Owning a Bar in Phuket
How to Run a Bar
In the final article in our series about running bars in Phuket, we look at what it takes to make a bar successful. Many people try, most fail, but there are a few bar owners still going strong after many years. So what does it take to make these bars work?
Well in the final analysis, it mostly comes down to the owner. There are other factors but when you delve deeper, it mostly comes back to the owner.
So if you are thinking of going into the bar business you have to ask yourself - 'if so many others have failed, what do I have to make my bar succeed?'
Do you have the sort of sparkling personality and razor wit that will bring the customers back again and again? Can you keep a party atmosphere going in your bar night after night?
What about contacts? Do you know lots of people in Phuket? Do you have contacts that can send customers your way?
Do you have lots of friends in your home country who will come and visit? Really? I mean lots and will they really visit?
For most people new to Phuket and new to the bar business, the answer to these questions is 'no'. So what is left to give your bar a chance?
A lot of the guys starting out in the bar business think their big advantage is going to be their Thai girlfriend. After all, a lot of them picked her up in a bar. She probably knows quite a few other bar girls and possibly quite a few customers as well.
Well I would say that unless she is unusual she is probably not going to give you an edge. For a start, most of the other bar owners also have Thai girlfriends. And if she was a bar girl it is unlikely she has any useful contacts. Probably she knows other bar girls, bar owners and a few old customers that she can't bring to your bar anyway because she doesn't want you to see them.
In fact, I would go further. The girlfriend may well prove to be a disadvantage. She may expect free drinks every night cutting into your already meager margins. She may well want to give the other girls free drinks as well. It is difficult for her to go from being one of the girls to being the boss. Most Thais are naturally generous and want to share whatever they have with their friends (even if what they have belongs to you). She may well find it difficult to scold or give orders to the other girls. Of course, some go to the other extreme and lord over the other girls causing friction and resentment.
So unless your girlfriend is unusual, it is still going to come down to you. And probably your best chance of success is going to be hard work.
Before you open, you should already have learned as much as you can about how to run a bar. You do not want to be reliant on anyone else to run your business. You should have gone around the bars, met other bar owners and gleaned as much information as you can from them.
Have an opening party. Invite everybody you now. Friends, neighbours, other bar owners, anybody you can to get yourself known. Lay on a good spread of food and dish out plenty of free shots.
Once the bar is open, you need to be there a lot. Maybe not all the time, but definitely a lot. In the first article we said it is a tough and unhealthy lifestyle. Well that is the way it is. If you are not at your bar, you may well lose precious customers. Also there is every chance that some of your takings will disappear into staff pockets.
In the early months you may decide to have no time off at all. Once the bar has settled down it is a good idea to give yourself a regular day off. Try to make it the same day every week so your regular customers know when you won't be there.
Now comes the most important part of the job - socialising with the customers. Introduce yourself but don't force yourself on them. Some people want a chat with the owner, some don't. You have to make that judgement. Single guys will often want a chat. If you can introduce them to other customers in the bar and get some repartee going then all the better.
Remember to listen to them. They may want to hear about your life in Phuket but they probably also want to talk about themselves. Making customers feel welcome and wanted is everything.
Repeat customers are what make bars work. While some of your repeat customers may be local residents who come every week, most will be tourists. They may come every night for two weeks but then they will be gone. They still matter because next year they might come back. This is what makes tourist bars so tough to run. You have to find new customers all the time to replace the ones that go home. And it is not until a year later that you start to benefit as your old customers return.
The longer you can keep your bar running the better. It takes years to build a good base of repeat customers but once you have that base, the profits will start to build. It is a good idea to plan for a loss in your first year. As well as the money for your initial investment, you should set aside money to cover your first year's losses. This is probably the biggest single reason why so many bars go under. Their owners make the unreasonable assessment that their bar will immediately go into profit and do not have anything set aside to cover the losses.
You should try to stay in contact with your regular customers. Take their e-mail addresses. Some bar owners send news updates about what is happening at the bar or even updates on what the customer's favourite bar girl is doing. I know some bar owners that will book rooms for their customers or even collect them from the airport. It is all about making them feel important.
