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Jul 30, 2014

Tips For The Bartender: A How To Guide For Setting Up A Bar

Posted: Aug 06, 2012

Taken for granted by those not in the industry, a fully functional bar is the combination of many functioning little parts.  When opening a bar, or adding a full bar to a pre-existing restaurant, it is best to examine each of these parts and what it takes to get them up and running before tying it all together.  Let’s look at each of these individually, and the “cogs” that make these little parts work.

Beer Distribution:  One of the staples of every traditional bar setup is beer sales.  Aside from glassware (which will have its own section later on), there are a number of important pieces that go into functional beer sales.

  • Draft System – First and foremost, for bars that intend on selling draft beer, need either direct draw keg coolers or a draft system.  For the most part, direct draw coolers usually won’t exceed the 5 keg capacity, and will usually have at most around 4 faucets; allowing only 4 of the kegs stored in the cooler to be tapped at one time.  For bars that will be offering more than 4 varieties of beer on tap, it will be necessary for either a secondary cooler, or a draft system.  A draft system is custom build for every bar that chooses to purchase one.  It does not always require a beer tech to come in, but it is necessary for those intending on installing one to survey the available storage, space allowance, number of brews on tap at one time, number of bars, etc.  Draft systems are becoming more and more common with the increased popularity of brew pubs and specialty beer bars, so pricing may be comparable to or less than purchasing a number of direct draw coolers.
  • Keg Storage – It should be noted when shopping for direct draw coolers or draft systems that keg storage is essential.  Kegs need to be stored in a cooler, both when tapped and when waiting to be tapped.  Though direct draw coolers can store some extra kegs, it will only be able to store one or two extra for a “quick change”.  Though this can be beneficial because some kegs can be changed as quickly as bartenders noticed they are kicked, there is not enough space to house backups for every keg on the line.  There must be dedicated walk-in space to house backup kegs, and in the case of a bar with a draft system, places to store tapped kegs as well.  This is the main reason many restaurants with bars have separate walk-ins solely dedicated to refrigerated items for their bar.
  • Back Bar Coolers – Bars not only sell beer by the glass, but also by the bottle or can.  Bottles and cans are usually stored in one of a number of back bar coolers.  One of the most common varieties is sliding door well coolers that stand around waist level.  These coolers save bartenders’ knees, and are a good fit in bars with narrow back bar areas where undercounter bar coolers can’t be opened.  Traditional back bar coolers, when they can fit, are the most common as many can also facilitate some backup kegs.  Glass door back bar coolers, and even glass door merchandising coolers, have been becoming increasingly popular behind bars for beer storage because of their ability to show customers their options.  With the rising trend of craft brew sales, many bars are beginning to expand their selections of bottled and canned beer, and these glass door coolers are the best way to market these products.  Additionally, glass coolers make it easy to stock and take inventory of products on the shelves; a valuable tool when shifts change or when trying to keep doors closed and conserve energy.  There should also be walk-in space dedicated to reserve beer cases to stock these coolers when they are empty.
  • Faucet Caps, Drip Trays, & Draft Accessories – There are a number of necessary accessories that go along with the addition of a draft beer operation.  Drip trays are a necessity for draft operations, as it is inevitable that beer will be spilled (especially when changing kegs).  Traditionally they are purchased to match the taps’ metal colors, and give the bar design some continuity.  Faucet caps are very common to cover faucets as they keep taps from dripping when not active, as well as in keeping fruit flies out.  It is important that cleaning supplies for tap lines be purchased so they can be cleaned regularly, as well as other draft line accessories such as extra glycol, gas, tube lines, etc.  For more information on the necessary components of setting up a draft line, read our HOW TO CONFIGURE A DRAFT BEER SYSTEM BUYER'S GUIDE.

Liquor / Wine Distribution:  Another vital component in beverage sales is wine and liquor sales.

