The Hammer Gets Ale'dSeptember 8, 2013 By: Kristen Santoro
In 2010, Chris Sarrett and Mitch Watson, two classically trained chefs and best friends, decided to go into business together and opened The Hammer. Located in an industrial area one mile from the famed Las Vegas Strip, The Hammer quickly became the after work watering hole for the blue collar workers. When they first opened they were making approximately $25,000 a month. But in 2011, a severe case of pneumonia landed Mitch in the hospital. He was out of work for 3-4 month after almost losing his life.
With Mitch out of commission Chris struggled to manage the bar on his own. Overwhelmed with trying to run the business on his own, the bar began to suffer and Chris began to party and drink more often. When Mitch finally returned to the bar he was welcomed with a slew of problems.
Mitch was devastated as the bar was a completely different place before he became ill. Chris believes that he did the best he could to keep the bar running and Mitch isn’t appreciative of his efforts. Now, Chris and Mitch are more focused on their shattered relationship than the bar. Now, The Hammer is currently in debt approximately $200,000. At his wits end, Chris reached out to Jon Taffer by writing him a letter. If things don’t change soon The Hammer is just months away from having their doors boarded up and nailed shut for good.
Las Vegas, Nevada, though it’s billed as America’s playground, away from the strip it also supports a thriving industrial workforce and blue collar population. The Hammer sits just west of the Las Vegas strip, in one of the few areas in the US where men outnumber women by 6%. With a yearly household income of $39,305; 19 thousand dollars less than the national average, Las Vegas’ blue collar workers are on the lookout for a place to stretch a buck.
With an unappealing exterior that blends into its industrial surroundings The Hammer fails to catch the eye of the areas value seekers. 27,000 cars drive by The Hammer every day; however the plastic sign outside only faces one way. Therefore, cars traveling west can’t even see the sign. They are turning their back on 13 thousand cars a day.
The Hammer is a 3,000 square foot venue with eight beers on tap and a unique walk in cooler directly behind the bar that houses the kegs, a pool table in the main room and a large side room that sits unused. The two managers along with another employee in the kitchen are all professionally trained. However, with such little detail used on the outside of the building Taffer and his experts can only imagine what is going on inside.
As Mike and Tom head into The Hammer to test the staff’s skills, Chris is sitting on his ass while Mitch is washing dishes. You would think that he would be in the kitchen asking what he can do to help. Upon arrival Mike orders a Guinness. Taffer immediately notices that the bartender is pouring the beer incorrectly. The glass should be at a 45 degree angle when pouring the beer from the tap. By holding the glass straight down it removes some of the carbonation, flattens it and ultimately it’s not a good.
Mike can instantly tell that the beer wasn’t poured correctly after taking a sip. “I got to wait for it to cascade. It’s bitter, because they gave it to me too early.” In addition to the wrongly poured Guinness Tom’s beer is warm. When beer is warm it foams up when you dispense it. As an end result two things happen 1. You end up pouring 30% of every keg down the drain and 2. What you’re pouring is a flat warm beer.
It gets worse when Mike and Tom get to the food. First they don’t have an oven so they can’t make nachos. Secondly, the bar only has one fryer the catfish is placed side-by-side the French fries. After one bite Tom states that the fried taste like fish and he didn’t order fish, Mike did. Taffer and his experts are furious as they watch from the recon car. These three trained chefs could still make great food with a knife and a flame just as long as they design the menu around the equipment they have. It’s a disgrace that these guys spent money on their education and this is how they follow through with it. It’s an insult to the industry.
Taffer decided that he has seen enough and needs to head in to find out what the real issues are. That is if he can get into the building. Taffer struggles to open the door and has to pull on it multiple times to get it open. Once inside, Jon gets right down to business and sits with the two owners. When Chris starts to explain the issues Taffer immediately calls him out. What Chris is saying is not what he wrote in his letter. Jon then pulls out the letter and makes Chris read directly from the paper; Mitch doesn’t pull his weight in the kitchen. During the meeting Chris blames everything on everyone else but he was the one sitting on his ass.
