What exactly does it take to open a new bar in Toronto? We track the week-by-week progress—and expenses—of Avro co-owners Rachel Conduit and Bruce Dawson as they prep their new Kensington Market tavern, Handlebar.
After half a pitcher of beer, it’s easy to say, “You know what—we should open a bar!” But opening a bar requires the ability to finesse application forms, wield a hammer, and put your money where your mouth is. Rachel Conduit, co-owner of Riverside’s The Avro, walks us through the weeks leading up to the grand opening of her new Kensington Market saloon, Handlebar. Spoiler alert: there’s paperwork involved.
Week One: Finding a space
Rent deposit: first and last two months’ rent. (Real-estate agent fees are paid by the property owner.)
Insurance deposit: $1,500
When Conduit and her business partner Bruce Dawson decided to open a second bar, they wanted a challenge. The Avro, their cozy East End watering hole, had become a local staple, with a roster of regular customers and events that run the gamut from pen-pal nights to stand-up comedy.
Conduit scoured the city for possible venues, checking out Bloorcourt, Parkdale, Dundas West, and Gerrard East. She was searching for the perfect blend of neighbourhood character, population density, and bars that already drew crowds. Some areas, like Parkdale, were good fits on paper, but bylaws prevented new bars from opening. Others just didn’t have a destination vibe.
Ori Grad, Conduit’s real-estate agent, says, “People really want to be in Parkdale, and other areas doing well right now are King Street and Ossington.” Some areas are cooling: “The College strip has been on a downswing for the last few years: Dundas and Ossingon are stealing their thunder.” Grad, who specializes in bars and restaurants, credits Toronto’s explosive condo market: “There’s so many more people in the city. The density is remarkable, and there’s an awful lot of opportunities to cater to them.”
In the end, Kensington Market won out. “The neighbourhood has such character, and really innovative bars are moving in. They’re doing something different, and bringing a vibrant scene to the area,” Conduit says.
Week Four: Paperwork
Register business name: $45
Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) application and advertising fee: $2,800
Zoning fee: $400
City-inspection fee: $500
Electrical inspection: $1,500
Having settled on an address (and paying what she says is “a ton of money” on deposits), Conduit got down to business. Opening a new bar in the city requires reams of paperwork and plenty of cash, which Conduit acquired through a personal loan. Before she even collected the keys, Conduit had registered her business name with Service Ontario (“Should it be Handlebar or The Handlebar?”), and filed paperwork for her liquor licence, setting in motion a complicated process that involves multiple inspections from several city offices, zoning assessments, and work on plumbing and electrical systems.
Arguably the most important piece of paperwork is the liquor-licence placard, the poster-sized notice in the storefront window alerting the neighbourhood to the new business’ intentions. It was only a few days until she got a call from Adam Vaughan‘s office. The city councilor’s contestation was a standard piece of politicking that attached rules to the use of the space. A patio requires a day at the civic centre, applying for a boulevard licence that requires, among other things, letters from the landlord and site plans for neighbouring buildings. Conduit says that her AGCO contact kept her on track. Even though the process is “tedious,” Conduit’s advice is to get the paperwork out of the way first: “It clears the way for the fun stuff.”
Week Seven: Moving in
Renovation costs: $25,000 (depending on size and the state of the venue, costs can range up to $100,000)
Fridges: $800 (on Craigslist)
Facebook page: free
Twitter account: free
When I ask Conduit what the most annoying part of the whole process is, she laughs, puts on a voice, and mockingly asks, “‘You know what you should do?‘” Folks constantly stop her on the street to offer their ideas, and the attention is both wonderful and overwhelming.
Her to-do list is long. Conduit, who rarely drinks beer, has to decide what’s on tap. She and Dawson need to come up with a signature cocktail. They need to figure out how to serve food, a requirement of their liquor licence. Conduit estimates that she, Dawson, and their friends and family have already put in 1,000 hours of work on tasks as diverse as installing toilets and painting ceiling tiles. She meets with brewery reps and local politicians. She soothes local residents’ concerns about noise, line-ups, and graffiti. She tweets and Facebooks about the new bar. They are building a brand, a space, and a customer base. She works 16-hour days, seven days a week.
