flickr photo by joo0ey shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

You got out of work early and decided to go for a few drinks with people from work. One thing leads to another and you’re halfway through your third drink when you check the time. It is then you realize that you haven’t eaten in several hours.


The drinks you and your friends are drinking are strong, too: the bartender has a loose wrist when pouring. You need to eat before you get sloppy. Now, at this point you’re still able and willing to go out, but the bar you’re in has food so you order there rather than leave your comfortable seat. You have a few bites, have a few more drinks and all in all have a great time.

The biggest winner in this story is, of course, the bar owner: not only did he make a nice bit of cash on the first few drinks, he also had some income from the food and kept the drinkers drinking, earning more on top of that. Lovely,

Keep them in, Keep them Drinking

In my experience the trick to making money in a bar is to keep your customers inside and on the sauce. Alcohol creates a kind of inertia: once you’re somewhere where you feel comfortable you won’t want to leave. The trick is to play on that, to make sure customers see no need to go anywhere else for any reason. The drinks they’re imbibing do the rest of the work for you.

That same inertia can work against you, though: as soon as customers leave to go somewhere else there’s a decent chance they won’t come back that night. Once they’re out of your bar the spell is broken and they realize there are other bars to go to besides your place. They’ll go to one of them and get comfortable there, instead.

Eat, Drink and be Merry

In my experience the most common reason people leave a bar they like, besides needing to go to bed, is to get food. Many a bar owner has seen countless dollars slip through their fingers because of customers making a fast-food run. They go out for a quick burger and they’re not seen again until the next day or week.

By serving food yourself you can avoid this and, again, it’s a solution that can make you money twice over: the food itself turns a profit as much as the drinks taken after. You’ll notice an increase in your check averages really quickly. The food needn’t be fancy either: plenty of places seem to do just fine with some microwaved spare ribs or a quick toasted sandwich. In fact, I’d advise against doing anything too fancy; before you know it you’re running a gastropub rather than the watering hole you set out to launch.

Keep it Simple

Complicated food menus do have another drawback: your staff and facilities may not be equipped to handle it. After all, they signed up to shake cocktails and pour pints, not create the newest culinary invention. You’re best off keeping it simple for their sakes with dishes that take little time to prepare and don’t take too much attention away from the core tasks of preparing drinks and entertaining customers. By limiting the menu to quick snacks you’re doing just that.

A great example are finger foods: you can often buy them prepared so all staff need to do is pop them in some bowls and you’re in business. Examples might include peanuts, potato chips, etc. Customers will keep munching them all evening to stave off their feeling of hunger yet the continuous nibbling will keep them thirsty at the same time. You can charge a decent amount for these, too, and they cost little to stock. The best thing about them, though, is that they look pretty fancy and will steer well away from the greasy-spoon image of toasted sandwiches and the like.

Another trick to serving food in a bar is to work with the tools you’re given: if you’re low on fridge space don’t stock twenty pounds worth of spare-ribs. You’ll also need to take into account what your state or city says about this sort of thing, it could very well be that you can’t serve any food at all unless you’re licensed up the wazoo. Make sure you check and then make sure you think up a menu that works well for your bar as well as local regulators.

Serving food is a great way for bars to make money while keeping customers happy. The biggest challenge when putting together a food menu is to keep it simple, but if you can figure out a decent balance that fits well in your business you’ll be laughing all the way to the bank.

Fergus O'Sullivan

Fergus has spent a lot of time in bars, both behind and in front of them. He likes to share the expertise gained during this long, fuzzy time with others on the Internet.