These guys are partners and they are sitting right next to each other incapable of communicating. Chris accuses Mitch of turning the staff against him. Mitch then comes to the defensive by stating that the only reason the staff has turned against him is because he has alienated them and hasn’t paid them. Chris doesn’t even have a balanced check book for the bar and Mitch has already lost his house. Taffer can’t believe that Chris wrote a letter to a stranger instead of sitting down with his partner to talk and fix things. They need to be able to look each other in the face and talk. Taffer’s biggest task will be fixing the partnership in order to fix the bar.
During the walk through of the kitchen Taffer becomes furious when he sees all of the protein [the most expensive product] in the walk-in uncovered. They shouldn’t be serving it to any of their guests. Taffer drives home the point that all three of them are trained chefs and that he is dealing with the same low level bullshit that he would with a cook who’s worked in a kitchen for two months.
During the stress test Chris causes more harm than good. He is taking drinks that haven’t properly cascaded and mixing up orders. Chris can’t even say the name of the beers that they are serving. He needs to lead by example. The bartenders are also a mess and they are only serving beer!
The kitchen never gets ahead of the game even with only three items on the menu. Well run kitchens always maintain a 12 minute ticket times on a full menu which is expected this from trained chefs. Instead these three trained chefs are running at 32 minute ticket times; unacceptable.
Taffer also realizes during the stress test that every ten seconds the bartenders are opening the cooler doors that are behind the bar to get cold pint glasses. As a result the walk-in never comes down to the correct temperature; keeping the kegs at 40-45 degrees. In addition, this cooler is also where they store all of their protein. Taffer test the temperature of the chicken (44 degrees) and the rib eye (45 degrees) which should all be less than 40 degrees. Once protein temperatures rise above this point bacteria begins to grow, jeopardizing the health of customers that consume it.
After the stress test Chris is at his wits end and contemplating whether or not it is all worth it. He thought that he was the only one taking the stress of the business home with him when in actuality everyone was. The next morning Chris decided to sell something that was very near and dear to him; a car that his father gave to him over 20 years ago. He did this because he wanted to make sure that everyone got their back pay right then. He also hands Taffer an envelope that contains a copy of the certified check that he sent to the W2 Company along with the payroll application so that everyone will get their next check. This gesture of good will is the start of a very lengthy turnaround process.
As always Taffer brings in industry experts to help. For the kitchen, Jon has called in celebrity chef Nick Liberato, whose diverse background and many different styles makes him the perfect choice to nail down The Hammers uninspired menu. For the bar, Jon brought in Adam Carmer, owner and operator of the Las Vegas Freakin’ Frog, home of the largest selection of beer in the United States. A certified beer expert, known as a cicerone, Adam can break down the basics of beer for any beginner bartender.
Adam starts with training the bartenders on their new beer inspired concept. For beer lovers, foam or head is paramount when creating the appeal of beer and shouldn’t exceed 1.5 inches in depth. Foam not only looks great it forms how the beer will smell and therefore taste. The human nose has much more sensory perception than the tongue so the aroma given off by the head is where most of the beers flavor exists. However, when a beer is poured at a temperature higher than 40 degrees the foam may double or tripled destroying the quality of the head.
There are specific steps to follow when pouring a perfect pint and the bartenders are breaking every one.
1. Put the glass right under the tap at a 45 degree angle.
2. Straighten out the glass as you pour the beer.
3. Bring the beer right up to the top of the harp (called the crest).
4. Then set it down and let the beer cascade (this take roughly a minute).
5. Keep the glass flat and pour beer until just above the top of the rim (called the crown).
6. Only then serve it to your guest.
For the stress test Taffer and his team have put together three beers to pair with three dishes from the kitchen. The main pairing will be Guinness with fish and chips. Nick explains that they need to add a little bit of salt to the fish. What happens is the water comes out of the protein. This not only allows the flour to bond to the fish better but when you put it into the fryer it will give you the crispiness without the sogginess.
