Looking to Score at ChampsSeptember 11, 2011 By: JoAnn Cianciulli
The first sports bar in Burbank, Calif., Champs Sports Pub has run its course. The lack of updates and the inevitable passage of time has the bar’s account ledgers hollering, “Game over!”
The dilapidated neighborhood sports bar has no contemporary appeal: The dozen TVs surrounding the bar aren’t even high definition; the food is frozen, fried and microwaved; and the drinks are about as generic and heavy-handed as they come. This old watering hole attracts the local barflies but has about as much game-time zeal as a gymnasium’s ball closet.
Simply outdated, no one comes to Champs to celebrate football, hockey or baseball wins or even the ever-popular L.A. Lakers basketball games. The older, and admittedly, “out-of-ideas” owners, Joe Handy and his wife Helen, complain about everything but are not taking control of the business. To modernize, the stubborn husband-and-wife team will have to take personal and professional accountability and evolve with the times.
The Challenge: Out-of-Date Décor
The exterior of Champs, which features cheerleader megaphones and a marquee missing its letters, is a sad invitation to potential customers. Once inside and past the rundown, stale décor of hodgepodge sports memorabilia and dusty stuffed deer heads, the bar feels like a time capsule from 1975. The once-popular Champs is now a place known for ridiculously strong drinks, warm beer and greasy grub. It’s usually empty; only loyal regulars and “old folks” frequent the place.
After 25 years, Champs may have to close its doors. The bartending staff even is looking for other work to supplement their income.
“In the beginning we were doing $60,000 a month, now we’re doing $20,000,” Helen laments. “We’ve had to borrow $100,000 this year.”
Enter President of Nightclub & Bar Media Group Jon Taffer, who pushes Joe and Helen to realize that, “With the right mindset, this place will keep making money for years to come just like Barney’s Beanery [an L.A. rock ‘n’ roll bar at which Taffer once worked]. You don’t need to be new… you just need to remain relevant.”
Other challenges include inefficient operations resulting from a messy backbar and bar-station setup, a painfully small kitchen and lack of standards in everything from pouring to presentation. The ill-trained bar staff is running the joint, serving up potent drinks in order to drive up their tips.
Taffer brings in bar expert Tobin Ellis, award-winning mixologist and the brains behind BarMagic of Las Vegas, and comfort-food-truck pro and culinary expert Chef Brian Hill to assess the bar and the kitchen.
The bar is a mess: The coolers are disorganized, the bar top is sticky and glasses smell like onions. The kitchen is its own nightmare. It’s tiny — the size of a food truck or smaller — and the cooks use the walk-in beer cooler for storage, stacking their ingredients on the kegs. Taffer explains that this is all, thankfully, about to change. Their efficiency and service problems will go away when the space is redesigned.
Experts Ellis and Hill train the staff with a new menu and offer some standards they can use to improve their service. Ellis creates a specialty cocktail menu, something Champs was lacking. Each drink is there for a reason: Cocktails like the bacon-infused take on a Bloody Mary and the adult Arnold Palmer can only be found at Champs. Ellis incorporates techniques such as chilling cocktail glasses, stirring [not shaking] a Martini, muddling fresh fruit and using all fresh juices. He also solves the over-pouring issue by teaching the bartenders how to count when they pour, improving drink costs and consistency.
In the kitchen, Brian, the cook, clearly is looking forward to get away from the old frozen menu and excited about the fresh ingredients Hill introduces to the recipes. He catches on quickly helping Hill make stadium-inspired dishes, such as a Champs’ take on the Dodger Dog and a fried pickle snack, similar to the one famous at Yankee Stadium. The food is simple but tasty – “bar food sexy,” as Hill calls it — and the new Champs burger and chicken sliders are sure to be popular additions.
Next, Taffer updates the overall bar concept with a stadium-inspired design. The best place to view any game is from your living room, but people still spend hundreds and thousands of dollars to go to games…why? Interaction! Everything in the new Champs will mimic the intense and interactive experience you get at a stadium.
The new Champs embraces the modern sports-bar concept, which requires careful attention to one thing: technology. From wiring all of the flat-screen TVs to receive high-definition signals to acknowledging the way people play games today, everything about Champs makes it a winner!
The goal is to get people playing, even when sporting events aren’t on, by incorporating Buzztime, the interactive trivia system with which customers can compete against one another in the bar as well as nationally. Thus, guests will stay longer and have a reason to come in again and again. Additionally, billiards, shuffle board and other games encourage guests to “stay and play” after a sporting event or when none are broadcast, consequently driving traffic and increasing bar tabs as patrons drink and eat more.
Outside, Taffer modernized the logo and exterior appearance: The dated cheerleader megaphone signs were removed and replaced with a new Champs logo, and stadium lights were integrated into the signage.
Inside, the bar is transformed into a hip and updated sports bar. Pictures of ballparks and stadiums cover walls, thanks to wall-wraps that make you feel like you’re inside the arenas. The lighting has been replaced, giving Champs a more spacious and inviting feel. The table placement is rearranged and opened, so it’s not as cramped, and barstools are covered with team logos.
By the front door, an “Owner’s Box” table features authentic stadium seats for larger parties or VIP seating. The face of the bar is resurfaced with an AstroTurf-style covering to suggest a football field. In the back room, an octagon beer station is set up to speed service for beer-thirsty guests, who can watch games on the TVs overhead while their beers are being poured. A customer comments on the innovation: “It’s like having your own tailgate party before a game.”
The bar also has been modernized. A new Intelitap draft system provides flow and temperature sensors on the draft lines, beer cooler and glycol system, helping bartenders and managers monitor real-time inventory and creating accountability for quality and profits. New barware and utensils from BarProducts.com allow bartenders to create specialty cocktails; the tools are a big upgrade from the single shaker previously available. A Bev-Intel liquor-control system was implemented to track bar inventory and each and every ounce the bartenders pour. The system keeps employees honest and the bar making money. Beer storage also improved for more efficiency, and all the beer is on ice. In the kitchen, a new convection oven replaces the old microwave so food can be roasted instead of re-heated.
Guest response to the new look, feel, features and menu was positive. But as the old adage goes, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” Change is difficult for some, even if the present system is not working, which is why “Bar Rescue” and Taffer were beckoned in the first place. Champs now sports a phenomenal modern look and solid foundation of systems and standards to run with; whether the owners embrace the new ways or go back to their outdated methods is up to them.