By Julia Diakow

The formula to running a successful bar certainly does not contain any set numbers, nor can you stay up all night cramming for it, as would a college midterm. In fact, it’s full of complex algorithms, variables, cost over x amount of hours, and being able to achieve that sweet spot between happy guests, employees and employer. For one such bar, The Keefer, in Vancouver’s ultra hip Chinatown, they’ve seamlessly cracked this difficult equation.

The Skeleton Kiss
The Skeleton Kiss

Now, the key to running arguably Vancouver’s busiest and most talked about bar didn’t originally stem from an overnight meeting of the minds. Nor did the many accolades awarded to the Keefer Bar come from simply making good drinks. The checklist to running this tight ship runs rather long, but for the last seven and a half years that they’ve been serving thirsty patrons, they’ve also been able to simplify it.

First and foremost, all attention goes to the guest, onwards to building a strong team while rewarding with incentives, then to focus on the innovation of all aspects of the bar, design, functionality and menu. With these three in focus, plus the occasional pre shift snaquiri and shot of cider, The Keefer has been able to achieve the highest extent of bars.

Guests indeed pay the bills but your staff is the utmost strongest asset. The Keefer Bar has made a clear point of ensuring that there is a strict hiring process; bringing in both excitable and trendy individuals, who push the envelope with styles, ingredients and recipes. The staff are technique driven, engaging in rigorous training to constantly build knowledge on all aspects of the bar.

There is even a recently launched internal program, where each member is to choose a subject of interest on cocktail culture, and then to lead a seminar on it (This can be anything from “a history of classic cocktails,” to “Sherry,” to “The curative powers of Chinese medicine.”)

Not to mention, The Keefer has a fully loaded arsenal of incentives. With numerous staff parties throughout the year, as well as taking an employee who has shown exemplary service, down to Acre, the gorgeous Baja restaurant and distillery, established by Dani Tatarin, a Keefer alumni.

The Keefer has made great strides to create a highly collaborative relationship between the bar and kitchen. As the anti-waste effort continues to gain momentum, these two forces are coming up with many different ways to become more sustainable. For instance, the kitchen uses the meat of a squash, while the bar will use the seeds for garnish or as a type of orgeat. As we continue to see the waste reduction initiative grow, the Keefer has already been using spent lime shells to make cordials, as well as serving compostable straws.

Bar Manager, Amber Bruce
Bar Manager, Amber Bruce

As innovation is the key to growth, some cocktail bars may find themselves at the cross roads between paying homage to classics or going full on modern with their programs. Bar Manager, Amber Bruce finds that a good mix of both is key, as “classics are the easiest building blocks to make great drinks, the framework is already there for you.” Keeping the bar fresh and unique comes from sourcing out the best ingredients, unique syrups, bitters and garnishes. In fact, they even make their own type of aromatic bitters, a recipe that includes an array of Chinese ingredients: lin zhi, yun zhi, astragalus, magnolia bark, and ginseng among others, sought after in Chinatown.

For their autumn menu release, the Keefer team plans on keeping a variety of cocktails on the list. Even though fall ensues cravings of dark spirits and strong drinks, they will still cater to a guest who just wants a twist on a French 75. With a seasonal heavy program, it allows the bar to change flavor profiles, and harness different techniques. There will be a shift in bright summer ingredients like pandan leaf and grapefruit to autumnal purple rice (Yes! Purple rice!) and squash.

At the end of the day, with rising Vancouver rental prices, discouraging liquor laws and a drought in available staff, it’s a mere miracle that any bar is surviving, let alone flourishing. Running a successful bar cannot be run on guests and employees alone, but from a wide spectrum of variables. As Amber Bruce slides a beautifully garnished Skeleton Kiss my way, she puts on the finishing touch by stating: “Simply, every experience matters.” Running a bar is definitely no simple game, but they sure makes it look easy.



IMG_8497 (2)Skeleton Kiss

30 ml Campo de Encanto Pisco

15 ml Siete Misterios Doba-Yej Mezcal

15 ml Pineapple juice

20 ml Rose syrup

20 ml Lime juice

3-4 dashes house lemon chile tincture


Combine all ingredients, shake over ice, fine strain and garnish with fresh pepper and dried rosebuds



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