Opening a bar in Atlanta? Skip the expensive dining chairs (and other tips from bar owners).

The road to nightlife glory is lined with broken dreams

How to open a bar

Illustration by Israel G. Vargas

The thought crosses the minds of anyone who’s drunk one or 10 too many beers: Why spend money in someone else’s bar when you could run your own version of Cheers? But opening a bar—and keeping it in business—takes a lot more than finding a cheap location and hanging a neon sign. We spoke with several proprietors of Atlanta watering holes about what it takes to not lose your sanity and shirt in the process.

Get ready to become besties with local government: Liquor licenses. Fire safety plans. Business licenses. Zoning approvals. The pathway to open an establishment that serves alcohol is a long and circuitous one that winds through City Hall, the county health department, and neighborhood meetings. The city’s application for a liquor license alone is 20 pages long. Johnny Martinez, the co-owner of Old Fourth Ward’s Joystick Gamebar and the Georgia Beer Garden, says the process in 2012 took them roughly nine months. “It’s easy to miss one [neighborhood] meeting and then be put off by a month on your schedule.” The process has even spawned its own cottage industry of expediters.

Be sure you like bars: Bar owners might wait a year, or even longer, before paying themselves a salary. And the job is tough. After opening Lean Draft House in the West End along the BeltLine’s Westside Trail, owner Leo Inestroza spent two years working nearly 15 hours every day in the combo bar and motorcycle museum, sacrificing time he could spend with his family. “I love beer, tacos, motorcycles,” he says. “If you’re doing something just for the money aspect, you’re going to be disappointed. There are other businesses [in which] you can invest time and money and get a better return than the restaurant business.”

cost of annual license and initial fees

Watch your pennies: Before opening the Porter Beer Bar in Little Five Points, Molly Gunn helped open Flying Biscuit Cafe locations. The job taught her how to schedule permit applications and sign leases. Thanks to those skills and taking over a former restaurant space, she and her husband, Nick Rutherford, were able to open the Porter for roughly $165,000—paying off the initial investment in roughly two years. Scour thrift stores and antique shops for cool—and less pricey—decor, says Gunn. Don’t buy $230 chairs when $20 ones will do, says Brandon Ley, co-owner of Joystick and the Georgia Beer Garden. Draft beer is popular, but losses from foaming and poor pours can add up, says Inestroza. “Take your time and pour it correctly.”

Hire good workers—and respect them: You can teach someone how to mix a drink, but you can’t teach someone how to be nice and have common sense, says Inestroza, so look for hard workers with strong people skills. Once the bar is up and running, listen to them to learn about new trends, Gunn says. And help them not get worn down by the grind of the bar industry. “I tell my staff, on days off, let’s exercise, go for a walk,” Inestroza says. “Get out of that mentality.” And make sure they understand you and your vision. “If you want your personality to be in that bar, they have to get you,” Martinez says.

This article appears in our September 2019 issue.