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How to run a mobile bar

If you enjoy attending festivals or events, you might have entertained the idea of running a mobile bar.

But before you raise a toast to your new business idea, it’s time to sit down with a sober head and work out if it’s right for you.

We’ve put together a guide to everything you need to know about running a successful mobile bar, from gaining alcohol licences to choosing the right catering insurance to taking on staff. Read on to find out more.

Getting your mobile bar idea up and running

Many people who run mobile bars are already working in the trade, running pubs or nightclubs. That gives them experience, licenses, and buying power to keep drinks costs low.

If you’re starting from scratch, you’ve got quite a learning curve ahead of you, so you’ll need to do some solid research. This can include chatting to people with experience of running mobile bars, who hold a wealth of information about events, audiences, and selling techniques.

Ask yourself some searching questions, too:

  • How about your own qualifications and experience?
  • Do you have a business head on you?
  • Would it be better to find a partner whose skills complement your own?
  • How would you calm tensions if punters had a few too many?
  • Do you really have the right personality to stay cool, calm, and collected while others are having fun, or would you prefer to be joining them with a drink in your hand?

Bar Drinks

Put together a business plan

Drawing on your research, you should write up a business plan.

This is vital to help you get start-up capital from a bank or other lender. Even if you’ve already got access to funds, a business plan helps you clarify your thoughts.

This is a good moment to consider whether you want just to sell drinks, or provide snacks or meals, too.

A good business plan needn’t be too complicated. It should cover elements such as forecast turnover and profits, an analysis of the market and your competitors, and marketing plans. You can get business support or download business plan templates from the government’s website.

Invest in your equipment

A mobile bar can be anything from a trestle table transported in the boot of a car to an all-singing, all-dancing fitted trailer. What would work for your business idea?

Unless you’re running a very small operation indeed, a vehicle or trailer will be your biggest investment.  Airstreams, converted horseboxes, or purpose-built catering vans are all great options, and of course you can pick up bargains second-hand. For eco-chic, you could even choose a bar bike – if you’re fit enough!

You’ll need electrical equipment such as power cables, lights, a cash register, and a card payment machine. Depending on the events you attend, you might need a generator, too.

A fridge is essential unless you’re running a very ad hoc bar where buckets of ice will suffice.

Glassware or disposable alternatives are a must. These days, you can get ‘vegware’ which is compostable – and many events may have a plastic-free policy. Don’t forget to consider how you’re going to store, wash and dry your glassware.

Then there’s all the items that are easy to forget: corkscrews, bottle openers, chopping boards and knives, cocktail shakers and stirrers, trays, jugs and so on.

Napkins and cloths to mop up spills are essential, as are waste and recycling bins.

Choose your stock wisely

Let’s turn our attention to your stock. What will these thirsty audiences want? The drinking habits of audiences at flowers shows and music festivals are likely to be wildly different!

You also need to consider what gives you the best profit margins. While beer is a popular option at many events, it’s unlikely to rake in as much cash as cocktails.

Then look at what your competitors are offering. What’s your unique selling point going to be? A quirky offer or strong brand will help you stand out from the crowd, and perhaps make festival organisers more likely to accept your application over those of your rivals.

Don’t forget to include soft drinks and tea and coffee. Not only are these welcomed by teetotallers and motorists, they’ll also help you extend your bar’s hours to earlier in the day. If you also interested in starting up a mobile coffee business, read all about this in over on our blog.

And lastly, don’t forget to make sure everything’s covered with catering insurance.

Choose your events carefully

You must do some thorough research into events you could attend and the best UK cities to visit to have a high turnout for your mobile business. 

At major festivals, such as Glastonbury, there will be several bars – but plenty of thirsty customers. Festival organisers will charge a hefty price for pitches and receive many applications from traders. As a newcomer, it’s hard to break in. For some starting tips as a newcomer market trader, check out our blog on our site. 

At smaller festivals or events, there will be less competition – but footfall could be low. You won’t pay organisers as much for a pitch, but will you cover your costs?

Some events will give you sole rights to sell alcohol – but obviously you’ll pay for that privilege.

Don’t forget about private events, such as weddings and parties. This can be a cost-effective way to get started and see if running a mobile bar is the right venture for you.

For festivals and shows, look carefully at the site costs and pricing structure. You may be wondering are mobile bars profitable? Some charge considerable amounts – but you’ll make huge profits, too. Many charge fixed fees, others want a percentage of your sales, and some a mixture of the two. For some starting tips on starting up a roadside business, check out our blog on our site.

Make sure you’re fully aware of what’s involved – for larger events, you’ll need to be on-site well before and after the festival. While it’s important to make the most of the summer months, you must also ensure you don’t overbook yourself.

You’ll need to plan well in advance – for larger festivals, applications close almost a year beforehand.

