The past 12 months have not been kind to Bangkok bars. Many of our favorite places threw their last party in 2016, from time-worn favorites like Moose to short-lived newcomers such as 72 Courtyard’s UNCLE. Here, we spoke to a few bar owners—both new and old, Thai and expats—about their struggles starting out and staying open.
1. Paying the Rent
One of your biggest costs is going to be rent. But while other businesses like convenience stores can make money round the clock, bars have to deal with strictly regulated hours, on top of other factors like Buddhist holidays.
Blake Sibbitt of real estate agents bkkbestlife.com
sheds light on just how expensive prime nightlife property can be. “I know large Western sports bars of 600 sq meters that cost B1,000 per sq meter (per month)” he says. “It’s not uncommon to have that kind of rent. A popular two-floor sports bar is on the market in Asoke at B385,000, another one at Phrom Phong for B600,000. There’s a go-go bar in Nana that’s over a million a month.”
At the other end of the scale, he says, a small, seating-capacity shop-house bar space on Ekkamai is currently for rent at B45,000 per month. We tried to get information about rents at existing bars around Silom and Sathorn but none of our bar-owner friends would spill a word.
After a little research, we found one small shop-house next to BTS Sala Daeng for B150,000 a month, and another, even smaller space, between Silom Soi 5-7, for the same price. Rents around upper Sathorn cost in the ballpark of B50,000-100,000, while over on Thonglor, a shop-house listed as “minutes from the BTS” costs B120,000 a month.
Mikys Cocktail Bar
2. Getting in the Booze
Once you’ve found the right space, your next struggle is going to be getting a licence. “It is really difficult to get an alcohol license in Thailand,” says Michele Montauti, the 23-year-old Italian bar owner of Pan Road’s Mikys Cocktail Bar
. “If you don’t have a strong Thai admin office behind you, if you’re just one expat alone by yourself, it is impossible to open a bar in Bangkok.” And if your desired real estate is near a school, you can automatically forget it. Thai law bans outright any bar from operating within 300 meters of a school.
Once you do have that license, you need to stock that bar with quality booze, which means either signing a contract with a single supplier or going it alone.
“If you sign a contract you are only allowed to buy from one supplier,” says Montauti. “But there’s also an option of not signing a contract. Of course prices will then be higher, but you’re not tied up to selling any specific brands. For me, I buy from everyone, I didn’t sign any contracts.”
Alternatively, Vogue Lounge
on Sathorn is signed into a two-year contract with Pernod Ricard, one of the biggest alcohol suppliers in Bangkok whose brands include Chivas Regal whiskey, Jameson whiskey, Jacob’s Creek wine and Havana Club rum.
“I like working with these guys a lot because not only do they supply alcohol, they also get involved with the bar, supporting and promoting you,” says Thomas Deledalle, the bar’s general manager.
His head bartender, Francesco Moretti, says about 80 percent of his signature cocktails use Pernod products, but he has the freedom to sell other brands too. “We only do happy hour promotions using products from Pernod. Of course sometimes you have customers who want to drink a specific brand. We can provide for them but then they don’t get the happy hour prices.”
The penalty for breaking the contract is also pretty slim: “We just don’t get as many bonuses, discounts and freebies,” he says.
Malt & Salt
3. Pleasing the Cops
Perhaps the biggest unknown of opening any bar in Bangkok is exactly how to maintain a relationship with the authorities. Police and army raids have been a consistent presence of 2017 so far, with Ekkamai’s Dark Bar among the latest to get knock on the door from the boys in brown.
Unsurprisingly, we couldn’t find any bartenders willing to go on the record with just how much they have to pay and who they need to pay it to. But there is one consistent in their veiled, wink-wink answers: the police will visit you, and the best you can do is get along with them.
Panupan “Boat” Thamphetrarak, the owner of new whiskey bar Malt & Salt
, which he previously ran as a restaurant called Burger Factory for three years, says things were a lot easier when the space focused on food. “When we were a restaurant, the police never really bothered us,” he explains. “But within two months of establishing it as a bar, we had two visits from the police. We played it cool, stayed humble.”
’s owner, Pattarit “Bink” Jittawait, agrees: “Be humble to the police, never try to brag about what powerful people you know. Just do what you have to do.”
4. Doing Things Differently
Having cash, patience and contacts can get you through the logistical and legal maze of opening a bar in Bangkok. But to pull in the customers, that’s not enough. “If your bar doesn’t have a strong focus or character, if you’re not doing something different, your business will most likely not survive,” says Boat, the 33-year-old owner of Malt & Salt.
But even if you get all that right—the perfect location, beautiful decor, amazing drinks at just the right price—and the customers start flooding in, don’t expect running a single bar to make you rich overnight.
“Opening a bar is not the business that’s going to make you the most money,” says Rabbit Hole’s Bink. “Before you open, you’ve got to be OK with that. If all you’re after is money then you might as well go invest in the stock market.”