What Kind of Bar is this, Anyway?

What’s the oddest thing that any of your bar patrons have ever done? Some customers have strong opinions about whether a bar is an appropriate place to, say, bring small children or read a book; however, not everyone agrees on these matters.

The basic definition of a bar is really just a place where one can go to order a drink. Beyond that most basic fact, the rest gets decided through those who run the bar and those who patronize it. If you’re operating a drinking establishment, you may feel as though you’ve seen it all. Subtle and not-so-subtle ways you run your business have a direct effect on what most patrons will and won’t do. In any case, it’s best to be prepared to handle any situation that might one day arise.

All Fun and Games Until Someone Breaks the Law

Your bar may serve food, or it may not. Perhaps you have a very limited bar menu. If that’s the case, do you allow outside food? Should you?

Obviously it would be great to serve food if doing so would be profitable, but in some cases it clearly wouldn’t be. Many patrons love a bar where they can have a pizza delivered, but whether allowing them to do so would violate health codes will depend upon exactly how and where your establishment is licensed, so just make sure you’re familiar with local ordinances.

New Yorkers have made jokes for years about the notorious 1926 “cabaret laws” that make it technically illegal to let three or more people at a time dance at a bar that’s not properly licensed, but if your music is great and too loud to talk above, it is no surprise if people dance. If you’ve never run a business in a place as absurd as New York, this has never been a legal question for you, but if there’s a specific tone you’d prefer your establishment to have (jovial and sophisticated versus wild and raucous), then the availability, type, and volume of music will have an impact.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

This brings us back to the question of patrons who bring a book to a bar. It may sound odd to the majority of bar patrons, but some people love being out and about, sipping a couple of martinis, seated a bar while poring over a great book. When lights are dimmed, they take this as a hint (even if it wasn’t necessarily meant as one). Depending on your location, bar readers could be some of your most loyal customers, so maybe you don’t want them “taking the hint.” The point is, depending, in part, on what day of the week and time of day it is, the question of lighting – whether it actively encourages or actively discourages this behavior – may deserve some consideration.

Just as some of your potentially most loyal patrons may be bar readers, some loyal patrons may be parents who would love to be able to bring their young children along when they meet up for a beer on a Sunday night. From a legal perspective, there’s no law (in New York, at least) against accompanied children being in a bar; at the same time, at a federal level, there also seems to be no law against banning children even at restaurants if an establishment so chooses.

Years ago, several of my friends living in the Long Island City area of Queens had a perfect neighborhood spot where parents often brought their young kids. The bar was so child-friendly that my friends ended up throwing their four-year-old’s birthday party there! It would be an understatement to say that the bar owners and staff didn’t mind; having them as regulars was a real boon to business, especially when that brought a crowd from Brooklyn who ordered drinks well into the evening. The birthday party took place on a warm summer day, and the birthday girl herself was adorably putting away one drink after another (club soda).

Guide Your Business, and Let it Grow

Your business decisions should always come down to your bottom line, but that’s not a simple matter when policies you have in place might win over some patrons while alienating others. The way you run a business should always include safeguards to protect your business from liabilities. Beyond that, things are more complicated.

What kind of establishment is yours? The answer is determined by a subtle give-and-take. Your business is your baby, after all. You’ll do your best for it, but it’s also going to develop a character all its own.


Josh Saunders