Jon Taffer Brings Kiva Lounge & Bar Back from the Dead on Bar Rescue

Images: Paramount Network

For over 30 years, Jon Taffer has traveled the country saving hundreds of bars from failure and ruin. In the latest episode of Paramount Network’s hit show Bar Rescue, Taffer was in San Marcos, Texas, to rescue Kiva Lounge & Bar.

Best friends Miles Altgelt and Henry Hogensen bought Kiva in 2016 for $150,000 after realizing their rock star dreams weren’t exactly coming true. The two wanted to create a vibrant music scene and Kiva seemed well positioned to bring that vision to fruition: it’s inside a historic building in the heart of downtown San Marcos. Miles is a 49-percent owner and is expected to run the day-to-day operations. Henry owns 51 percent of the bar, yet he invested $120,000 of his money to purchase Kiva.

According to Miles, the area’s bars are slammed on Saturdays. A live music venue should have done very well in the location. The building in which Kiva is located is compelling on its own, with a rich and somewhat dark history. In the ‘70s, for example, it was a morgue.

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Unfortunately, Miles and Henry weren’t experienced operators and were unsure of how to make Kiva a successful venue. According to Miles, Kiva had one great, packed night: opening night. After that, the crowds disappeared. Entrenched in a two-year decline in business, Miles, according to the show’s narrator, began phoning in his responsibilities.

Exterior signage of Kiva Lounge & Bar before remodel by Jon Taffer on Bar Rescue

From what Miles himself and bartender Edward had to say, the co-owner started drinking on the job constantly. Not only was he said to have been consuming 10 shots and 6 beers when he was at “work,” he was giving away 50 shots to friends. Henry, on the other hand, was said to have been largely absent, not visiting the bar for “weeks at a time” while Miles drank Kiva’s profits. Explaining his side of the story, Henry avoided the bar because it was losing $5,000 a month. To him, the situation was depressing and he didn’t want to watch as his investment as it went “up in smoke.”

Further illustrating the impact of Henry’s absenteeism and Miles’ failure to act like a professional bar owner, Kiva appeared to have fallen into a state of significant disrepair. Bartender Tara said that she didn’t know why anyone would choose to drink or eat at Kiva. Miles said that many people didn’t, explaining that people often walk in and leave after a few moments. Many of those lost potential guests were women who didn’t feel comfortable in the bar.

Close to shutting the doors for good, an estimated $200,000 in debt, and with nowhere else to turn, Miles and Henry made the decision to pull back the doors, bust open the books, and make the call for help to Jon Taffer and Bar Rescue.

For recon and the rescue, Taffer brought along mixologist Ashley Clark and Chef Vic Vegas. San Marcos is a college town basically located in between Austin and San Antonio. The median age is 22 years old and the median household income is $22,000. It’s a young town that appreciates inexpensive food and beverage. While the trio conducted recon from a bar across the street Kiva, they watched Chris, the cook, wipe his sweaty head and face on a towel, which he then wiped with his hands and set on a prep surface.

Kiva bar before remodel by Jon Taffer on Bar Rescue

For actual on-site recon, Taffer sent in two women college students. As the Bar Rescue host said, give him 50 more such guests and any bar would be packed. The two students ordered a Daiquiri and a Cosmopolitan from Tara. Not only did she not know how to make either cocktail, she was unaware of how to ring them. When Ed served the Daiquiri, the student who ordered it noticed that there were what appeared to gold flakes floating in it, meaning the glass hadn’t been cleaned properly.

For food, the students ordered brussels sprouts and a burger. It should come as no surprise that Chris touched the raw hamburger patties and brussels sprouts with unclean hands. Was the grill so dirty Chef Vic described it as being sooty? Yes, yes it was. Did either co-owners or general manager Spencer check on the kitchen at any point during Taffer’s recon? No, no they did not.

Jon Taffer performing recon with Ashley Clark and Chef Vic Vegas on Kiva on Bar Rescue

When Taffer walked in to confront Miles and Henry he took them into the kitchen. Henry thought it would be a good idea to laugh at Taffer when he threatened to bring the health department in to shut Kiva down. Spencer, confronted about bringing in cook Chris as kitchen manager, walked out. In his opinion, it wasn’t fair to yell at him about the kitchen because he wasn’t kitchen manager. Miles, to his credit, didn’t find the confrontation or overall situation laughable at all and was visibly upset, at one point telling Henry to “shut the f**k up.” Henry didn’t heed Miles’ advice and not only laughed more but drank his beer as Taffer questioned his commitment to fixing Kiva.

