What is a Mobile Bartending Business?
What if your favorite bar followed you to parties?
It can. And you can own it.
Similar to, and perhaps because of, the recent boom in the food truck market, many entrepreneurs are setting up mobile bar businesses. These are essentially bars to go: For a set price, event planners can bring the whole bar to the party. And because of the relative ease of setup, low startup costs, and a straightforward business plan, knowing how to value a mobile bar business can lead to smart investment from a savvy business owner.
Owning a Mobile Bar
A mobile bartending business is a flexible, fast-paced move to make. Unlike a traditional bar, a mobile bar won’t have the slow nights of bad business that drive bar owners insane. Because mobile bars are usually hired for large events, like corporate gatherings, weddings, or festivals, owners can be sure that instead of trying to get the crowds into the bar, they’ll be taking their bar straight to the crowds.
Traditional bars require a massive investment of money and time. Bar owners pay high rent and spend almost all their time either at the bar, tending the bar, or dealing with the vast amounts of paperwork that go with running a bar. But a mobile bar owner has the enviable option of making the mobile bar business a secondary gig. Many of the people who own mobile bars work a typical 9-5 before making side money on the weekends – just like many student/bartenders, actor/bartenders, parent/bartenders, etc.
The first thing to know about mobile bars are that they’re a relatively inexpensive option for a startup. Here are a few costs you’ll need to be thinking about.
The most popular mobile bars are the ones that have done the best job of branding. From the sign on the front of the bar to the business cards, there’s consistency across every platform. Look at WolfPig, operating out of Denver, Colorado. The business name is instantly memorable. Plus, it’s in a classic ’57 Ford with earthy-looking wood paneling in the back and a full list of suggested signature cocktails. Their social media presence is evocative of their base of operations: mountains, open roads, the outdoors.
A mobile bar can be almost anything. If you want a tiki bar on wheels, that’s possible. If you want to be a luxury cocktail bar, that’s achievable too. Know what you want your bar to be, and the clients will follow. But be aware that some types of branding will be more difficult, and more expensive, to pull off.
The most important startup cost is the bar itself. And the bar can be anything. In Austin, Texas, the Speakeasy Mobile Bar is built into a chrome 1960s Airstream trailer, giving an intimate speakeasy (natch) vibe with seating available. Also in Texas is Trucky, a farm van turned bar. The possibilities are endless. Ice cream trucks, RVs, even pickup trucks will work.
Alternatively, some mobile bar businesses opt for a more traditional bar, but one that is easily broken down and transported in the back of a vehicle. These sorts of mobile bars are easily set up and taken down, giving even further flexibility.
Creating the Right Decor
Once you’ve bought the bar itself, you’ll need decor. All of the above examples have been tastefully decorated to create enticing, even photo-worthy mobile bars. That can cost a bit of money.
For decor, you’ll need paint, signage, lighting, trim, a backsplash, maybe even some plants. Look at the well-executed wood paneling and vintage guitar amplifiers in the popular Aero Bar. Some mobile bars also provide seating. You might consider buying an outdoor sofa or dining set so that your guests have somewhere to relax while they sip your cocktails.
Speaking of cocktails, you’ll need to buy equipment for your bar. Depending on the type of bar you’re hoping to run, that will require buying mixers, shakers, measuring equipment, bottle toppers, muddlers, and containers for garnishes. It’ll also require refrigeration, blenders for your margaritas and Mai Tais, and piping if you’re planning on serving beer out of kegs. Altogether, that can cost a few thousand dollars.
Permits and Insurance
As with many new businesses, there are legal issues associated with opening your own business. A cocktail bar on wheels is no different. Most states, like California, Texas, Ohio, and New York won’t give a liquor license to a mobile bar, which is to say that you won’t be able to actually sell alcohol. States willing to issue licenses can charge thousands of dollars, and often require liquor sales to happen in one static location, meaning you can’t take advantage of the “mobile” part of your mobile bar business. But there’s a way around that issue: working at private events.
Most mobile bars working at weddings, corporate events, or similar parties will sit down with whoever has done the event planning and sort out exactly what’s needed. They may choose one or two wines, one or two beers, and a couple signature drinks. The host of the event pays for the alcohol, and the mobile bar business takes care of the rest. It can seem like a mild inconvenience, but not having to apply and pay for a liquor license takes a large burden off the business owner’s shoulders.
Legal issues do remain, though. You’ll need to pay for an expensive insurance policy. Liquor liability insurance protects you from financial liability in any lawsuit related to consuming alcohol. You should also have coverage in the event that a partygoer damages your bar. These insurance policies can cost hundreds per year, but protect you in the case of an inebriated person getting hurt.
You’ll also need to create a legal entity for your small business. That means creating a business bank account, registering for taxes, setting up accounting software, starting a website, and more.
Speaking of drunk customers, you’ll need to hire experienced and competent staff. Bartending can seem easy, but there’s more to it than knowing a Tom Collins from a Gin Rickey. At every large event there’s that person who insists he or she is good to drive, can handle more drinks, isn’t being a problem. You need staff who know the signs of when to cut someone off, and who are assertive and confident enough to do so.
And that means paying them well. Many mobile bar businesses pay as much as $50 an hour to their bartenders, not including tips earned at the event. In fact, some businesses actually treat the bar and bartender as separately-available entities. Your bartender could tend an event without your mobile bar, or you could send the bar to an event to be tended by the organizers.
Value a Mobile Bar Like You Value a Bar
At the end of the day, a mobile bar is just like a stationary bar; the valuation lies in all of the above considerations. Your upfront investment is relatively small in comparison, but with similar smart branding, a great product, and bar service know-how, you can turn a portable bar into a lucrative long-term moneymaker. Just like a bar that’s not on wheels.