Conduit is part of an ongoing transition in Kensington, from the bakeries, fish-mongers, and fruit vendors—primarily daytime operations—to post-sundown establishments. The neighbourhood’s nightlife has growing steadily over the past few years, making room for a diverse group of bars. Thirsty and Miserable specializes in beer, while Cold Tea offers innovative cocktails. New venues Detour Bar and Poetry Jazz Café join The Embassy and Ronnie’s Local 069 as popular destinations. These new arrivals have eased into the neighbourhood by incorporating local influences—cocktails feature market ingredients, area brews are on tap—and patios stay full until last call. Katie Whittaker of Thirsty and Miserable says that she can see different types of people visiting the area at night, and Cold Tea’s Stacey Welton adds, “There is a nighttime, weekend contingent of people [coming into the Market], but we have a really solid group of locals, and seeing lots of familiar faces is pretty nice.”
Week Ten: Design
Couches: $800 (second-hand)
Bar stools: Between $60 on Craigslist to $200 new, each
Website hosting: $200
There are two handlebars guiding the design process: the bike kind, and the facial-hair kind. But Conduit, who cycles to business meetings, knows that bikes don’t really conjure a mood: “I’m not going to cover the walls in spandex,” she shrugs. Handlebar will thus take its inspiration from the iconic moustache to create a dark, cozy, tweedy tavern. (Moustaches will also play a part in fundraising events: Conduit and Dawson already have plans for Movember, the annual men’s cancer–awareness month in November.)
By comparison, nearby cocktail bar Cold Tea took their cues from Spadina and Dundas. “The design is something we did ourselves and, because we’re so close to Chinatown, we really played on that connection,” Welton explains. Welton and her two business partners took a year to transform their formerly raw space, and covered the renovated walls with Asian-inspired murals by local artists Michael Comeau and Mangopeeler.
Handlebar’s biggest design hurdle is its sheer size: The bar is 1,700 square feet (not including their patio) and, as per the AGCO’s capacity-calculation formula, should be licensed for 120 patrons. (The Fire Marshal ultimately determines the exact number.) In order to whip the space into shape, Conduit is relying on a small army of volunteers: A group of friends came out to help paint, and she’s been calling in favours and negotiating discounts. Her biggest challenge? “I didn’t realize how many chairs you need. Here’s a seating section, here’s 40 chairs.”
Week Thirteen: Staffing Up
Server minimum wage: $8.90/hour (Conduit and Dawson pay $10)
Point-of-sale system: $2,000
Craigslist ad: Free
“No bartending-school graduates,” Conduit says firmly when I ask what she hates to see on a résumé. Her employees at The Avro were people who had barely shaken a cocktail before, but who can hold their own behind a bar rail. “Realistically, in a bar, it’s like: Here are the glasses, and here’s the stuff that goes in the glasses. We hire based on personality—can you carry on an engaging conversation? Can you talk to people you don’t know, and make them feel welcome? Because anyone can put stuff in glasses.” (Conduit says she still loves Toronto’s innovative cocktail scene, but acknowledges, “We’re just not that kind of place.”)
It’s unorthodox, but it works. The Avro still has the same tight-knit staff that opened the bar almost two years ago. For Handlebar, Conduit and Dawson want a staff of seven, including barbacks and servers. Conduit hopes that there will be room for promotion at Handlebar: That barbacks will become bartenders, and servers can become managers. “The goal is for everyone to move up a position, and move on to other jobs with more experience.”
Week Fifteen: Opening Day
Band fee: Free, if you’re friends with musicians
Liquor and beer: $2,500
Ice machine: $1,600
Conduit is aware of the delays: “Everyone always thinks it’ll take less time, they can do it themselves, they can do it for cheaper. I’m not ashamed to admit it now, but the budget really pushed things back.” Conduit and Dawson will start slow, with a soft opening before August to thank friends and family for their hard work. “The amount of support that’s come in, with people coming into the space to help, offering assistance, spreading the word, and just being excited—that has made it,” she says.
Conduit and Dawson are brainstorming a roster of events to keep energy high: barbecues, garden experiments, live music and comedians, and, tying back to the bar’s theme, group bike rides. They’re excited to continue their reputation as community builders and to try new programming. But first? The official launch, still a few weeks in the future. Conduit promises a “big fuckin’ opening. I’d love to get Neil [Rankin, a bartender at The Avro]‘s band Gay to play, and to have dancing and booze: all the things that the people like.” Here’s hoping there’s enough bike parking outside.