Before leaving the bar, Taffer delivered his ultimatums. One, clean the kitchen, which seem directed mostly toward Henry. Two, fire Chris. Miles came to Chris’ defense, telling Taffer he had only been in the position—which was completely new to him—for two weeks and had received no training. Taffer said he would train Chris all day the next day, giving him 24 hours to turn things around or he was fired. If Henry didn’t change his attitude, the Bar Rescue host and his team would leave Kiva for good.

One of the lessons Taffer taught based on recon and his interaction with the owners and staff was about absent and disengaged owners. They’re a destructive, influential force that savages a bar, restaurant or nightclub from the inside. Staff members don’t feel supported and therefore don’t feel loyal. That’s one reason Spencer, for example, was so quick to turn his back on Miles, Henry and Taffer and walk out after facing criticism. Employees want leadership and direction—they’ll perform for owners who provide both.

Upon Taffer’s return to Kiva, he gathered the staff and explained that he didn’t have time to play nice with them. With ownership concerned about payroll, he needed to be stern and move quickly to save Kiva. Once again to Miles’ credit, when Taffer pointed out that he had “beaten up” on Chris when he really should have aimed his anger at ownership, Miles owned the training failure. Taffer then shared his findings for the Saturday prior to his visit. Kiva should have sold $1,694.87 that day. What the bar actually sold was $1,202.71, meaning about a third was overpoured. Were that trend to span 12 months, it would equal roughly $25,000. Cue the training!

Ashley felt the bar team was fairly strong, they just needed drinks that were easy and fast to build and serve. The first cocktail she introduced—Black Lemonade— was made with two ounces of lemonade, a half-ounce of triple sec, and an ounce-and-a-half of vodka combined in a mixing glass. She added a bit of luster dust and ice, shook it, strained it into a glass, and garnished it with a lemon wheel.

The Morgue Black Lemonade cocktail on Bar Rescue with Jon Taffer

Chef Vic chose elevated gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches for the food menu. For the Patty Melt Grilled Cheese he oiled the grill, put down two slices of bread, added two slices of Muenster cheese to one slice and two of American to the other, added a bit of Parmesan and a slice of pepper jack, and prepared a thin burger patty. Once the patty was cooked, Chef Vic used it to melt the cheese, stacked it all together, gave the sandwich one last flip on the grill before taking it off, and gave it a triple cut.

Initial training completed, it was stress test time. Miles and Henry held the door open and greeted the crowd that had been waiting outside Kiva. Tara was slow and prone to mistakes, the grilled cheeses weren’t going out owing to being either burnt or not cooked enough, and Miles mostly wasn’t acting as though he was in charge. At one point, Miles took a Black Lemonade from one guest—who had sipped it and didn’t like it—and gave it to another.

The kitchen shut down without ever having served a sandwich because the grill had been neglected for so long that it couldn’t work properly. The crowd did not like receiving that news. They appreciated hearing that the bar was out of glassware even less. With that, Kiva was shut down. On the plus side, Miles delivered the news about the kitchen and bar and took the heat. Henry showed that he did care, tackling the cleaning of the grill, which was accomplished after the stress test.

The Morgue Peach Sour cocktail on Bar Rescue with Jon Taffer

Taffer determined that the production and execution issues Kiva was facing came down to ownership, management and leadership. The team needed training and the tools to do their jobs properly and effectively. Ashley used the teaching of a new drink to help train the bar staff. For the Peach Sour she combined three dashes of peach bitters, a half-ounce of lemon juice, three-quarters of an ounce of peach syrup, and an ounce-and-a-half of bourbon in a mixing glass. She shook it all on ice, placed a skull-shaped ice cube in a rocks glass, strained the liquid over the ice cube, and garnished with a slice of peach and a cherry.

Kiva Lounge & Bar remodeled and relaunched as The Morgue on Bar Rescue with Jon Taffer

When Taffer revealed the renovation he explained that historical buildings couldn’t be changed much. He had renamed the bar The Morgue, paying homage to its history, and installed a new sign over the door. The Morgue had been outfitted with a Simple Booth Halo photo booth, an Arctic Concepts draft system, two Harbortouch POS systems, an Orange Door entertainment system, the ServSafe sanitation training program, and Bevinco inventory software. The relaunch had a line around the building but the bar team was having difficulties at first. Luckily, they turned it around and the crowd appeared to love the newly redesigned bar.

Six weeks after the renovation, food and drinks sales are reportedly steady.

Want more content like this? Jon Taffer delivered an inspiring keynote at the 2019 Nightclub & Bar Show in Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 26. Check it out here!

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