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Anatomy of a Rescue

From Angels Sports Bar to Racks Bourbon and Billiards

July 14, 2011 By: Alissa Ponchione


The Bar
In 1992, when Angels Sports Bar opened, it quickly became a popular neighborhood hangout in the flourishing Southern California town of Corona, but when newer, bigger and better bars started popping up in the area, things began to deteriorate.

During its prosperous years, the bar was the hub for watching any sporting event, yet this era didn’t last long. Televised sports packages that once cost $900 increased to $1,300. To show a boxing match, Owner Renee Vicary had to borrow money, then charge a high cover at the door. Patrons didn’t want to pay, so they stopped showing up.

As the down years continued, Vicary couldn’t afford the sports packages, and she struggled to maintain the sports bar identity while keeping her business above water.

As her ability to attract the sport crowd dwindled, Angels morphed into a biker bar.

“The first year we were open was awesome. Weekends were standing room only,” Vicary recalls.

The client base is biker-focused, and while they’re loyal, their presence deters other customers from coming to Angels.

“It is kind of difficult to keep people coming, especially if they see bikes outside. People get scared of them for some reason,” says cook Benny Lopez.

Things continued to go from bad to worse for Angels.

The bar “kept getting more broken down. We couldn’t make enough money to pay the bills, let alone fix things,” Vicary bemoans.

Vicary also is dealing with management and staff issues, a bar in desperate need of a remodel and image rehabilitation. With sales down 75%, Vicary knows that if things continue this way, she’ll have no choice but to close.

The Challenge
Vicary needs things far more tangible than ideas to bring the sports bar into the 21st century.

The stage floor hasn’t been redone in seven or eight years, the cash register is so old it doesn’t accept credit cards, neon signs adorn every wall, the pool tables are tattered and stains are visible on the carpets. Angels is falling apart at the seams.

Not to mention that the staff is beginning to feel just as disheartened as Vicary about Angels’ future, which is causing in-fighting and tension, especially as no clear leader emerges.

To make matters worse, Vicary’s manager isn’t making things any easier, spending his days drinking and playing pool with the guests.

“This is my manager that runs the company,” Vicary says begrudgingly. “Maybe that could be our first problem.”

Vicary is slowly losing command of her team. “I listen… a little bit,” she concedes, but it’s a constant conflict for Vicary who says she has managers pulling her in all different directions, yet no one will take any initiative.

“I do need help,” she confesses.

To remedy the bar’s many maladies, Jon Taffer, NCB Media Group President and “Bar Rescue” star, took on the challenge, helping Vicary create an establishment that won’t have locals or tourists running for the hills.

Turnaround Tactics
Vicary knew change was in order, so when Taffer showed up with his team of experts, she wasn’t the least bit surprised that he wasn’t pleased with the look and feel of Angels.

“It looked like a strip club, and it was filled with bikers and fights,” Taffer states. “It was terrible — dirty and disgusting.”

The motorcycles outside, especially, were a huge deterrent to potential clientele.

“Why would an owner let motorcycles line up outside the bar?” Taffer asks. “If you want women to come to a bar, you better not do that. Period. If there are six motorcycles [outside the bar], 88% of women won’t walk through the front door.”

To help Angels solve its motorcycle issue, Taffer brought in security expert Anthony Dilio. His 11 years of experience working at private security at Western Elite Security, as well as club and bar security at Boulevard3, Apple Lounge, The Happy Ending Bar and Restaurant and Sunset Trocadero Lounge, all in Los Angeles, helped refocus staff so they could maintain a fun, calm atmosphere.

Expert mixologist Michael Tipps, who’s worked as bar manager at the Soho and Tribeca Grand Hotels in New York City, transformed Angels from a keno and beer bar into a bourbon establishment by updating the drink list and teaching staff how to upsell and mix cocktails correctly.

Deborah Maquire, President of Deborahsvip Inc. in Los Angeles, came in to re-train the staff, teaching the women how to present themselves, how to talk to customers and how to suggest particular drinks. The addition of new uniforms and new menus was transforming Angels into a much-improved bar.

Taffer’s team updated the POS system so it now allows credit cards; the team also got rid of the neon signs, recovered all of the pool tables in red felt, re-did the front of the bar and refurbished an old aquarium by adding a façade as well as a barrel of whiskey that appears to be pumping into the aquarium. From there, the team put lattice work on the ceiling to make it look like a brewery and added couches and new flat-screen TVs. A portable stage was added, which allows for more seating when a band isn’t booked.

The cosmetic changes helped create an upscale lounge vibe, but Taffer made staffing changes as well. He fired the manager and placing staff in positions that suited their skills, and things began to run smoothly.

Taffer also changed the name of Angels Sports Bar to Racks Bourbon and Billiards. As with any re-branding, this change was risky but, in Taffer’s eyes, necessary if the bar is to survive.

Results
Racks is now an upscale lounge, selling less beer and more cocktails and seeing more women and couples come through the doors.

The hardest part, however, came from the name change. Regulars were calling up Vicary worried the place had been sold, but since its re-opening, the community has adapted to the change.

“They’re not getting off stools or throwing their napkins on the floor. It’s a different atmosphere so they act differently,” Vicary explains of the biker crowd. “Instead of the Motel 6, they’re going to the Marriott.”

“I got caught in that rat race,” Vicary now admits, as keeping Racks a player in the bar industry often was daunting. Instead of sitting in her office paying bills all day, Vicary says Taffer made her realize that she needed to be more present, checking on staff and customers, even making sure the bathrooms are clean, throughout the night.

“I had been letting things go. Could things have been better? Absolutely. I didn’t know what direction to go,” she says. “It’s kind of like when you’re with someone for a long time and you’re not happy but you stay there until you find someone different, and then wonder, ‘What was I doing before?’”

With a well-trained staff, a more upscale ambiance and new food menus, Racks Bourbon and Billiards is doing about two and a half times the revenue Angels Sports Bar was pulling in.

Of course, Taffer’s guidance influenced the change, but he credits Vicary for accomplishing this major feat, noting she had the courage to make the needed changes.

“She’s remarkable as an owner. She accepted what was wrong and had confidence to do it,” he explains. “She believed in herself to do it and was willing to walk down this unknown road, which I was taking her down,” proving that with just a little elbow grease and an open mind to change, success is always within reach.


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