chef brian duffy reflects on handlebar café’s transformation
When called to the Handlebar Café in Pawcatuck, CT, I was well aware that it was a biker bar, however I was unsure what I was going to walk into. I’ve been to mainstream "biker" bars and I’ve been to underground biker bars... needless to say, I’ve had fun in both. One of the consistent factors for a biker bar is that there is a hierarchy, a method to the madness and guess what... revenue to be had. The idea is a simple one; a little fun, a little loudness, some great booze, some great beer and some great stories.
As I sat in the car with Jon Taffer and Russell Davis watching the monitor during the recon of Handlebar Café, I was shocked. Shocked to see what these grown adults have done to themselves and what once was a positive source of income. I watched as Betsy the owner was trying to work around her sister, Stephanie; who had become an inebriated mess, spewing slurs and foul language. All the while a bartender performs bicep curls and shoulder presses rather than work a shift in an effective manner. This bartender that happens to be the one who will apparently take over this debacle is his when mom retires.
Now, even a biker bar needs to have some sort of food to keep guests satisfied. Here, at the Handlebar Café we have Cheese Curls. Yup! That is their idea of food. All dumped into one bowl for 60 Bikers to share. Wouldn’t you really want to lick your fingers after eating a cheese curl that 60 other people just touched?
It’s sad really, since the problem isn’t the lack of a kitchen. The problem is that the kitchen was only used for employees, not guests. And, that the equipment was filthy, loaded with grease, the refrigerator was packed with old rotting food and a molding birthday cake sat waiting for bugs to invest it. In addition, the small wares were all dollar store items. I understand the concept of trying to save a few bucks but to have this bacterium infested wasteland in a public pace is a smack in the face and pure laziness on the part of the owners.
After watching the night’s events unfold and ripping apart the kitchen that should have been demolished years ago; we decided it was time to leave for the night and TRY to start fresh the next day. As we arrived back at the bar, I noticed that there was a car packed in the lot with a woman in it. I couldn’t tell if she was asleep, passed out or dead. I quickly came to realize it was Stephanie. I decided to sit with her for a while and discuss the event that took place the night prior. Now this is all off camera. We discussed her embarrassment, some of her personal struggles and of course how it would play out on air. I left her with the observation that she would now be made fun of by the multitudes of people that watch the show and there were two things that she could do about it; continue on the same path or tighten those bra straps, grow a set of balls and show everyone [most importantly herself] what she was made of.
Unfortunately, later that day the hangover reared its ugly head and she left Artie to take over. Once Stephanie was finally feeling better she came back in guns blazing ready to go. Then…they almost set the kitchen on fire. But, even with the challenges Stephanie and the team cleared out of the weeds and ended up doing on hell of a job.
As the next few days began to unfold, I started to understand where each person’s strengths and weaknesses lie. Betsy is a sweet woman who thought that being the life of the party would help her business. Realistically she needed to pull herself together, find that inner peace and start running the bar as opposed to running around in it. Stephanie is also a very sweet woman who has a huge heart. She wants to see her sister succeed and is now in the position to contribute positively to the business. We even discussed her running some of her own favorite specials (i.e. chili) on her nights.
Looking back however the moral of the story here is a simple one. You don’t have to be the life of the party, instead your establishment, including the ambiance and staff, has to provide the arena for the creation of the party. As I always say… “I determine my own happiness and success. Others just add to the varying degrees.” So run your biker/dive/corner bar as a business, be responsible and have some fun.