let's talk about the world every bartender hates... mornings.
More so than the love of food, drinks or hosting, it was the avoidance of morning starts that made me gravitate towards hospitality. I just couldn’t go near a nine to five.
The rest – the appreciation of spirits, the cocktails – was learned on the job and while I deeply love all these things, the reason for taking that first job was simple: I could sleep until noon.
Well, not anymore. When you’re an owner, you can kiss lie-ins or sunshine before shifts goodbye – fire inspectors work on their schedule, not yours. The city council’s business rates team wants to meet you at 9am and doesn’t care that you finished at 4am.
At times it feels like it’s best to just sleep on the sofa in the bar. Your partner won’t mind, I mean they never see you anymore anyhow and that way when you wake up in four and a half hours you have 30 minutes to brush your teeth (finger and crème de menthe anyone?) and rummage through the garnish fridge for anything that
When you do wake up without a meeting or an emergency you’re greeted by a world of bills and emails. That’s right, you now have an office job. But don’t fret – once you’ve paid the bills and boshed through your 35 other emails, you still get to go back to your regular job.
At least the shift is over and it’s time to hang out for the afters. A few beers with the team – I mean they’re your family after all – makes it all worthwhile. Until you realise you have to fire one of them.
Jo is basically your best mate, but when the staff cry out: “Did you hear what Jo did?”, it’s clear Jo has to go. Meanwhile Charlie is crying. You listen, try to help, then give a speech, wondering if you are in the slightest bit qualified to be making it. What time do psychologists have to get up at?
Never mind, this is bar ownership –you do your best and hope your ‘life skills’ get you through from dawn to dusk. If you pull it all off, the bar makes money, your suppliers get paid and your team is happy, it’s the best job in the world. But go clean that sink and don’t forget to bring a towel.