How to Find the Best Suppliers for Your Bar

After you know what you need to run your bar, find out what’s available from different sup-pliers. Because food-service brands aren’t typically mentioned on menus, you have quite a bit of flexibility in deciding whom to buy food products from. No one knows what brand of canned tomatoes goes in your chili. Liquor is a bit trickier.

In most areas, a single distributor is available for specific brands of liquor. So if, for example, you want to carry Bacardi rum, you must buy it from one particular company. It’s a little trickier to negotiate great deals, especially if you have to keep certain brands in your bar because the company has a monopoly on a particular brand.

You may not be able to say, “Forget it. I’m going to buy Ronrico Rum instead,” if your customers really want Bacardi.

Not only do states dictate which vendors carry a particular brand, but some states also set prices. No negotiations. In these cases, the volume you sell of a particular liquor is irrelevant. You won’t get a price break if you buy three cases, for example.

So in these cases, your negotiations with salespeople have more to do with other services they can provide you, such as bar supplies (napkins, rail mats, and so on), training opportunities for staff, recipe development using their mixologist, merchandise for giveaways, and promotional opportunities (including bringing in street teams or hosting distiller dinners).

How to set up supplier relationships with your bar

Whenever possible, figure out what you need before your sales rep tells you what you need. Sales reps can be a great source of information, but don’t rely on them as your only source. Remember, they’re in the business of selling you products. The more you buy, the more money they make.

Here are some tips to keep in mind when working with suppliers:

  • Talk to other bar and restaurant owners to see where they buy their products. For the most part, this business is made up of people willing to help each other out.

  • Be aware enough about your business to know whether something is good or bad for your business. Easier said than done, but it gets easier with time and experience. You have to be smarter about your business than the salespeople.

    Salespeople often get bonuses for selling certain products over others. Those products may still be great for your business, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Just know what you want and why you want it, and stick to your guns.

  • Be leery of decorating your bar with liquor branding. Some liquor or beer brand neon signs or logoed mirrors may be great. Paper pennants from a low-end beer brand may not match your bar’s positioning. Don’t sacrifice the look and feel of your bar for free decorations. Use the posters, signage, and the like to enhance, rather than detract from, your own brand.

  • Invite your sales reps to your bar to see your setup. Show them your kitchen and its limitations. Go over your menu with them. Show them your supply list Talk to them about your expectations. Show them your delivery area and storerooms so they get a feel for any logistical challenges.

    In the world of value-added food service products (or food products that have some or all of the preparation steps, like marinating, chopping, or peeling, completed for you), your suppliers may have great suggestions for products that can be executed in your existing kitchen with a very limited kitchen staff.

  • Buy quality products, always. Quality products rarely disappoint customers. Depending on how you price your drinks, people may not feel like they’re getting a value, but it is recommended that you maintain a high quality and charge appropriately.

  • Shop for the best price. Don’t shop around for the best price on individual items from separate suppliers. Instead, contact potential vendors with the full list of products you want to purchase and look at the overall best price. Suppliers have more leverage to give you better pricing when you do a larger volume of business with them.

If suppliers aren’t interested in getting your business, they aren’t going to be interested in servicing your business. Make it clear to them that you want them to understand your business and how you want it to work. You’re setting up an ongoing relationship, not just buying groceries for the week.

How to keep the good bar vibes going

The best sales reps understand their clients’ business and bring them ideas, new products, and opportunities in the marketplace that can benefit their business. They must understand your goals, business, costs, and order and delivery requirements to do their best job for you.

Always ask about return policies and get them in writing. All suppliers will have one before you buy, but then may conveniently forget it afterwards. Getting it in writing ensures that both parties are playing by the same set of rules.

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