Bulgarian Experiences: Running a Bar
This post was originally published in Stara Planina Properties newsletter on 14th November 2008.
I am a person who likes taking on different challenges and moving on in life so after a career in I.T., back in England, I came to Bulgaria a few years ago for a change of direction. After awhile kicking back and enjoying the gloriously long summers I decided I needed to actually do something productive with my time. Bulgaria has a great cafe bar culture and I’d always fancied myself as a bar owner so I thought I’d give it a go.
Whilst I love the bars in VT, one thing that was lacking was a student bar that played alternative/retro music. Armed with this niche, I set about finding some suitable premises. The place I found had been a bar before (and indeed a leather factory before that) but hadn’t operated for 6 years. It was located in the old town near the Hotel Yantra and oozed character with a high vaulted ceiling and a small garden with views over a church and the river below. Inside it was big enough for about 50 people and the garden outside again could take 50 people. The fact that it had operated as a bar beforehand was good news as I didn’t have to apply for change of use (which is long and bureaucratic procedure). The first hurdle was out of the way. However, because it hadn’t operated as a bar for 6 years, the license had been revoked and I would have to apply for a new one after jumping through the following hurdles:
- Ventilation Inspection
- Health & Safety Inspection
- Health & Safety Sound Test
- Fire Inspection
- Building Inspection (Structure and Electrics)
Before embarking on any works it is advisable to ensure that the bar will meet the requirements of the above listed hurdles. If so, then the next step is the works. First you need to find a reputable designers to draw up your plans for the bar layout, electrical circuits and plumbing. Once these are done they need to be rubber stamped at the municipality. A point to note here is that if the building doesn’t already have 3 phase electricity then you’ll more than likely have to pay to upgrade it to handle ventilation and/or AC.
If you’ve renovated a property in Bulgaria before, or in the UK for that matter, then you know the rest. You need to coordinate an architect, builders, plumbers, electricians and joiners. If the architect is late, the electrician and plumber are late. If the electricians or plumbers are late then a builder can’t plaster a wall or concrete a floor. If the builders are late then the joiner can’t install the floor, wood panel the walls or install the bar. Unfortunately, delays are inevitable and every day costs you money in potential revenue. When the bar is, finally, finished you can bask in the glory of your achievement. Now it’s time to hold your breath and get the inspectors in.
Once the inspections are over, it’s time to pay a little more tax and get your license and permission. A great feeling as once you have this, it’s just a matter of paying a small fee each year for the alcohol license.
So you now have a legal bar, it’s time to solicit offers from bar suppliers, buy and register a cash till, buy an adequate sound system/ TV, fridges, ice machine, glasses, spoons and find a cleaner and bar staff. Getting the right staff is very important for a bar as they are the front end to the business. It’s important that the staff that you employ fit the mood of your bar because if they fit the mood then so will their friends and they will come to the bar. With this in mind, being a student bar, I advertised on the notice boards at the University. Once you have one or two staff, then it snow balls as they suggest friends and friends suggest friends etc.
After you’ve been running for a while, be prepared to make compromises. One of the biggest mistakes you can make in business is sticking steadfastly to your ideas and ignoring the wants of the customers. If I had my way, my bar would play alternative rock music every night but this is not what the students want. I compromised by playing just popular alternative rock along with Bulgarian rock (no Chalga thankfully!), Reggae, a little Hip-Hop and, of course, lots of Depeche Mode. Listen to your staff; they have a good idea of what music the locals like. They can make suggestions and you can see if it’s appropriate for your bar. This applies to all aspects of your bar, be it music, drinks, decor etc.
If your bar is successful then, if you have the space, you may also need to invest some or all of your profits into expansion. As the summer months approached, I created a paved area outside so we could have a beer garden with benches and chairs. I employed a local joiner to craft bespoke tables and chairs out of thick wood and tree stumps. The results were very impressive but my staff described them as Flintstone furniture! Take note that, unlike the Brits, Bulgarians don’t like sitting directly in the sun, so parasols or complete covering may be needed. So, after paving the whole garden, the winter months approached and I realised that the garden was going to waste, and the main bar was becoming too full. I had to compromise on the garden and build an extension over half of it to create an overflow for the main bar.
It’s a risky business, most bars close after their first year, but if you find the right niche, mood and staff you’ll have a great time and make some money. Da Da Bar is now the most popular student bar in town (not so difficult given there are over 10,000 students!) and also attracts a varied mix of internationals some of whom live locally and some who come from the many hostels located nearby.