Jon Taffer bails out joints on ‘Bar Rescue’

If you own a bar and your customers are having trouble distinguishing it from the strip club next door, you've got a bit of a PR problem on your hands. Such was the case with a joint named Angel's in Corona. Opened in 1992 by a former female wrestler named Renee Vicary, it was close to shutting down for good in this past spring. In fact, Angel's rated so high on the dive bar Richter scale that it was featured on a new Spike TV reality show called "Bar Rescue."

Jon Taffer, seasoned bar consultant and “Bar Rescue” host, spent five spring days transforming Angel’s from a dingy sports bar into a classed-up whiskey den called Racks Billiards & Bourbon. Vicary says that Taffer saved her and that she has seen revenue nearly triple since his departure.

Currently a little over halfway through its first season, “Bar Rescue” is the latest in a mini-wave of reality shows geared to helping troubled business owners in the service industry swim to financial solvency. Gordon Ramsay primed the pump with “Kitchen Nightmares”; other variations followed, including Food Network’s “Restaurant Makeover” and “Tabatha’s Salon Takeover” on Bravo.

In the hyperactive world of reality television, these makeovers are done at a breakneck pace, and the deadline element is what lends the shows their explosive conflict. With “Bar Rescue,” host and seasoned bar consultant Jon Taffer has less than a week to persuade total strangers that he can fix their ailing businesses — but only if they embrace his bullying, tough-love tactics. Owners often buckle, giving way to tears and anger. This in turn makes for viewer-friendly drama and solid ratings; this season, “Bar Rescue” has averaged more than 1 million viewers per episode, according to Nielsen figures.

Those numbers could be chalked up to a human tendency toward schadenfreude, but it is also likely that amid a debilitating recession, people are tuning in to see if small-business owners really can win in the end. The show’s producers and stars say yes, but what happens when the cameras stop rolling?

“Bar Rescue” is airing during a disheartening time for the bar business. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the hospitality industry, the number of drinking establishments in the country fell by 282 in 2010, after declining by more than 600 locations in 2009. When Spike TV began searching for bars to rescue with its new show, it received more than 150 applications. In the end, just 10 bars were given makeovers.

Along with Angel’s, Taffer remade a champagne bar in Philadelphia called Swanky Bubbles, changing it into a slick, female-friendly drinking salon called Sheer.

While Vicary was happy with Angel’s overhaul, Swanky Bubbles co-owner Ryan Dorsey complains that he lost revenue during the 60-plus days between his bar’s makeover and the actual airing of the show this month, because his customers were confused about his establishment’s identity.

Both owners confess to extreme embarrassment while watching their respective episodes, but while Vicary says it was all for the best, Dorsey feels that his depiction on the show (he comes off as an inappropriate flirt) was deeply inaccurate and has hurt the public’s perception of his bar.

Still, Dorsey says he is thankful for the bar’s new look, even though he changed its name from Sheer back to Swanky Bubbles after Taffer and crew departed.

“Time will tell if it helps or hurts,” Dorsey says of his involvement with the show.

A business has to stick with the “Bar Rescue” master plan to really succeed, says Taffer, who cut his teeth transforming hotel bars into destination bars in the 1980s and went on to make the task his sole business. During his more than 30 years in the hospitality business, Taffer says that he has “reinvigorated” hundreds of bars through his company, Taffer Dynamics Inc.

Once he leaves it’s like people holding on in an earthquake,” Vicary says of her post-“Bar Rescue” experience. She is sitting on a new plush leather sofa in the center of her bar, chatting amiably with Taffer, who has stopped by to see how she’s fared since her episode aired in mid-July.

“It was that intense?” asks Taffer, leaning in.

“Oh, yeah, you rocked us!” exclaims Vicary before taking Taffer on a tour of the bar, which she has continued to augment with her own touches for the past month. Hand-sewn curtains, a pressed-on faux-tin ceiling and a leopard print barber chair by the pool tables are among her additions. Taffer examines them and murmurs his approval.

When they reach the smoking area, Taffer fixes his gaze on two grizzled regulars who look like they probably liked Angel’s way better than Racks. “How do you like the TV star?” he asks, gesturing at Vicary. “Isn’t she beautiful?”

The men stare at him uncomfortably, nodding. Soon after that, two more men walk in, and one exclaims, “It’s all fancy schmancy!”

The other replies, “It looks almost clean in here.”

Vicary bristles. “Almost clean?” she says, looking at Taffer with dismay. “I could smack him!”

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