How to Open a Mobile Bar
The beloved sitcom "How I Met Your Mother" put it best: At one point in your life, you utter five words you eventually come to regret. According to Ted Mosby, more often than not, these five words are, “We should buy a bar.” Of course, owning a bar is a huge undertaking and not a flippant business decision, but if you have the passion, it can actually be quite lucrative — and you won't regret it at all.
Mobile bars, which have vastly lower startup costs than even your tiniest local haunt, are a booming new trend in the alcohol industry. They might even be the next food truck, which is a tall order. Unfortunately, the alcohol business is highly regulated, so you will need to obtain a license and abide by strict serving laws, but it’s simple to get started from there.
You don’t need any education to own a mobile bar, but you might want to have some knowledge of the bartending industry. Working as a bartender for a year can really help you learn how to run your business smoothly and realize what works and doesn’t work in a bar setting. You may even want to take a bartending course and get a certificate. Knowing how to make a good cocktail is an invaluable skill.
In addition to ramping up your bartending knowledge, you might want to join the National Bartenders Association or International Bartenders Association. They’ll offer you advice and resources while keeping you up to date on recent trends in bartending. The industry lives by trends, and when all your customers suddenly start requesting an aperol spritz, you want to be ahead of the curve.
Searching the web for examples of mobile bar business plan PDFs will show you that there’s a shocking number of options. The licenses for each business model vary, so before you can sort that out, you need to nail down your business model. You’re likely choosing from four options:
- Portable Bar: This typically targets indoor corporate or nonprofit soirees and weddings where a bar would need to be quickly assembled and dismantled for the singular event.
- Motorized Van: It’s like a food truck but a bar. This one gets tricky because of open container laws but will work well at outdoor events that already have temporary alcohol permits.
- Trailer Bar: Trailers are big enough to offer some seating and provide a trendy, sun-shaded option for events like festivals, concerts and fairs. Some trailer bars travel the entire U.S. serving drinks at various events across the country. It’s certainly an exciting way to live.
- Drink Stall/Gazebo: This has lower startup costs than some of the other options, and it could be an excellent place to start before you upgrade to a van or trailer.
Once you decide on the type of mobile bar you plan to run, you need to create a business plan. This can help you get a business loan if you don’t have the funding and make sure you have a clear pathway to profit.
It should outline things like your target demographic, your monthly overhead, your startup costs and how much you expect to make in the first couple of months after you launch. Don’t worry, you can always go back and change it later.
All businesses have certain legalities that they need to handle, especially when alcohol is involved. If you’re opening a bar, you need to decide on your business structure so you can get a tax ID number from the IRS.
Most commonly, a small business will start out as an LLC, which you can create online for a couple hundred dollars. You might also want to opt for a corporation, S corp or partnership. If you’re simply running a mobile bar stand by yourself, a sole proprietorship might work.
You’ll also need to obtain a business license from your local municipality before you can start making sales, but you’ll need to load up on the required insurance first. This is very important because alcohol consumption notoriously causes accidents. You’ll need a general liability plan, but you should extend your coverage to a liquor liability plan as well. You could also pick up additional insurance, like a commercial auto plan (if you’re opening a mobile bar truck) and event liability insurance (which is sometimes required if you're operating at festivals, weddings and corporate events).
There are some pretty tough restrictions for mobile bars. Open container laws vary from city to city, different states require different vendor permits and in some areas, liquor licenses are extraordinarily limited and really expensive. For example, a liquor license can run you $1 million in New Jersey, where they’re limited to one for every 3,000 residents. It's a necessary evil — or is it?
There is one small way to carefully craft your business plan to avoid needing a liquor license. In some states like Missouri, you can legally serve alcohol at private events, but you just can't charge for alcohol. In this scenario, your client would provide you with the alcohol for the event, and they're essentially hiring you to bartend or show up with an unstocked mobile bar (also known as a dry bar).
Of course, your mobile bar will probably be more profitable if you’re the one selling the liquor. Contact your state’s local alcoholic beverage control board to find out which licenses you’ll need to legally operate.
The equipment for a mobile bar varies depending on your business model. You’ll need the basics like a draft system, glassware, shakers and even frozen drink machines, but most importantly, you will need a bar. There are a lot of options depending on your budget.
For example, the bar-on-wheels company Road Soda converted a vintage Airstream trailer into a one-of-a-kind mobile bar, but Airstream trailers can cost more than $30,000, and that’s before you refurbish it.
Other mobile bars have used horse trailers, which perfectly suit rustic, outdoor weddings and are a fraction of the cost. Portable bars for indoor events are even cheaper. You can order a fully branded 77-inch mobile bar for less than $2,000 online.
When you’re running a mobile bar, alcohol is your main product. This means you’re going to need to find a wholesaler that gives you the best prices on beer, liquor and wine. Never underestimate a good relationship with a good wholesaler because they can always cut you deals.
Ultimately, you’ll want to find a wholesaler that is flexible because your needs will probably change. If you’re working at weddings and corporate events, you’ll likely sit down with the event planner and create a menu that includes one or two wines, one or two types of beer and one or two signature cocktails. In a festival setting, you’ll probably want to stock a mix of high-end and low-end offerings so your customers have a variety of options.
To find a good wholesaler, search online or ask local bars. Never underestimate Costco’s offerings when you’re just starting out with a tiny pop-up bar.
You might have the trendiest mobile bar, but you won’t get anywhere if no one knows your bar exists. You can get started by applying to vend at music festivals, fairs and other outdoor events that allow alcohol sales, but you still want to have a solid marketing plan and a website that clearly outlines your rates along with customer testimonials.
The world of weddings and corporate parties has a pretty good track record when it comes to word of mouth, so once you get the ball rolling, it could snowball. Start with a solid Instagram and Facebook strategy. Some videos and snaps of your delicious cocktails go a long way.