The Handlebar Cafe Gets GrilledJuly 21, 2013 By: Mary-Kate Dunphy
Success should be perpetual when a biker bar is placed on a busy freeway with six motorcycle dealers within a 20 mile radius, but somehow, the Handlebar Café in Pawcatuck, CT managed to defy the odds and set themselves up for failure. Back in 2001 when bartender Betsy Mitchel-Cipriano bought the Handlebar Café, business was booming due to her larger than life personality. Betsy decided to keep the success in the family by hiring her sister, Stephanie and son Dean, who hopes one day to take over Handlebar Café.
As soon as Betsy and Stephanie walk into work, the spot light is on them and they essentially forget about running a business. They consider themselves the life of the party, causing chaos throughout the “fabulously tacky” establishment. Betsy’s son Dean believes that his mother and aunt make fools of themselves by treating the bar like a stage.
Shortly, the sisters’ childish antics grew tired and their need to be the life of the party became detrimental to business. Today, the once successful Handlebar Café is losing $4,000 dollars a month and is in a $25,000 deficit; the bar has 3 months before going bankrupt.
Jon Taffer sits outside of Handlebar Café with his team of experts to examine the bar and staff during the recon. The first observation made is that the bar doesn’t even look like a bar; it simply looks like a storefront which most people would just pass right by, especially on a busy freeway.
As Taffer and his team take a closer look inside the bar, they notice the trashy décor including a leopard carpet with the only useful function of hiding stains. Even more problematic than the carpet, however, are the drunks in the Handlebar Café; this would not be so problematic if the intoxicated were not Betsy and Stephanie. While the two sisters have a grand old time, they are completely unaware that Taffer has 60 bikers pulling up to the Handlebar Café at any moment.
When the biker gang arrives, the employees at the Handlebar Café go into something of a panic; Stephanie is belligerently drunk at this point and Betsy seems to be inconvenienced by the patrons who want to put money in her pocket. Stephanie eventually gets kicked out from behind the bar because of her level of intoxication.
A customer asks if the bar serves food at the Handlebar CAFÉ, and Stephanie simply snaps back, “No.” Adding the element of food makes people stay an average of 52 minutes longer at a bar. After seeing the kitchen, Taffer and his team understand why this café does not serve food; it is completely unsanitary and cluttered with equipment, grease and old food. Professional Chef Brian Duffy describes the kitchen as “horrific.”
The team continues to watch the disarray that is the Handlebar Café comfortably from the parking lot. Drinks were being poured carelessly and that was not even the most prominent problem regarding bartending; an entire side of the bar went unnoticed because there is only one work station which is on the opposite side. People were ignored and things got messier than they already were because of the congestion.
After seeing enough of the staff’s immaturity, over pouring and discourtesy, Taffer decides it is time to act swiftly and get in there. 2012 Nightclub & Bar Bartender of the Year Russell Davis goes straight behind the bar to examine Betsy and her bartenders more closely; he is shocked when he witnesses how poorly the cocktails are made, the disorganization behind the bar, and Betsy’s negative attitude. Chef Duffy goes straight to the kitchen and is infuriated by how repulsive it actually is.
Taffer gives Stephanie a breathalyzer test to check the level of her intoxication on the job; she blew a .20 while the legal limit is .08. Stephanie is endangering herself, others, and her sister’s business. Enraged, Taffer and his team leave the Handlebar Café and guarantee they will not be returning unless the employees clean their acts up and take the business seriously.
The team at the Handlebar Café got a rude awakening during their recon and decided to show up to work the following day. The bar was completely cleaned in hopes to prove to Jon Taffer that they are serious about turning around this business. Taffer seems mildly impressed with the change of attitude and willingness to take direction.
After talking to Betsy and Stephanie, Taffer concluded that the sisters need to seek emotional help to work through the loss of Betsy’s husband. A therapist comes in to talk to the women to help them work through their emotional battle. The sisters get on a path to personal success so they can move toward professional success.
Stephanie surprises everyone when she steps up to take responsibility for the food program at the Handlebar Café but due to her hangover, Stephanie falls short during the training so bartender Artie has been appointed to be cross trained in the kitchen. Chef Duffy begins teaching Artie cooking techniques to chef-up the foods from the considerably simple menu full of foods that bikers will eat, like burgers and hot dogs.
Davis continues to help the staff behind the bar and with their attitudes; he points out to them that just because tough characters stroll into their bar, they are still customers and they need to be treated as so. Later in the evening during the stress test, the staff seems to grasp the hospitality aspect of their training; however, they continue to struggle with their cocktails and over pouring.
Every incorrect cocktail made during the stress test, Davis does not allow to be served and dumps each one in a bucket behind the bar. By the end of the night, the 6 liter bucket is filled, losing approximately $200; all that profit literally went down the drain.
The staff in the kitchen really shined during the stress test. Although Stephanie (who decided to fight through the hangover) and Artie started off shaky, they really stepped into synch and banged out order after order. However there was one flaw in the kitchen and it was the desperate need for new kitchen equipment.
Taffer and his team of contractors went to work to create a money making bar where bikers feel at home. The Handlebar Café was transformed into the Handlebar and Grill with a bar front that will lure people in off of Route 1. The sign out front is bolder and brighter, with lights shining to invite attention. There is also a powerful motorcycle mural on the side of the bar that exudes the strong image Taffer hoped to obtain. Not to mention the main attraction concerning the exterior: the larger than life handle bars placed on the roof. This bar front now screams, “If you love bikes, you have to get a drink here!” instead of, well….nothing.
When walking into the Handlebar and Grill it is a much different sight to see. The leopard print is gone, people! Taffer had his team put up big, eye-catching décor; in example, the motorcycle placed behind the bar. Every which way you look; your eye is entertained in Handlebar & Grill.
There is now a cocktail on tap system built into the bar which pours out high quality juice perfectly mixed with premium spirits, making certain cocktails full proof for the inexperienced bartender. A whole new work station was placed on the opposite end of the bar, which will maximize profit by actually paying attention to both side of the bar. The kitchen was completely done over, which will make it easy for Stephanie and Artie to chef up orders more efficiently. Taffer and his team of experts have set up the Handlebar and Grill for success with new equipment, décor, and attitudes.
Before the Rescue, the Handlebar Café was not even a thought to bikers passing by. The new Handlebar and Grill, however, cannot be missed. The staff was given help in their areas of difficultly whether it was bartending, hospitality, or cooking. Taffer made the Handlebar and Grill visible and set the inside up for victory.
The relaunch was nothing short of a great success; Stephanie and Artie were slinging out orders left and right with smiles, the bartenders were making cocktails correctly without pouring half the bottle down the drain and every employee, including Betsy, had a positive attitude throughout the night. The employees at the Handlebar and Grill slipped into a groove and Betsy was acting like a mature owner who cares about her business.
Six weeks after the Rescue, drink sales at the Handlebar and Grill have gone up 25% and the menu has been exceptionally well-received by the biker community. Betsy is now the rockstar she always wanted to be at the Handlebar & Grill, ironically so because the imaginary stage behind the bar was ripped from underneath her feet.