downey’s – back from the brink
It's hard to see a bar go down the drain. Things happen — loss of traffic, change in ownership, maybe a loss of capital from non-business-related events — and suddenly what was once a hot spot, maybe even an institution, seems on an irreversible path to disaster. How do you rescue it? Saving an establishment takes drastic action; sometimes it even takes an intervention.
Downey’s Irish Pub & Restaurant was a landmark in Philadelphia's Old City area, the solid anchor of South and Front Streets. Jack Downey’s restaurant was famous for lobsters and good drinks. But since Downey retired and sold the bar to Dominic Centofonti, things have not gone so well. The exterior was battered — paint peeling, panels missing — and the interior was dirty, cluttered and, in some spots, literally falling apart.
“There were many, many problems,” Centofonti admits. “We had leaking ceilings, we had people taking money, people taking beer out. When they closed [Front] Street on me in 2008, I didn't make a nickel through 2010. I went from $2 million a year [gross receipts] to $1 million, it was cut in half.”
“You can't fix one thing,” he says, getting emotional about how his money issues snowball, “so you lose a customer, and then you don't have that money when something else breaks, so you can't fix that... It's a spiral, and once you start, you go down. I filed for personal bankruptcy.”
Downey’s was circling the drain when Centofonti caught a rope from Jon Taffer’s “Bar Rescue.” Taffer, president of Nightclub & Bar Media Group and the head of consulting firm Taffer Dynamics, created the show that’s now being aired on Spike TV. His concept: dramatically turning around failing bars in 3 days.
It’s not easy, because the first thing Taffer does (after having his wife size up the situation incognito) is confront the owner and take control. “I ask him if he’s failing,” Taffer says, “He says yes, and I take the keys.”
No work is done at the bar prior to filming a “Bar Rescue” episode; the evaluation, planning, installation and training occur within the 72-hour period.
Taffer's “Bar Rescue” is clearly a TV situation: You probably won't find someone willing to throw free consulting as well as a bar makeover your way in exchange for wearing a wire for three days and getting it all on video when you lose your mind on opening night. Although the problems are real and immediate, so are Taffer's solutions; he's been doing this for years, and he brings in high-powered talent to help.
Downey’s biggest problems were the kitchen and bar. The kitchen itself was filthy and poorly maintained; the stove literally caved in when Taffer’s crew started to clean it. Taffer brought in Chef Brian Duffy, a native Philadelphian and Corporate Executive Chef for Seafood America to assist with the kitchen. In an exquisite personal touch, Duffy had cooked at Downey’s in the 1990s. Things certainly had changed since then.
“All the equipment was broken, all of it,” Duffy says. “We’re putting in a new coldbox, a new stove. I called in some favors after working in Philly for years, because … some of these vendors are owed thousands [by Downey’s]. ‘No way in hell we’re getting involved,’ [they said.] We hired a company called American Kitchen Machinery, and they’re putting in the new stuff.”
The menu was all wrong, too. In the late ’90s, “we were doing $35,000 to $40,000 in food a week,” Duffy recalls. “Now it’s $8,000. There are 60 items on the menu; when I was here, I had 35. [On ‘Bar Rescue,’] we brought it back down to 40. [Downey’s] had a $25,000 pizza oven, so we kept the pizzas.”
By tightening and rearranging the menu order, Taffer’s methods can raise the average check by 15% to 18%.
The bar disgusted consultant Keith Raimondi, who works the bar at Jose Garces’ Village Whiskey in Philly and has been with Garces at his other restaurants for more than four years.
“It was incredibly disgusting,” he says. “There was an icebox on top of the bar with bottled beers, it was huge, and leaking into the cold box. I don’t think it had been cleaned in three or four years. It was completely unorganized. They had 50 different flavors of vodka — in an Irish bar.” It wasn’t just equipment that no longer was working.
“Management’s broken,” Duffy says. “No standards, no operational manuals, training; there’s absolutely nothing. Everyone’s running it as much as anyone is, which is why it’s in the shape it’s in.”
Raimondi agrees. “Everybody assumed [bartender] Tommy Brennan was in charge, but no one ever actually put him in charge,” he says.
That lack of supervision had led to a ‘shrinkage’ problem behind the bar. But no one was let go.
“[Taffer] came down at one point and had a big discussion about shrinkage. He showed them how far off the numbers were. ‘We’re onto you.’ That was a pretty heavy conversation,” Raimondi says.
