If you are any kind of drunk at all, you’ve dreamed of owning your own bar.
I mean, just picture it: You’re standing there in a tux, sipping a martini, as suave as Rick from Casablanca, while people swill away, filling your pockets with cash so you can buy what? More booze, that’s right. Maybe you’ve even looked into it far enough to realize you’ll never pull it off. You need a mountain of cash to get yourself in Rick’s shoes, money to buy it, set it up, pay employees, purchase the inventory of booze, not to mention the taxes, licenses and assorted paperwork . . . and it just keeps going on.
But what if—just what if—you opened a drinking establishment that bypassed all those hassles, what if there was a way to realize the dream without the any of the work?
Then you’d be speaking about a speakeasy. You know, those illegal booze palaces that sprung up during Prohibition, with the little slidey window thing in the door. You give the right password to the thug behind the window and the next thing you know you’re boozing it up with bobbed flappers, ice-eyed gangsters and well-dressed society types swilling illegal rotgut.
The modern version isn’t quite that cool, but it’s cool nonetheless. How do I know? Because I actually run a speakeasy and, what’s more, I’m going pass my secrets of success on to you. Here’s how:
Step 1: Share the Dream
Even though you’re ducking most of the work, setting up and running a successful speakeasy is no small task. You’re going to need a little help from your friends. From your foremost drinking buddies, select a group you trust and get along with—four should do. Motivate them with the idea you are all embarking on a wonderful boozy adventure together. When they’re sufficiently enthralled with the idea, shoehorn them into these jobs:
The Bartender: This person not only has to know how to mix drinks, but how to deal with drunks and know when to cut them off. I know what you’re thinking: “Cut someone off? Not at my beautiful booze palace!” Trust me, you’ll have to do it at some point.
The Floor Manager: This is the friend you think you can trust with money and is good at schmoozing and organizing. He’s responsible for collecting the take from the door and bar, counting it, doing pay-outs and putting the profit in a safe place. It’s important to routinely collect money from the door and bar; if the doorman or the bartender get too drunk they may lose track of where the money went. Trust me, it happens.
The Bouncer: This is the crap job so you may want to rotate the responsibility or make sure this person gets a lot of breaks. Their job is to keep order, check ID’s and make sure no one gets in without paying. He will want to get drunk. “Hey,” he’ll figure, “it’s a speakeasy, why must I obey the rules if no one else is?” So watch him. Have a back-up in case he goes crazy. And at some point, he will. Wouldn’t you?
The Runner: This person has to stay at least mostly sober, so he can make runs to the store to get mixers, more booze, change, or whatever you run out of. And you will run out, because you won’t be able to afford a fully stocked bar. The runner is also good for relieving the bartender and the doorman so they can take breaks and not go crazy. Because they will.
The Stage Manager: He’s only necessary if you intend to do live music, and you probably will. This person books the bands, does sound, and makes sure no one walks off with your equipment.
Step 2: Finding Your Booze Palace
Okay, you’ve got your drunken band of hooligans together, now it’s time to find the perfect place to host your highly illegal operation. There are three things you need to look for when choosing: Location, Landlord, and Size.
Completely contrary to the logic of running a legal bar, the best place to put a speakeasy is well off the beaten path. Being close to real bars, while convenient for you, can get you in trouble. Bar owners tend to frown on operations like yours. All they have to do is look at their empty till, then gaze across the street at the line of customers outside your door, and their fingers suddenly find themselves tapping 911 into the nearest phone. They don’t need the competition and, what’s more, don’t have to put up with it. Instead of saluting your fine entrepreneurial spirit, they’ll be angry you didn’t jump through all the hoops they did. You’ll also want an area where there are few police patrols and no residences. Where is this magical place? The warehouse district, my friend.
A landlord can make or break a speakeasy. You want someone who doesn’t really care what you’re up to, so long as you pay the rent on time. Feel out the person who shows you the place, gently probe him about how interested they are in what you might or might not be using the space for. Don’t tell them straight out, that’s the formula for raising future suspicion, just mention you might throw a fund raiser or two for your fledgling business. Ask them about prior tenants, whether the area is zoned for residential living (more on that later). Steer away from big real estate companies; believe it or not, they tend to be more nosy than the little guy.
You’re going to need a big place because, to make your dream financially feasible, you’re going to have to live inside your speakeasy. One rent is always better than two and it saves you a drunken drive home after you close down at six in the morning. Make sure there are at least two bathrooms, a shower, and a place to put a kitchen. A building where you can do some remodeling without the landlord flipping out is good as well, as you’ll want to build a bar, a stage for the bands, a lounge area, and bedrooms to comfortably pass out in.
