A staple of the Chicago music scene for decades, The Abbey began to suffer from an identity crisis. Open since 1973, the venue has been promoted over the years as an Irish pub, a sports bar and a music venue, even hosting such notable artists as Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and George Clinton.
“The Abbey was it,” says Bridgette Looney, who ran the venue with her husband Tom for years. “The crowd was so big [in The Abbey’s heyday] that the police had to block off the street.” In fact, the business had gone from doing $50,000 a week to barely $10,000 and was losing money, especially on food.
The recent identity confusion, sluggish sales and financial losses are caused by a lack of clear, consistent leadership. With four co-owners/managers — father Tom Sr., mother Bridgette and sons Pat and Tom Jr., who is serving as GM — The Abbey has unraveled into a classic case of “too many chiefs, not enough Indians.” Without a specific direction, The Abbey ended up featuring burlesque entertainers one night and hip-hop artists the next.
“There’s no consistency at all,” Pat says.
Additionally, The Abbey is losing business to bigger and better venues in the area in part because its stage equipment — including a 10-year-old PA system and 36 lights that barely work — is outdated. With a 550-person-capacity show room and a 120-seat pub, the bar has had to rely solely on its entertainment acts because getting customers to come in for dinner or stay for drinks between performances has become difficult.
To fix the family business, the wayward Looney clan will have to agree on a bar concept, then follow through with first-rate management.
Brothers Tom Jr. and Pat, who previously performed most of the day-to-day management duties, can’t agree on anything, even the state of their own establishment.
“Given what we have and what we have to work with, I think we’re doing a pretty good job of what we’re running here,” Tom Jr. says.
“I think that we’re kidding ourselves with that,” Pat responds. “In too many ways, we’re not professional enough.”
To make matters worse, employees are taking advantage of the situation, making requests of multiple members of the Looney family until they get the answer they want.
“I’d say, ‘Don’t do that,’ and then, if [the employees] wanted to do it, they’d ask Pat,” Tom Jr. says. “And Pat would say ‘Don’t do that.’ And then they would ask my dad … and then he would go, ‘Oh, go ahead and do it.’”
Because of the brothers’ inability to come to a consensus, the process of prioritizing and fixing problems is at a standstill. With a range of issues from ripped seat covers to an out-of-date lighting board and a poorly maintained kitchen, The Abbey needs help, fast.
Fortunately, NCB Media Group President Jon Taffer — star of Spike TV’s new reality series, “Bar Rescue” — has a plan.
“I love that family,” Taffer says. “I can think of no other group of people I wanted to come through for more than the Looneys.”
The Looney family might be a tad surprised to hear Taffer’s feelings about their nearest and dearest, considering they got to experience the in-your-face “Taffer treatment” throughout the filming of The Abbey’s “Bar Rescue” episode. One of the biggest issues was dealing with the family dynamic, as tension existed between the brothers over managing the venue.
With Pat unable to continue as full-time manager due to a family health issue, the reigns had been given to Tom Jr., who was fairly inexperienced. Taffer was tasked with assessing Tom Jr.’s qualifications and dedication to truly managing the venue. Satisfied that the dedication was there, he primed Tom Jr.’s tool box with checklists and know-how to oversee the kitchen, bar and entertainment aspects of the business, as well as he confidence to manage.
“[Taffer] turned to me and said, ‘You might be the worst manager I’ve ever seen,’ then a few hours later he said I could work for him anytime. That was basically the first day,” quips Tom Jr.
Immediately realizing that the establishment requires a clear-cut sense of direction as far as product offerings go, Taffer calls upon two experts. Peter O’Connor, a Diageo Master of Whisky and former Bushmills ambassador for the Republic of Ireland, as well as Brian Duffy, a corporate executive chef and creator of “New Celtic” cuisine, were brought in to help update food and drink menus with more sharply focused and high-quality selections.
Behehind the bar, O’Connor immediately addressed two problems: inconsistent pours – with lots of overpouring – and a disorganized back bar and drink station setup. As for Duffy, he tackled refrigeration units not working properly, a menu of lackluster items and an inefficient kitchen staff. Luckily, both also found engaged staff that were committed to making improvements.
With the help of his redesign experts, Taffer turns the eclectic dining room into The Green Room @ The Abbey, which now features Irish classics with a twist, such as the Corned Beef and Cabbage Spring Rolls and The Abbey’s Fish & Chips, as well as specialty whisky cocktails, including the Bushmills G on G (Bushmills Original Irish Whiskey, fresh ginger, lime juice, ginger ale). With new flooring, a painted mural above the bar, guitars on the walls and a chandelier made out of a drum kit, The Green Room looks — and tastes — like a brand new restaurant, one that’s connected to the show room on various levels.
Taffer also tricked out the show room, hanging more guitars provided by Fender Guitars and DBZ Guitars on the walls, which Tom Jr. will ask touring bands to sign. Technotrix provided new theater lights, and Turbo Chill supplied a portable keg that can be located in the show room or pub as needed. Modern Line Furniture got in on the act, as well, providing patio furniture for The Abbey’s outdoor seating.
“[The Looneys] love The Green Room,” Taffer says, adding that what will likely prove more important is the lessons learned about promoting the Green Room’s offerings to concert goers. “We took a room in The Abbey and turned it into its own business, with its own brand and menus,” he says.
Now managing The Abbey on a day-to-day basis more effectively, Tom Jr. learned how to “be on top of things. Once you get your theme down, you stick with your guns and what your concepts are.”
Customers also are happier about some aspects of the redesign. “The good news: They were actually friendly this time! We were actually acknowledged upon arrival,” says Scott Maccio, who visited The Abbey after its grand reopening in May. “Seriously, in the past, they would stare at us as if we stepped off the mother ship and asked to see their leader when we asked for food. The new décor is interesting; I like the bare brick, and the artwork has a kitschy charm to it.”
The “Bar Rescue” overhaul seems to have solved some of the major problems — for the moment at least. But will the fix stick? According to Taffer, it’s up to the Looney family.
“The one common denominator that exists among every failing bar operation is excuses,” he says. “When a manager and owner say, ‘No more,’ that’s when things start to change. There are no excuses.”