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Anatomy of a Rescue

Characters Quarters Puts Stock in a New Race

August 11, 2013 By: Kristen Santoro


THE BAR

Characters Quarters in Gardner, NC is about to become just another statistic.Characters Quarters

In 2010 after relocating to North Carolina, Long Island born Guy Wavra left the real-estate business and opened a character themed bar with financial help from his mom Helen and stepdad Charlie Alexander. Guy’s sister Alex was hired as a server to complete the family affair. 

Between Guy and his parents that have over $350,000 invested in Characters Quarters. Upon opening Characters Quarters drew crowds curious to see the concept of this family run bar. It was fresh, people were talking about it and they were bringing in approximately $80,000 a month.

Over time Characters cartoonish name and decor began bringing in more families than bar patrons. A restaurant novice, Guy couldn’t ditch his own concept. Guy believes that since it is his bar he is going to have things that represent him being a Yankee.

To make matters worse the family dynamic is crumbling; tempers are flying and Guy’s parents expectations on his management abilities has diminished. Frustrated with his lack of success Guy takes his anger out on his staff and his sister. When things are not getting done right he’s not afraid to yell and scream. His sister has been hired and fired three times thus far; however Helen doesn’t allow Guy to permanently fire his sister.

With the business in free fall, Guy’s inability to adapt his menu to his new southern surroundings sent even more customers to the competition. Character is currently losing $3,000 a month. The tempestuous relationship has left both the business and the family on the brink of collapse.

If things don’t change with Characters they only have three to four months until they will close for good. With both the business and the family on the line, Guy has called in Jon Taffer to help rescue his bar from being erased from the books.

Characters QuartersTHE CHALLENGE

Gardner, NC, located six miles south of Raleigh, this rural stock car loving southern town has a median household income of $57,000; $7 thousand higher than the national average. Manufacturing and construction are the dominate industries in Gardner. But a younger population is flowing in from the four nearby universities. Failing to grab either of these demographics is Characters Quarters.

Jon Taffer has been called in by co-owner and manager Guy to keep Characters Quarters from closing for good. The first thing that Taffer notices is that the exterior doesn’t say bar, saloon, tavern or any of those key words that distinguished a bar from a family restaurant, which is exactly what Characters look like.  

Bar people are not going to walk into Characters with the way it looks now; family people are. As soon as the family realizes that it’s a bar they don’t want to be there and walk out. The entire concept falls apart because the front of the bar is wrong.

Once inside the 4,200 square-foot space features a C-shaped bar with two service stations and twelve beers on tap. There is a raised stage area and a front patio with no furniture. In addition, all of the service staff dresses up in costumes. However, they are not fully committing to the “character” they are supposed to be portraying.

During the recon, Taffer’s spies are not impresses with the theme or the menu. They waitress couldn’t remember their drink orders and the bartender took forever to make it once they finally got the order right. Russell notes that because of the long ticket time on the drinks everyone is drinking beer, lowering the profit margins. In addition, the check decreases when  the spy goes from ordering an entrée to ordering a little hot dog, since the waitress was unaware of the rib-eye being 86ed.

As family they continue to pin things on each other. No one is taking responsibility for their actions and the decisions Guy is making keeps his sister and staff weak. This was proven during the stress test when the kitchen fell behind because Alex was stacking checks. Stacking checks is when a server enters multiple tables’ food or drink orders at once without properly spacing them out.  This floods the kitchen or bar with orders that they are unable to stager. Even worse was the fact that it took the bartenders an hour to get drinks out of the bar; at one point being 42 drinks behind.

Guy becomes furious with his sister. However, he takes his sister aside and explains to her that they can do this.  Taffer was able to shed some light on the fact that the way Guy was reacting to her was pushing her way more than it was bringing her in. Guy realized that they were not getting anywhere with a hostile environment.

THE TURNAROUNDMoon Runners

To help turn this bar around Jon has brought in acclaimed Chef Brian Duffy. The godfather of new Celtic cuisine, Chef Brian hits a perfect balance between comfort food and culinary edge. For the bar, Jon has brought in veteran mixologist Russell Davis whose prowess mixing drinks earned him Nightclub & Bar’s Mixologist of the Year in 2012.

In the kitchen the first step they take it to pull the P-Mix out of the bars POS system.  The P-Mix is the product mix and is one of the most under used portions of a POS system. What it tells you is how many of each item you sold. It breaks it all the way down to a glass of water.

The P mix is something that you should go through and take a look at on a monthly basis.  The number one selling item that characters has is the classic burger and the lowest is the Italian. There is no need to have the Italian on the menu since it isn’t selling and the bar is just holding inventory.

Characters Quarters offers over 55 items on it menu, but 60% of its sales come from just five items; burgers, wings, steak sandwich, ribs and pickle chips. By eliminating non-sellers the bar can lower its food cost by up to 20%.

It should take a kitchen staff only 12 minutes to finish an entire order. Chef Duffy tests the cooks. Chef Duffy starts correcting the cooks as soon as they get started; noticing that the cook didn’t season the burger until after it was already placed on the grill creating different flavoring on each side of the burger.  Chef Duffy explains that they need to season the burgers before they go one the grill and cook the seasoning into the burger.

At the bar, Russell gets started on training the bartenders to make multiple drinks at once. The first thing that you need to do is pull the correct glassware.  Russell advises that they should pour the spirit first.  Therefore, if they get sidetracked they can always smell the glass and know what is in it. Then add ice and the mixture and/or sweetener. Then shake or stir the cocktail and strain it into the serving glass with ice. If there is a floater, mix it in last and then garnish.

Russell wants the bartenders able to become comfortable with the drink and able to make them quickly in order to add to the bottom line.  Draft beer typically runs at a 22% cost while spirits drinks can run at a 14 to 17% cost. Anytime you move someone from beer to spirits you win big time.

Once basic training is completed, Russell introduces the cocktails that they have put together for the new concept. Moonshine, one of the primary spirits they will incorporate into the beverage program is a clean, corn based alcohol similar to whiskey which rose to prominence in North Carolina during Prohibition.  Prohibition era moonshine often caused blindness due to criminals cutting it with methanol, a dangerous and cheap poison. Modern moonshine is made safely by licensed distilleries and adds southern flare to any cocktail menu.

After training is completed Taffer sits down with the family to go over the ideas for the new concept. Taffer notes that there is a race track right down the street where a couple hundred thousand people a year go to catch a race. Therefore, he wants to develop a marketing plan connected to the race track; something that locals can connect with.  He explains that Characters Quarters is done and they need to embrace the south in order to appeal to the locals.

Moon RunnersTHE RESULT

Enter: Moon Runners Saloon. Based on the Prohibition history of North Carolina, Moonshine and stock car racing (which came from running moonshine), Taffer has provided a concept for their blue collar southern audience.

Elements including patio furniture, a POS system, jukebox, uniforms and the like were provided to complete the theme.  They also received new menus that eliminated the 30% where they weren’t making any money and their very own Moon Runners race car at Wake County Speedway to help with marketing. Every time that car wins the bar wins.

However, Taffer didn’t just rescue a bar he rescued a family. Four weeks after the relaunch the bar is up 40% and they are very positive that they are going to make back the money they invested sooner rather than later.


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