From Dingy to Classy: Yorba Linda's Canyon Inn
As the only bar in Yorba Linda, Calif., that has a liquor license safely grandfathered, Canyon Inn has served generations of Orange County customers. (Canyon Inn has been in business since 1965; Yorba Linda hasn’t allowed any new bars to open since its incorporation in 1967.) But because it’s focus has morphed into a dive-bar-meets-strip-mall-meets-sports-pub-meets-battle-of-the-bands setting, Canyon Inn now is a confused little spot with an identity crisis, and bar tabs and clientele are at an all-time low.
Yorba Linda is a small upscale city in Orange County, but Canyon Inn is anything but posh. Situated between pizza and tattoo parlors, the bar has seen better days even from the outside: The flower bed has become a giant ashtray, band stickers adorn the shabby front door and the bar’s neon sign is half lit. The inside is even more dilapidated: The tile floor has sections missing, old chewing gum is stuck under tables and the bar top is falling apart. To be sure, this place is shabby, dusty and dark!
Owner Paul Ambrus says business is on a constant decline, with sales decreasing from $1.2 million to $800,000 during the past two years. Despite it being the only drinking game in town, the challenges at Canyon Inn are numerous.
• What’s in a name? Ambrus reluctantly admits that people misinterpret the name “Canyon Inn,” often phoning the bar to inquire about room rates. Right off the bat, Nightclub & Bar Media Group President and “Bar Rescue” star Jon Taffer sees the name as a huge obstacle to the bar’s success; in his opinion it doesn’t sell the idea of the place, as the moniker “Inn” is no longer associated with a bar and grill. However, owner Ambrus is attached to the original name and balks at Taffer’s suggestion of updating it.
• Decay, dust and dirt. The bar top itself is crumbling, rotting particleboard, glued together with epoxy; the health department is constantly on the owners’ backs about this infraction. Behind the bar sit two dusty antique cash registers and a stack of blank guest checks; none of the sales processes are automated, which can lead to theft and inventory loss. Among the more revolting sights: a stack of cloudy plastic shot glasses, dirty and reused.
• Chameleon crowd thinning. Because Canyon Inn is the only bar with a grandfather clause and able to serve alcohol in the city, the local clientele runs the gamut. From daytime faithful regulars to the evening’s rough college crowd, the Canyon Inn’s vibe is in constant flux. At night, the college crowd takes over the place, typically getting very rowdy, leading to bar brawls and broken glassware. In turn, Ambrus hired a burly bouncer to keep the riffraff in line and serves with plastic cups and plates. Janelle, the daytime bartender, says the same regulars come every day, but because of the Canyon Inn’s lack of upkeep, there is no new business. She used to make upward of $300 a shift; now she’s lucky to make $150.
• Cutting corners. To offset the lack of customers and cashflow, Ambrus has implemented a “save the foam” policy at the bar. When a bartender pours a draft beer, foam must be poured into another glass and stashed underneath the bar in a cooler until the foam settles, after which it is served to an unsuspecting customer; management forbids bartenders from pouring foam down the drain.
Taffer’s goal is to make Canyon Inn appealing to both the old guard and young night crawlers through a series of upgrades and improvements. To assist, Tafferbrings in bar expert Michael Tipps and chef and restaurant owner Eric Greenspan of The Foundry on Melrose. Both assess the state of the bar and kitchen. Tipps immediately notices the “save the foam” sign behind the bar and reacts with utter disbelief. Given the shift in patron demographics from afternoon to late night, he suggests creating a bar program that features popular cocktails during the day and happy hours, as well as a specialty after-dark shot list for the late-night college crowd.
The kitchen has its own set of problems. The first is equipment and organization: Canyon’s kitchen has only two refrigerators but four enormous freezers on opposite ends of the prep area, meaning cooks have to run back and forth to gather ingredients. When Ambrus explains why he buys in bulk (it’s cheaper in his mind), Chef Greenspan tells him he’s actually losing money by keeping too much inventory on hand. Greenspan also explains that a move away from frozen food toward more fresh items on the menu will drive sales and profits.
As for the overall look and feel of the place, Taffer will update the concept to be a clean, welcoming neighborhood bar that caters to everyone in Yorba Linda. His goal is to clearly delineate between the day and evening atmosphere and offerings, so a guest understands what is to be expected from each, and feel special, Lighting, table tents and menus will help distinguish day from evening and appeal to both crowds.
Canyon Inn has been transformed into the Canyon Saloon, Steaks, and Spirits with a new paint job and signage. Canyon Inn had a negative connotation in Yorba Linda as a dirty “dive bar,” and Taffer contends that by rebranding this landmark with a new name like “Saloon,” the bar should continue to be respected as an older staple of the community. The new signage and name dignifies the establishment, indicating that it is no longer a pit, but a place to get quality food and drinks.
The planter by the front door that had become a giant ashtray is now filled with plants; custom-made ashtrays are on either end. This automatically sends a message to the public that this is a friendly and clean environment.
Inside, the old tile floor has been replaced by industrial-grade plank flooring that’s safer and makes the room look bigger. The walls are clean and uncluttered and the lighting system hasseparate schemes for day and night crowds: Daytime patrons receive more natural light, and the late-night crowd enjoys more of a mood-lighting, party atmosphere.
The biggest transformation of all is the bar itself: The rotten particleboard has been replaced by a stunning new Copper Bar top that brightens the room. Behind the bar, the old cash registers have been retired, and a new POS system has been installed; additionally, new Quaffer shot glasses (with a built-in chaser system) have replaced the old reused plastic cups. A portable bar has been installed by the stage to take pressure off of the main bar on busy nights.
At one point, Taffer goes behind the bar and tells the bartenders the days of “save the foam” are over: He’s had Turbo Tap installed for faster, perfect pours. Turbo Tap allows an owner to get more out of their tap and control the flow with minimum waste.
As for the food menu, gone are the items culled from the Costco frozen-food aisle. Canyon Saloon, Steaks, and Spirits will feature steaks and other premium items on its new menu. From rib-eyes to cheese-injected burgers, the menu now allows an incredible profit and price point. A new charbroiler seals the deal, and the juices, in making delicious steaks.
When the Canyon staff first see the bar’s new sign, it’s half shock, half excitement, with everyone holding his or her breath to see how the owner reacts. He’s subdued but lets a small smile escape, saying, “It looks awesome.” He loves the color but is still holding out on the new name. Taffer explains that the word “Inn” is from the ‘60s and tells them, “’Saloon’ embraces the past but sets us up for the future.”
When the new Canyon opens, the bar immediately is packed with new and returning customers. Guests love the new menu and the new drinks — both the steaks and the ‘Bombs on the menu are big hits — but even more, they love the new name and bar top. Old and new customers unanimously prefer the name, saying it’s hipper and more inviting. The night goes off beautifully and the 46-year-old Canyon Saloon has been reborn!