Modern science suggests that the human tongue can detect five different flavors – salty, sweet, sour, bitter and savory. Complimentary food combinations like onion and beef with their salty and savory flavor profiles create a well-balanced taste experience; while contrasting flavors such as sweet and sour will provide a more complex taste. When it comes to beer and food pairings balance is best; as complimentary flavors ignite and delight the palate.
There are four different things that we use in order to transfer flavors - fat, CO2, salt and sugar. Fried food goes great with beer because all four things that transfer flavors to our body are present. While there are endless beer and food pairing possibilities the popular combinations are:
1. Lagers and fish because light and tangy flavor of the lager balances the mild and delicate flavor of the fish.
2. Brown ales with fried food because the nutty wood flavor of the ale compliments the salty and fatty flavors of fried food.
3. Bocks and creamy deserts because caramel, toffee and toasted malt flavors of the bock offset the sweet rich flavors of the desserts.
When most people think about pairings they usually think about doing it with wine. However, pairing with beer is also an interesting way to differentiate your venue from competitors. Nick works with the three chefs to put together some menu items that will appeal to the tastes of the male blue collar work (i.e. meat and potatoes).
In addition to Nick and Adam working with the staff Taffer works with Chris and Mitch to explain what changes need to be made to make their bar successful. First they need a professional sign package outside the bar. “If they don’t see you, you’re invisible and if you’re invisible you’re meaningless.” You want people to drive by and know that it is a great bar just from the sign. All of the dart boards and pool table needs to be moved into the other unused room in order to allow enough room for guests to really play. Once all of the activities are all moved into the other space the main area can be made more conducive to drinking and dining to sell more food.
They went from 18 seats in the main room to 32. Every seat is worth approximately $10,000 a year; that’s $140,000 additional dollars in revenue. The room that became the pool, pong and darts room should make $2 to $3 hundred thousand dollars this year, if they work it right.
In the kitchen they had a flavor problem cooking the seafood in the same fryer as other products; therefore Taffer put in an extra fryer. The ovens were also fixed and calibrated to work perfectly. The other thing that Taffer wanted to do was get all of the food out of the walk-in and put it out in refrigerators where it really belongs and is easily accessible to the chefs. After the food was removed they were able to set up the walk-in nicely.
The cooler behind the bar was really a diamond in the rough that they were wasting. Taffer and his team turned it into a real beer cooler, making sure that there was the appropriate air circulation and perfect pressure levels so the beer comes out at a cool 35 degrees. TurboTap also installed a brand new tap system that pours the beers faster and has a 90-95 percent yield from the keg.
With the new beer program, Taffer and his team put together a frequency program called Tap Tour Pass. They have flags all over the taps so that customers can drink beer from all around the world. Once you drink your way around the world you get to put your name on a mug. It makes exploring these beers more fun.
Five days prior Taffer was tasked with fixing a bar that had an owner who had nothing but excuses and animosity for his partner. Now, they have transformed themselves by humbling up and realizing that separately they will fail but together as a partnership they can go on a quest for perfection and they can be successful.
Once all of the renovations have been completed Taffer is happy to reveal Hammer & Ales! On their grand opening Chris did leaps and bounds better than he did on the stress test. He wasn’t getting in the way and was helping the bartenders to keep organized and drinks flowing over the bar top. Mitch did unbelievable well in the kitchen. He took charge and put a lot of love into the dishes that are going out. And right when the kitchen needed it the most, Chris comes in to help run the food out to the guests.
Six weeks after the relaunch drink sales are up 30%, food sales have increased 15% and for the first time in two years Mitch invited Chris to his house for dinner to help continue mending their relationship.