  • Back Bar Liquor / Mixer Storage – Liquor storage is critical behind the bar.  With larger pieces of equipment like draft and back bar coolers resting behind the bar, there isn’t always an excess of space to store liquor bottles.  Speed rails are important for this reason; they are a great way to store well and bottom shelf liquor bottles that don’t necessarily need to be displayed, as well as things like lime juice, grenadine, vermouth and other cocktail mixers.  However, it is a tradition that top tier liquor be displayed for customers, and most bars do this as a way to silently boast of their variety.  Many of these displays are custom made for each bar, and though these are great for liquor storage (as bottles just need to be capped or wrapped at the end of the night), mixers will need to be refrigerated over night.  There must also be an additional back bar or undercounter cooler for milk, orange juice, or other refrigerated mixers that must remain refrigerated at all times. 
  • Back Bar Wine Storage – Many bars will have both wine racks and small wine chillers behind the bar for wine storage.  Since some wines need to be chilled, and others are best stored at room temperature (usually slightly lower), this gives bar owners the ability to keep several varieties of wines on hand.  Wine racks are usually stored around the liquor shelves (for display / décor purposes), and back bar wine coolers are usually situated under counters.
  • Surplus Wine / Liquor Storage – Chilled wines are usually kept in the bar walk-in, although some higher-end wine bars will invest in a wine cellar / cooler.  All other liquor and wine bottles can be stored at room temperature; however, they are nearly always kept under lock and key.  Most bar coolers are locked when they are not in use by bar managers, and wine and liquor bottles / cases are usually stored in security cages or locked storerooms.  Liquor and wine are two of the most expensive spirits being stored in a bar or restaurant and as a precautionary, it is best to utilize secure storage to keep track of inventory.
  • Soda Fountains / Dispensers – Soda has become a staple of mixology.  Aside from rum & cokes or 7 & 7’s, soda of all varieties has begun to infiltrate cocktail mixing.  In the 21st century you would be hard pressed to find a bar that does not have a soda gun, as they are the most convenient way for bartenders to make soda based drinks or offer soft drinks to patrons.

Ice Bins, Sinks, Ice Machines:  Water and ice are another tremendous part of a functional bar.  There are several different facets in this category that need to be taken into consideration.

  • Ice Machines – Every bar needs access to an ice machine, and most bars will be equipped with an undercounter unit.  Bars go through incredibly large amounts of ice, especially during extended rushes (for example a Friday night), and it would be inconvenient for bartenders or bar backs to have to travel to the back-of-the-house every time an ice bin needed refilling.  It is important to determine the amount of ice used before deciding the size of a necessary ice machine, while still keeping proper amounts of ice on hand during rushes.
  • Ice Bins – Insulated ice bins are a must for every bar.  They keep ice on hand for bartenders, have durable insulated stainless steel construction, and most empty directly into drains.  This is important because it not only prevents water from collecting around ice, but also allows ice to melt overnight so the bins can be cleaned and sterilized before the day’s shifts.  Most ice bins come with insulated sliding lids which are designed to extend the life length of a bin full of ice.  They come in a number of sizes, and it is best to determine how many ice bins will be needed before trying to size one out.  Having several smaller ice bins at large bars can often be more efficient than having one large one.
  • Bar Sinks – Similar to ice bins, it is important to size out a bar sink(s) before buying.  They take up a larger portion of bar space, and when water lines are available, it is often best to have more than one bar sink at large bars.  A common rule of thumb is to have one usable sink per bartender during a peak shift.  Unlike back bar refrigeration equipment or ice machines, bar sinks use resources when they are needed, so they won’t cost you money when you aren’t using them.

Glassware, Glass Washing / Dishes:  Just as important as what people will be drinking is what they will be drinking it out of.  Keep the following in mind when setting up your bar.