One other thing to consider is networking with other bar owners. You should not think of them as competition but rather teammates. Having a few bar owner friends is a useful asset. Have a drink at each other's bars and swap news and advice.
Your customers probably don't want to stay in the same bar all night, every night. Rather than have them wander off to other bars, take them to one of your friends bars. Of course, if your bar owner friends never reciprocate then you will quickly give up on that idea.
Your staff are an important asset. A small beer bar will probably have one or two Thai staff on salary. A bartender/cashier and maybe a waitress. Trustworthy and reliable staff are not easy to find. They are an important part of the bar, not only serving customers but also interacting with them and adding to the ambience of the bar.
You need staff you can trust even when you are not there. If you do not know anyone then asking around the other bar owners and their staff should quickly put you in contact with someone. The standard salary is around 6,000 baht a month. If you find staff you really like, it may be worth paying a little bit more to make sure they stay.
Apart from your paid staff, most beer bars will have bar girls. This is where the headaches really start. Some bars actually pay their bar girls a salary. It gives them a bit of leverage over the girls to make sure they turn up on time and work well.
Most bars only provide their girls a room. This will probably be a big room in a shared house at the back of town. All the girls will sleep in the same room when they do not have a customer. Other than the room, it is up to the girls to make their own money from the customers.
The bar girls are the first thing a customer sees about your bar. They will be the biggest single factor in drawing new customers. Once the customers are there, your hospitality will be a factor in keeping them there and bringing them back. But getting them in is the bar girls job.
You want attractive girls. You also want them to look happy, lively and friendly. You want them to try to draw passing customers into your bar but preferably in a nice way rather than the grabbing and pushing technique some use.
Once a new customer is in the bar, the girls will try to get drinks from them or sell themselves to him. Again, you want them to do it in a nice way. Preferably one girl at a time and if the customers make it clear they are not interested then the girls should leave them alone.
If the girls are successful in selling themselves to the customer then that is good for you. You will make extra money from ladydrinks and bar fines. If a girl picks up a long-term customer then you want her to bring him to the bar most nights so he can buy a few drinks and pay his nightly barfine.
That is what good bar girls should be like. The reality is usually a bit different. They will come late and leave early. They may mope around and look miserable driving customers away rather than inviting them in. They will probably have petty squabbles and cliques. Some of these petty things may turn into big dramas.
It is all part of the baggage that comes with dealing with bar girls. It is best to try not to fight with them. If you try to lay down the law, the most likely reaction is they will all leave. A beer bar without bar girls is stranded. It is better to go through a constant nagging and prodding process until you get them working the way you want.
Finding bar girls for your bar can be easy or can be difficult. If you have a popular bar then they will come to you. If you do not have many customers then the girls will go elsewhere and you are stuck in a circle of no customers because no girls and no girls because no customers. It is a hard cycle to break.
Dealing with bar girls is a chore. Some bar owners are good at it, some never get the hang of it. I don't think any actually enjoy it.
It is possible to make a living from a bar in Phuket. A handful of bar owners even make a good living. However, it is tough. The lifestyle is tough and also making money is tough. There is a lot of competition, a long low season and business rules are stacked against you.
If you are going to make it, you will need to work hard and make good business decisions from the outset. The first and one of the most important decisions will be choosing the right bar and getting the right lease.
It is so easy to fall into traps early on that you cannot escape from later. Remember, you cannot treat this as a hobby and throw money away on it - this is a business and its aim should be to make money. If you make hard-nosed business decisions, work hard and hang in there long enough you have a chance.
If you have money to throw away on a hobby - take up golf.
Owning a Bar Part 1- Is it Worth It - This article looks at the lifestyle of a Patong bar owner. Not at the problems of actually making money from one of these bars but simply at the quality of life the bar owners enjoy (suffer).
Owning a Bar Part 2 - How to Start - The second article in our series about owning a bar in Phuket looks at how to get started in the bar business.