Get licensed to supply alcohol

If you’re new to the trade, the alcohol licensing landscape is tricky to navigate.

First, you need a personal licence from your local authority, which authorises you to sell or supply alcohol in accordance with a premises licence. To get this, you must first gain an accredited qualification to show you understand licensing laws and your social responsibilities in terms of alcohol sales.

You’ll also need to get a Basic Disclosure from the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) and fill in a disclosure of criminal convictions form.

Check the government’s licensing laws or your local authority webpages for full details and costs. 

Then you or the event organisers might need to get a temporary event notice (TEN) from the local council. This allows “licensable activities” to take place, including selling alcohol, on unlicensed premises in England and Wales.

A TEN is suitable for smaller events: fewer than 500 people, including staff and organisers. They can last for up to seven days at a time. You can get up to five TENs per year, or 50 if you also hold a personal licence.

Apply well in advance, as you’ll also need to make sure your local police force and environmental health service have no objections. If you apply online, your council will send the details to the relevant authorities.

For bigger events, such as festivals, the organisers will apply for a premises licence. You’ll still need a personal licence to run a mobile bar there though.

All the above applies only to retail sales. If you’re contracted to supply alcohol for free, e.g., to offer glasses of Champagne at an exhibition stand or a wedding, licences aren’t necessary.

Still unsure? The Nationwide Caterers’ Association has put together a handy guide covering all sorts of scenarios where you might need a licence.


Carry out business paperwork

There are a few other bits of business admin you need to complete before you take your mobile bar on tour.

You should register as a business: there are several different models, so work out which one is right for you. You’ll also need to register with HMRC for tax purposes.

Set up a business banking account and work out how you are going to keep your accounts. If you have a turnover of more than £85,000, you’ll need to register for VAT, too.

Finally, choose the right catering insurance to cover your vehicle, fittings, generator and stock. After all your hard work and expense in getting started, it’s essential you protect your investment.

Calculate your prices and profits

Another tricky area – yes, there are many – is calculating how much you’re going to charge your customers. Too low, and you’ll lose money. Too high, and you’ll lose punters – and money.

The simplest way to price your wares is just to look at what others in your niche are charging.

You should also calculate your costs – vehicle, equipment, insurance, site fees and so on – and work out how much you need to sell to break even. Don’t forget to factor in the cost of your own labour and time.

Of course, you want a healthy profit! So, consider what you can do to add value. More events? A wider variety of drinks? Selling food?

Perhaps you could even offer fun services such as cocktail mixing sessions or wine tasting classes?

As your business progresses, keep an eye on these factors and be flexible enough to tweak your offering and seize new opportunities.

Take on staff

So, let’s assume your hard work pays off and business booms. You’ll quickly be exhausted running a successful bar on your own.

It’s time to break out the bubbly because you’re ready to take on extra pairs of hands. What do you need to know to become an employer?

Even if you’re just employing staff on zero hour contracts on a casual basis, you still need to give them statutory employment rights.

These include paying them at least the national minimum wage, allowing them rest breaks and paid annual leave (worked out on an hourly basis if necessary), and protecting them from discrimination.

You’ll need to consider training and health and safety, and take out employer’s liability insurance along with your catering insurance.

Then there’s the issue of recruiting and retaining good members of staff. There’s no denying that staffing is a headache for many mobile bars. Sometimes, your workers want to go off and have fun just at your busiest moments!

But if you provide a great working atmosphere and decent pay, you’ll find they not only ease the pressure, but also add to the enjoyment of the job and the growth of your business.

You’ll be relieved to know they don’t all need personal licences to sell alcohol.

Market your mobile bar

Finally, let’s take a whistle-stop look at how to build up a buzz around your business.

Marketing is essential to boosting your clientele. But in the rush to get your business up and running in time for the summer events season, it might get forgotten. So, plan during the quieter winter months wherever possible.

First, get a distinctive brand. Choose a great name: perhaps one that’s quirky or easy to remember. Get a graphic designer to come up with a logo and a look for your bar.

Print up some menus and posters, and perhaps some flyers, too. How about a promotional offer, such as 20% off, to get you started?

Make sure you take some good photos of your vehicle, you, and your mobile bar in action. You can invest in professional pictures, but ad hoc snaps taken on your smartphone can feel more engaging.

Set up social media pages and promote them from your bar. A loyal fan base not only grows your mobile bar, it can also help you branch out into other catering businesses. We’ll drink to that!

Get catering insurance from Mobilers today

At Mobilers, we understand the mobile bar trade. We specialise in arranging catering insurance to cover all types of eating and drinking vehicles, from bar bikes to converted campervans right up to purpose-built units.

Benefits of the policies we arrange can include cover for fixtures and fittings, stock, and generators. Instant cover is available, and we may be able to find you flexible payment options and exclusive discounts.

Contact us today to get your mobile bar up and running. Cheers!

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