  • Beer Glasses – Depending on what your bar will be offering, a variety of glassware will be necessary.  Bars offering beer will need pint glasses, pilsner glasses or beer mugs (especially when beers are served in cold glasses).  Craft beer bars require a larger selection of glasses; including beer snifters for strong brews like double IPA’s or imperial stouts, weizen glasses for wheat beers, or even specialized snifters like tulip glasses or flutes for lambics are not uncommon in these types of establishments.
  • Wine Glasses – Most every traditional bar should purchase large, “all-purpose” wine glasses.  These glasses are meant to hold around 4-8 oz. of wine, and leave plenty of room to swirl and aerate the wine.  Wine bars, or bars that have large wine lists will often purchase a variety of glasses, as there are glasses specific to certain varieties of reds, whites, and flutes for champagne.  Most wine bars will have as large a variety of glasses as a craft beer bar, and like many of the stemmed beer glasses, all wine glasses have crystal counterparts that are marginally more expensive, but significantly stronger and clearer.
  • Cocktail, Shot, & Specialty Glasses – Shot glasses are fairly standard behind bars.  Most bar owners / restaurateurs will know whether or not their bar will offer shots, and if so, what varieties of shots.  Cocktail glasses are also a must for businesses offering mixed drinks.  Martini glasses, margarita glasses, highball glasses, and rocks glasses are relatively standard.  However, specialty operations or bars that offer high-end liquor will invest in glasses particular to what they are serving.  For example, there are tequila shooter glasses for top shelf tequilas, upscale bourbon or scotch glasses, and even small tulip glasses for grappa or limoncello.  It is important to make note of any such specialty liquors or cocktails you will be offering when stocking up on glassware.
  • Glass Washing – Since glassware needs to be rinsed clean, many bars opt not to wash their glasses in a dishwasher along with dirty plates.  Bars commonly purchase automatic glass washers for placement behind the bar, or manual glass washers to be placed in bar sinks.  It is important that bus boys / bar backs constantly take old food plates (should the bar offer food) back to the main dishwasher, as they cannot and should not be washed in a glass washer.
  • Drying / Storage – Like plates in a kitchen, it is imperative glasses be dried, or allow to air dry after being washed and sanitized.  Most bars either have an area set aside for glasses to dry, or have bartenders / bar backs dry them by hand after washing.  After they are dry, they need to be stored in convenient areas, and in ways that will not damage the glasses.  Glasses which are more prone to being chipped, such as pint glasses, can be purchased with tempered rims to prolong the longevity of the glassware.  In addition, many glasses have stackable counterparts which facilitate tall stacking to conserve bar space.  Most wine glasses and stemmed beer or specialty glasses are traditionally hung upside down and out of the way.  These glasses are usually fairly delicate, and since they cannot be stacked, this is one of the best ways to store them when not in use.

Countertop Equipment / Accessories:  Bars need an assortment of other accessories and equipment to offer their customers a full drink menu.  Don’t forget about these smaller items when shopping to stock your bar.

  • Blenders / Frozen Drink Machines – Frozen drinks are a popular concoction these days, especially in the summer months and on patio bars.  Commercial blenders are ideal for bars that only produce a few frozen drinks at a time, but for higher volume frozen drink production a frozen drink machine is perfect.  They allow batches of frozen drinks to be prepared in advance, and keep them perfectly chilled all day.  They are ideal for patio rushes or bars that offer an assortment of frozen beverages.
  • Shakers / Cocktail Mixing – Cocktails require shakers, jiggers, cocktail strainers, cocktail stirrers, and precision pourers to help your mixologist make things happen behind the bar.  Full sets of wine accessories, such as corkscrews, wine collars, and plenty of replacement caps / stoppers are also recommended for operations that offer wine.  Plastic pouring bottles for mixers like fruit juice are important to keep on hand.
  • Cutting Boards & Prep Utensils – More often than not, bartenders will have a number of prep tasks before they start their shifts.  Bartenders / bar backs will require cutting boards and paring knives for cutting fruit, lemon zesters, and sometimes larger cutters for higher volumes of fruit like citrus, or more difficult fruit like pineapple.  Additionally, ice scoops (both large and small) as well as ice buckets are a necessity to fill ice bins and glasses.  Many counties are beginning to require ice scoops that feature hand guards and ice buckets that hang down for sanitation purposes, so it is important to look at local ordinances before stocking up.  And of course, everyone who has ever been in the industry or even in a bar knows that bartenders should be stocked with plenty of bar towels.

Furniture, Décor, & Layout:  Bar layout and décor is the final item on this list, but is easily one of the first and most important things to look at.  It should constantly be brought up or thought of when shopping for all of the aforementioned “cogs”.

  • Bar Layout – It is very important to know how much space there is to deal with when planning out an area like a bar.  Everything that needs access to power must have it, and the same goes for ventilation, water or drainage.  For more information on how to layout your bar area, check out our Buyer’s Guide entitled TIPS FOR CONFIGURING A DINING ROOM & BAR AREA .
  • Furniture – Bar stools are a must for every bar; even bars that are adjacent to pools have underwater stools for patrons.  Restaurant bars often offer additional seating, either at high tables, or booths as well, so it is important to offer an adequate amount of seating.  Do make note, however, to offer areas to stand, or things like dance floors if your establishment tries to dissuade customers from parking at the bar.
  • Décor – Your bar’s décor should match that of your entire establishment.  This includes the actual bar design, decorations, furniture, and even glasses and utensils.  Many bars will get custom glasses made for their establishment, as there can be little or no extra charge for designs on large quantities of glassware.


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