Francesco Lafranconi was a bartender for 17 years before he started thinking about designing his own bar. He finally has, and his ergonomic, behind-the-bar workstation—which he calls the “race track”—is an anomaly in an industry run by bartenders, but built by architects.
“The bar station is always left as a second thought,” says Lafranconi, who is now the executive director of mixology and spirits education at Southern Wine & Spirits of Nevada. This means venues tend to get built first, and then bar station modules get pieced and welded together later. Joaqín Simó, co-founder of Alchemy Consulting and a former bartender, concurs: “Ninety-five percent of bars aren’t designed by bartenders or people who have worked in bars,” he says. “You wouldn’t let an architect design the kitchen. But you never think about that with a bar.”
Lafranconi’s race track takes into consideration what an underbar built by an architect might not. Namely, the rotations of movements that go into making a cocktail. The race track is an oval-shaped, single-unit cockpit that’s designed to keep the bartender more or less in one place. You stand in it, instead of behind it, and the faucets, garnish trays, and ice bins are within forearm’s reach. There’s a hot water spout above the ice bin, so that if a glass breaks near the ice you can melt it all down right away, rather than shovel the whole ice chest out. It’s 35 inches high, instead of 29 to 30 inches high, which Lafranconi says is standard in most American bars. “If you’re above 5’7” working with that low of a surface compromises the ergonomics—especially in a high volume bar,” he says. He’s also eliminated the well, which you often see in a row or two between the serving bar and the bartender’s station. “That prevents bartenders from getting close to the counter, and that means you’re straining your knee caps.”
Lafranconi is currently in the process of patenting his design, and says he has early interest from a global hotel chain and some Las Vegas resorts. He won’t yet say what the race track will likely cost to buy and get installed, but it’s a five-digit number. They each take two months to build. All told, it’s a sizable investment for any bar, big or small. But if it gets adopted, it will signal a shift, however slight, in the way bars get built.
Bars, as we know them, are a relatively new design. Prior to 1850, bars in North America weren’t even called bars. They were called “ordinaries”—a British term for where you could count on getting an ordinary meal and maybe a beer on the side. Soon enough these ordinaries became taverns, where beer, not food, was the priority. But still, no bar. “They never would have had a standout bar, where you walk up and put your elbow on it and lean in and order a drink,” says Christine Sismondo, author of America Walks Into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops. Instead, bartenders poured beer from taps kept behind a sort of cage, and then ferried them to customers at tables.
Then came the ice. Advances in refrigeration meant you could ship and store ice for the first time. “That’s the main thing that changes. Then bartenders start to play around with the drinks, adding vermouth or whatnot, in order to make cocktails,” Sismondo says. Suddenly bartenders needed more space, and “that’s the moment that the bar becomes long.” These new “American bar” designs were even showcased in Europe, at the 1867 Exposition Universelles, or world’s fair, in Paris.
Modern bar design is still evolving in tandem with the cocktail. We’re about a decade into the so-called craft cocktail movement, in which garnishes, infusions, and obscure bitters have become the norm. (Just the other night, at a neighborhood bar, my friend ordered a whiskey cocktail that got spritzed with honey blossom.) “Every project is different to a certain extent, but there are many, many needs,” says Oliver Haslegrave, co-founder of hOmE Studio. “[The bar] is like a little ship, we’re always trying to save inches here and there.” Haslegrave and his brother are responsible for the look and layout of a particularly beautiful class of bars in New York City, such as Ramona, The Wayland, and the beer bar Tørst. They’re currently at work on a project in Las Vegas.
Haslegrave cites a plethora of reasons for why bars are the way they are. Sometimes the floor plan isn’t rectilinear, or the plumbing only allows for one tap line. Maybe the owner has a vintage lowboy he insists on using. For their part, Haslegrave says there are ways to create efficiencies. For example: No marble countertops in a high volume bar. “Marble is beautiful, but you break glasses more often on marble than you do on wood,” he says. Also, carefully consider where you stash the glasses. “We recently have been rethinking the way we put in glass-storage, so the bartenders don’t have to bend over as much, or so it’s closer to things like the taplines.”
There are two big benefits to smarter design behind the bar, the first of which is money. A good bar is a cash cow. A good bar with a smartly built bartender station, on the other hand, is a blue-ribbon-prize-winning cash cow. Your typical cocktail den, Simó says, will rake in between $6,000 and $8,000 in sales in a night. At a nightclub, you more than triple that. A single bartender can ring in $10,000 in sales, by himself. That’s all contingent on how fast he can sling drinks, and Lafranconi says the race track is optimized for that kind of speed. “We can increase the output by about 10 to 15 drinks per hour.” The Tobin Ellis Signature Cocktail Station, another bartender-made piece of equipment, comes with a similar promise to “optimize energy use and increase durability to help customers maximize the profitability of their beverage service operations.”
The second benefit has to do with the bartender’s physical well-being. Tending bar in 10-hour shifts, night after night, can lead to injuries like tennis elbow, tendonitis, and plantar fasciitis. Some of this comes down to the nature of the gig, but Simó, who’s also an owner of the New York City bar Pouring Ribbons, says the build of a bar is a factor. “If the speed rails are positioned at an improper height, you get bruises on your kneecaps because you’re leaning,” he says. “If the ice bins are too far out, every time you clear a dirty glass or get a menu, you lean forward, straining your hamstrings and calves. There are a lot of ways you can get hurt by bad bar design.”
But that’s changing, as more bartenders open and build out their own bars. Simó says when he and his staff opened Pouring Ribbons, they “sat around for a couple months and tried to remember everything we loved and hated about the previous bars we had worked at.” Well-known cocktail bars like Attaboy in New York City, Canon in Seattle, and Trick Dog in San Francisco are owned by former bartenders, and have all done the same, he says. “A lot of ergonomics went into that bar design. They knew what worked and what didn’t work.”