How to open your first bar — landlords, money and more

Advice from four award-winning bar operators.

How to open your first bar — landlords, money and more
Stefano Catino and Martin Lange. Photo: Christopher Pearce

It’s the dream, right? If you’ve worked in and around bars for a while, you likely have some strong opinions about what makes a good bar. You might have even begun to wonder if, perhaps — one day — you might open a bar yourself.

That’s a sentiment I’m familiar with — opening a bar of one’s own is a goal for many of us who have ever worked behind the stick. It’s a natural instinct, I think: when you work for other people it’s hard not to think about how you’d do things differently if you were the owner.

But there’s also a lot of things about the process which you won’t know until you’ve done it. You might have run venues, you might have opened a bar for someone else, but when it comes to the ins and outs of contracts, dealing with landlords, and just how much money it will take (and where to get that cash), the only people who really know what it takes are those who have done it themselves.

Stefano Catino, Martin Lange, and Oska and Dani Whitehart. Photo: Christopher Pearce
Stefano Catino, Martin Lange, and Oska and Dani Whitehart. Photo: Christopher Pearce

And, as we talk about on this week’s episode of Drinks At Work, bar ownership isn’t necessarily for everyone — it takes a certain type of person.

This episode is a recording of a live interview with four such people I held back in June at the Better Bars Summit presented by Glenfiddich during the Bartenders’ Weekender in Brisbane. It took place on day two of the summit — which itself was on day three of Bartenders’ Weekender — so you’ll hear my voice is only just hanging in there.

But it was the last session of the day and boy was it a good one: on the panel, we had Stefano Catino of the Maybe Group and Maybe Sammy, which has landed on The World’s 50 Best Bars list five times since opening in January 2019; he was joined by Martin Lange, owner of several Brisbane bars over the last 15 years, bars like the excellent Cobbler in West End, Death & Taxes, and whose latest bar Antico, won the title of Best New Bar at the Boothby Best Bars QLD awards last month. Those guys have owned bars a while now, so to give some fresh perspective we also spoke to Dani and Oska Whitehart, the owners of Bar Bellamy in Carlton in Victoria. Their neighbourhood cocktail bar — which is one of my favourite bars anywhere — opened just over a year ago to rave reviews, and they picked up the award for the Best New Bar in Victoria last year at the Boothby Best Bars VIC awards too.

We start the conversation by getting some background on each of our speakers before diving into the nitty gritty of what it takes to open a bar; why, in today’s market, you need to be good at many different disciplines; and how the landlord will make or break your business. Martin also breaks down the mistakes he made opening his second bar — one which he sees as a complete and utter failure — and why he’ll never make those mistakes again. And this is no small thing I think — we so often talk about the success stories (and Martin has a few of those himself), but we rarely talk about the things that go wrong — so a big kudos to him for being genuine and honest and wanting to help others.

It’s that kind of generosity, I think, that can make the industry and our bars even better.

While I have you — I’ve got some good news: we’ve published a print magazine! It’s called Bottled and we launched it up at the Bartenders’ Weekender in Brisbane last month — and it’s now available to buy. There are over 100 pages of stories about drinks and the people who make them from around the globe — stories you’ll only find in print. You can read more about what’s in the magazine and get your own copy at We’re shipping around Australia, New Zealand, the whole world really. I can’t wait for you to read it.

Three quick takeaways

“I like to make my own mistakes,” says Stefano Catino.
What kind of person wants to own a bar, especially when they might make more money — at least initially — by working for someone else? For Stefano, it’s that he does want to be the one in charge making decisions — and mistakes. For Martin, it’s something else: “it’s always been freedom, and owning your ideas,” he says.

“The landlord will make or break your business,” says Martin Lange.
That’s right, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done to revolutionise the Milk Punch. You might have a great product, exceptional service — but if the terms set by the landlord at the start aren’t right, you leave everything you have built exposed. “You really need to pay attention to your landlord and anything that is a red flag,” says Lange. “If it doesn’t feel right just don’t do it.” Lange himself is open about the mistakes he made in this regard early on, like paying for rent a year in advance.

“Don’t be afraid of getting into debt — but have a way to get out of it,” says Oska Whitehart.
As the panel points out in this episode, the best money to use to open a bar is not your own. And bars have forever been financed by that wealthy customer who just loves sitting at the bar and talking your ear off — and would love to own a place of their own. Or there are other ways to find the money. “You’re better off to get a loan from a bank,” says Martin, “if you have parents with a house or something to put that as a security if they want to, if they trust you enough to do that.”

You can listen to Drinks At Work on Apple PodcastsSpotifyAmazon Music and on Android.