Step 3: Camouflage And Subterfuge
So, you’ve put down your deposit on your speakeasy and you’re ready to start pouring the hooch, right? Not so fast, Mr. Capone. Jump in half-assed and you’re going to get raided before you tap your second keg. Your first and best defense against the law shutting you down outright is setting up your joint as a legal art gallery. In most states in the US, the art gallery is the illegal boozer’s loophole. As long as there’s art being shown, you can serve booze to the patrons and the cops will most likely leave you alone. You might want to go as far as running it as an actual business: talk to local artists, get work up, charge commissions, and keep it changing. Not only does this provide a cover for your sinister plan, it gets you some support and free advertising from the art community. And you know how powerful and influential they are.
Step 4: Building The Bar
You’re going to want to build an actual bar, it’s what separates a speakeasy from a kegger. There’s not much to it and it needn’t be as fancy as the one at the Astoria. It’s basically a rectangle with a top. Drive behind the warehouses in your neighborhood, they throw out all sorts of industrial equipment and building materials. All you need are 2X4s and plywood, somebody in your group will know how to swing a hammer at a nail. Cover the wood with beach towels or a tarp and there it is. You can find all the sofas and chairs you need in the back alleys of residential districts. Dumpster dive lamps and wall hangings. It’s okay if your decor leans toward eclectic, it’s an illegal booze palace, for crissakes. Collect as you go and soon enough the beautiful disaster will come together.
Step 4: Getting The Juice Flowing
The good news is you don’t have to have midnight meetings with shady bootleggers, unlike the good old Prohibition days. You can pop right down to the liquor store and load up. Better yet, try to get it for free.
Hit up the local microbreweries for sponsorship deals. It helps if you have a good snake-oil salesman type in your crew. Microbreweries are always looking for advertising and exposure for their product, inform them if they give you a few kegs you’ll hang their banner over the bar. It’s not as unlikely as it sounds, beer is like dirt to them, they generally have more than they know what to do with.
Keep an eye out for discount liquor and beer warehouses that sell damaged goods.. Shop around, one place may have cheap cups, another cheap mixers, a third great booze specials. Spend the extra time and your perseverance will show up on your bottom line.
Step 5: Legalities
This is the sticky area. At some point you’ll have to decide just how illegal you want to be. After some experimentation, I arrived at a happy medium, choosing to enforce a few rules, namely:
21 and over, ID at the door. Yeah, this goes against the very spirit of a speakeasy and if could time-travel back to when I was a teenager I’d probably call the present me a fascist or worse. On the other hand, fines for serving underage kids drinks are extremely stiff. All it takes is one high school punk to drive his mom’s minivan into a lamppost and you’re in the clink. Proper art galleries have been getting in trouble for this, simply because they have no one checking IDs. So put someone trustworthy at the door, and, even if you do let the occasional 20 year old in, you are less likely to get hassled by the man.
Door cover, free drinks. Again this is a compromise, but in most states, it’s less illegal if you charge a cover then let them drink for free, then actually charging them for alcohol. Don’t despair about your profits, that’s why you have a roommate do the bar, the tips go into the group kitty. I have discovered the tips usually outweigh the door money.
Step 6: Music To Soothe The Drunken Beasts
The best speakeasies of lore not only poured illegal booze, they dished out jazz and burlesque. Having bands and DJs is a good way to entertain your guests and bring in a crowd. The only downside is bands require a decent sound system and that can cost. Try to get someone involved who has the equipment, or offer to have a band practice there in exchange for using their PA. A lot of local bands, especially the punk rockers, will revel in the idea of playing at an illegal bar.
The bands may want money, but try to talk them into playing for exposure and all the free booze they can drink. The latter is usually enough for most bands I know.
Step 7: Getting The Word Out
It’s a tightrope. You want to get the word out so you can draw crowds and make money, but you can’t make too much noise or Johnny Law will come knocking. Word of mouth is slow, but it’s the best way to stay below the Man’s radar. Pass out a lot of handbills, get some cards made, hand something to everyone you talk to. This is where having bands comes into play, because they’ll do the advertising for you.
Step 8: The Payoff, or What’s All This Green Stuff?
So, you rounded up some booze, got the word out, threw a hell of a party and didn’t get busted. Now what to do with the money? Pay back all the roommates who threw in cash (make sure everyone saves receipts), set aside seed money for the next party, and maybe invest in improving the facilities. There’s always something more you can do: update the PA, rig up a CO2 system, build a better bar and so on. After these essentials are taken care of, split the booty up amongst the gang.
Some final advice:
Don’t get discouraged. It takes awhile to build up momentum and there’s a learning curve, so stick with it. Also accept you are taking a gamble, you may get a fine, you may get evicted, you may even go to jail. But you may also have a hell of a time, drink as much as you can stand, and make some money. Always remember, anything worthwhile is a gamble.