A loyal staff was the one thing Centofonti had going for him: Most employees had worked for Centofonti for more than four years. They complained about him, his failings and his temper. But ask why so many of them had lasted so long: “We love the guy,” bartender Paul Avenna replies.
That much was clear as the staff joked with Centofonti about how he lost his temper with Taffer. “That was pretty cool, when you threw those chairs around,” one employee says. “You see that?” Centofonti says, laughing. “That felt good. First thing that felt good in a while.” A good point, but as Raimondi says, “If you’ve got a loyal staff like that, you ought to get more out of them.” Things were about to change at Downey’s.
After a day with the staff — talking, training, asking and occasionally yelling — Taffer’s team kicked them all out and took over. Downey’s closed, and crews came in to rip out and install equipment, clean and paint, remove excessive decorations and enhance the exterior. Lighting was updated, and the downstairs men’s room, which was in pretty bad shape with leaks and other unpleasant problems, was refurbished. The outside sports new flags and a fresh color scheme; it’s a whole new street corner.
Raimondi created a new drinks menu, focusing on Irish whiskey.
“If you have a great selection of some sort of whiskey, it helps get people excited about it,” he says. “It sets you apart from the next corner bar. We tried to keep it easy and simple, little riffs on classics. The Mint Julep made with with Irish was easy. The staff liked it.”
The bar also got a new beer coldbox, a cleaner layout and a much-simplified set of liquors and beers. The kitchen was a larger job. “We made a lot of changes,” Duffy says. “New equipment, and a real coldroom for food, better storage, but it’s more than equipment. We added the basics of operation: cleaning lists, organizational lists, daily opening, daily closing. Protein counts, prep lists, daily and weekly cleaning lists. They’ve got written recipes for everything on the menu.”
But one change was a complete surprise: Chris Atwick, who stepped in as a temporary general manager. [not sure about this name; can you check spelling with Jon? Sorry, thanks!] “We identified that there’s no general manager here,” Taffer explains. “Dominic can’t do it. So I got Chris to come in as GM for two weeks. He’s a veteran Morton’s Steakhouse GM, one of the best in the country. I’m paying for it; it’s to hold things together after we leave.”
The staff is excited, and they look spiffy, too. They’re wearing clean uniforms, and the front-of-house staff are sporting new “Downey’s” ties, of which they’re clearly proud. But Taffer’s still in charge; when he spots a middle-aged man eating at the bar, he collars Centofonti.
“That’s your DJ?” he asks. “You got a serious problem. Guy’s 100 years old! Get rid of him. Hire a DJ who looks like a DJ, first off. I’m serious! If you let that guy spin records in this place, you’re crazy.”
And he moves on to the next problem, rushing to get the bar ready for the opening.
Centofonti looks a bit overwhelmed, but he’s clearly pleased. “It looks beautiful outside, doesn’t it?” he asks. “God, it looks beautiful.” As the doors finally open — almost two hours late as last-minute fixes proliferated — he welcomes a small crowd that speeds toward the bar.
How does opening night work out? Taffer wants to push Downey’s to the limit. He’s had a crew out on the streets of Philly — with bagpipers — handing out free-entrée coupons and drink tickets for the opening, because the opening isn’t a real test unless everyone is in the weeds. The late start cuts the crowd a bit, though, and the kitchen isn’t getting hammered.
The bar is a different matter. Patrons are two or three deep, and although bottles of Miller Lite are still popular, the Irish whiskey cocktails are clearly a hit. People are calling for the Irish Julep — the bartenders are explaining it — as well as shots of Irish whiskeys up and down the price scale, from Jameson to Tullamore Dew, on up to the pure pot-still Redbreast.
The opening isn’t crashing, it’s electric. Brennan and Avenna bounce around the bar, smiling and pouring whiskey. Pizzas land on the bar, beers pour and everyone’s happy.
By midnight, the bar still is going strong. There have been some mistakes: A couple of pizzas come out wrong, and a couple of bills are over- and undercharged. But no one’s upset, and no one’s slowing down. The kitchen’s running smoothly and the pizza oven’s rolling hot and the staff is steady. Downey’s might have been rescued after all. And Centofonti? He’s grateful to Taffer.
“He’s a tough guy,” he says, and grimaces. “But you get with the program, or you get out of the program. It’s a good method, which obviously works. You do the same routine, and it’s hard to change; you get lost. But if it’s not working, okay, you have to change.”