I spent my twenties in restaurants while I worked on my writing. The end result: I wrote a book about it, which makes me an expert on this subject—if, of course, you ignore the fact that I got fired from every decent restaurant in NYC and have been out of the business for years. But then last fall I got the above picture and a text, “Wanna design a bar?”
Sure I knew what a bar should look like, but I had never done a construction project this big before—We had a plot of land and 10 days until the start of tourist season to make four empty shipping containers into a Caribbean take on a food truck park.
It had all the makings of a barrel-of-laughs weekend project that I could start with a friend, and six months later, we got a really nice write up in New York Magazine and I’m enjoying the view from our #4 spot on Trip Advisor. Here’s what I learned by dropping everything and moving to Belize to open The Truck Stop with my best friend.
1. If you like entertaining, just throw parties. The only reason to ever open any restaurant is because it makes good business sense. Your Cornell degree in Hospitality Management does not get butts in the seats.
2. The Basketball Rule applies to bar designs. The Truck Stop is about as simple as possible: ice, beer, booze, glasses. But if your bartender can’t make a drink, wash a glass or pour a beer without “traveling,” it is designed wrong.
3. Every body needs a knife. Open a box, cut a rope, pick your nails while you wait for the hardware store to open after lunch. It’s your knife. Also, a little coconut oil will keep it lubed up and prevent rust.
4. You need women in the workplace. I’ll say it. Having the guys around is a blast—making jokes about swamp ass, throwin’ tools around. But if a woman’s candor and helpful viewpoint can tumble your entire Jenga-pile of a plan, then maybe that’s on you. Your goal is to make the best project you can, not to protect your dumb feelings there, brah.
5. Vacations are just about the most overrated experiences in the world. Happiness in the Caribbean for me comes from work, from sweat, from figuring out who has the goddamned circular saw and using my Oakleys as eye protection. I was up every morning at 5:30 and I slept harder and better than I would if I’d sat in some air-conditioned resort doing karaoke with other people from the States.
6. Designing a restaurant kitchen is a science; designing a bar is an art. Frier, range, stove, prep. Those are boxes on a diagram that any chef could make you. But how do you design a bar where every seat is the good seat? Where every shelf is the exact size for the glass that goes there? Where there’s a little spot just out of the way in the sink for your muddler to rest? Where the jigger can dry and never go missing?
7. As Steve Jobs once said, “You have to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.” Indecision paralysis could have crippled the project. So we made a short list of decisions. We wanted free Wifi. How strong? Strong enough to upload a photo from the tables.
8. Fuck the phrase, “The customer is always right.” Because it’s wrong. To be as crass as possible, the only go-to rule in business is that the money should always be right. The number one drink in Belize is called “the panty ripper.” It’s a weak mix of coconut rum and canned pineapple juice with a blood red gash of grenadine syrup. It’s gross even before you think too hard about the name. I was informed that customers would be ordering that. I was informed that we could not make fresh lime daiquiris in the style I had studied in Havana without also offering Strawberry daiquiris from an expensive imported mix with artificial colors and sweeteners. But we were customers when building this place. Wood, plumbing, hardware, labor. We were wrong constantly. If you want a “panty rippa” go the fuck down the street. The nearest bar is a mile away.
9. Think of construction as hardware and your menu as software. Just 5 days left, we still didn’t have a sink. You really just have to put new software on an old computer to know what a nightmare that is. I can change the cuisine overnight; I could turn the whole place into a bubble tea cafe between lunch and dinner. I could probably even switch up where my 300-lb beer cooler lives. But I cannot put the sink anywhere else than right there. So you better know exactly where it goes from Day 1.
10. Don’t ever be so sure of yourself that you can’t stop short of the finish line and start all over. We were opening in 3 days. A rainstorm rolled in and filled our dining room with mud. According to our design, bar patrons could hide under the wings of the windows. According to what we saw while getting splashed inside of the bar, that wasn’t going to work. The next day we had to rethink the roof so that the bar would become the automatic safe haven in a rainstorm, and good drinks to keep them cozy in there.
11. It’s always a disaster until it’s done. Pouring concrete. Editing a movie. Epoxying a bar. Writing a book. Building a bar on a sandy isthmus of swampland at the tail end of the rainy season.
12. Make as many mistakes as you can, as soon as you can. And “fess up when you mess up.” You can improve the bar by finding out what ways won’t work, but people are still counting on you to get it done.
13. Every new business is a startup. And that doesn’t mean you need ping pong tables in your office. It means you need analytical engineering on every product you produce. When it came time to epoxy the bar, we could have ruined the whole thing on the first shot. But we started with just one countertop. We did it, we made some mistakes, we did another and made some bigger mistakes. Then we brought in some more muscle and we had to keep them from making the mistakes that we thought were great ideas the day before. When I see the bar now, I can still see some of our mistakes. Also, we ended up putting in a bocce court instead of ping pong.
14. For every benefit of working with friends, there’s a drawback. For every drawback there’s a deep relationship that makes you both human beings and will make you better friends. The best contractor in the world can’t bring you your favorite candy on a shitty day. A high-priced architect won’t ever know how to design it, “Like that bar we went to in San Francisco when you were still dating Nikki.”
15. Be vocal in your praise. I like this. I love that. This works great. I’m really glad you thought about that. I didn’t get what you were saying before, but now that you put the soap/tequila/refrigerator here I can see so much better. Do this and do a great job on it because it’s the only way we’ll know we can stop working on that and move on to the next disaster.
16. Your parents were right about breakfast. There’s a little speech I give everyone on their first day:
-Rule #1: We take care of ourselves. Eat a good breakfast. Try and get some sleep.
-Rule #2: We take care of each other. Cleaning, carrying, restocking. Scheduling.
-Rule #3: We take care of business. Every transaction, every inventory, each drop out of those liquor bottles and every person who brings them to us.
^That is our entire employee handbook.
17. None of those people who dreamed of opening their meatloaf restaurant ever planned on how they would manage their staff. For 10 years I worked for some dumb asshole who wanted things done just one dumb way. It’s much harder work to give a person a reason to come to work. We pay well. We train well. When you have the choice between being the “fun” boss or helping someone’s career and life and the life they will provide for their children: Maybe check in with rule #2 once in awhile.
18. Opening day is a bit like being a groom on your wedding day. Realistically this day is not about you. At the start you just kinda want it to be over. In the moment you can’t remember who you saw or how you actually liked the food that was agonized over just weeks before. But being there while these things happen matters more than whatever else happened.
19. The best adventures are ahead of you. I built a bar with my best friend. How many people get to say that? But now that we’re in our thirties, having a good friend isn’t about knowing every single detail about the other person’s life. It’s about having someone to call because someone just offered you a book deal. It’s about picking up your friendship days, months or years after you’ve last seen each other as if nothing has changed. It’s about calling your friend and saying, “Hey, I think I have an idea for a bar and I’ve got a million questions.” In that sense, it’s no different than teaching stick shift or picking prom dates or even putting in a sink. Being a good friend is about thinking of the user, and then working backwards.