After Allie Speed graduated college, she and her sister Alexis decided to open Kilkenny’s, an Irish pub situated on the Redondo Pier in Redondo Beach, Calif., a wealthy beach community 30 miles south of Los Angeles. When the pub first opened in 2006, it was bustling, raking in $120,000 a month, but the sisters, novices in managing a bar and restaurant, have let things go and now face a $900,000 debt.
Though Kilkenny’s is ostensibly an Irish bar, the sisters also call it “a beach bar that doubles as a sports bar that doubles as an Irish pub that doubles as a live entertainment venue.” What’s more, the Irish pub doesn’t serve any Irish fare.
The clear lack of identity at Kilkenny’s only exacerbates the lack of leadership from the sisters, who rely on less-than-competent General Manager Carlos Gable to handle the day-to-day functions of the bar.
With no clear focus from management, things within the bar are only getting worse. There is no chef, menus are old and tattered, the food is horrible, booths are taped together with black duct tape, the beer cooler doesn’t work, supplies run out and there is no POS system. Because of a pier revitalization project, the sisters are told that if they don’t renovate Kilkenny’s, they’ll have to shut their doors in September.
“This has been my life, and to lose it, I can’t take that,” laments Allie.
The 4,300-square-foot space is in a great location — an affluent area with Pacific Ocean views — but the Speed sisters aren’t taking advantage of this beach community with a large disposable income.
A bad first impression of the drab and dirty Kilkenny’s exterior is a turn off to potential patrons. Also, flags from liquor and beer suppliers adorn every open space of the bar, giving off the impression that it’s more of a dive bar than an upscale Irish pub.
Obvious problems abound inside as well, from serving tongs resting in garbage cans between uses to rusty ice machines and frozen chicken breasts thawing in water — all of which are health-code violations. Though the kitchen is in a very dire state, the backbar is even worse. Bartenders don’t have essential ingredients, from mint leaves for Mojitos, bitters for Manhattans or citrus vodka for mixed drinks. What’s more, there are only two shakers available and the Margarita is available on tap.
However, before the sisters can attract new clientele, they have to deal with a larger, looming issue: internal managerial conflicts.
The biggest problem facing Kilkenny’s and the sisters goes beyond the dirt and filth: The general manager, Allie’s ex-boyfriend, is supposed to run the day-to-day operations but instead walks away from problems, unable to take responsibility for any of Kilkenny’s failures, let alone corrective action.
If the sisters want to get Kilkenny’s out of the red and into the black, they must rely on NCB Media Group President Jon Taffer’s help, as he and his “Bar Rescue” team are tasked with the major project of turning Kilkenny’s into a cohesive and profitable concept.
“This operation is a mess,” Taffer says, calling Kilkenny’s “a disaster.”
“Allie, you have no standards in this business. It’s dirty. The staff is untrained. You’re making more enemies by the minute than you’re making friends,” Taffer chastises her.
“We have to be cohesive. We have to come together. The music, the décor, the uniforms, the look, the feel, it’s got to make sense to you,” he tells Allie.
To take Kilkenny’s from a Redondo Pier eyesore to a high-end beach bar, Taffer calls in Josh Capon, executive chef at New York City’s Lure Fishbar, and Michael Tipps, bar manager at New York City’s Soho and Tribeca Grand Hotels, to elevate employee skills and profits.
Tipps has to start from the ground up with the bar staff, teaching them how to make handmade Margaritas and getting the bar supplies they need to work effectively. Meanwhile, Capon simplifies the menu by adding lighter beach fare, including tilapia fish tacos, salads and guacamole.
From there, Taffer overhauls the whole establishment. He adds a new POS system from PointOfSalesSystems.com for more efficient expo times, he orders unbreakable glassware from Thunder Group for the bar area and, most importantly, he creates a circular pattern in the room to encourage fluidity and more social interaction.
The biggest transformation occurs with the name and concept itself. The Irish Kilkenny’s become Breakwall Bar and Grill, a surf barbecue bar and restaurant that reflects the California beach lifestyle. In fact, Taffer uses shiny surfboards as tables that reflect off the windows overlooking the beach, bringing those views into the establishment at all times.
With the remodel nearly complete, Taffer still faces his biggest challenge in making Breakwall a success: General Manager Gable.
“They let their personal lives get in the way of their business. They hired an incompetent general manager, who keeps digging them into a hole,” Taffer says. In order to get them out this hole, Taffer breaks down the sisters’ personal relationship with Gable and tells them to “put business before personal motivations.”
“Sometime tonight, I want you guys to look into your souls and say, ‘Is my $900,000 safe with him or not?’ You have to separate business from personal,” he reiterates to the sisters.
But Allie isn’t so sure, especially with Alexis going to night school and unable to help as much. “I’m really overwhelmed because I need a partner to work with day-to-day.” She ultimately decides to keep Gable on but in a lesser managerial role.
On the re-opening night of Breakwall, things get off to a rough start. Gable, who has resisted the change and Taffer’s help, tells staff to continue doing things the old way. He even walks up to guests telling them the food is priced too high.
“He tried to sabotage us,” Taffer says.
The sisters initially accepted Gable’s disrespectful attitude, but eventually Allie takes over and makes the night a rousing success.
“You have a confidence in your face that you didn’t have five days ago,” Taffer tells her.
Three months after “Bar Rescue,” liquor sales have improved and patrons love the food and the signature Margarita, but Taffer fears Allie and Alexis will continue to struggle. Without an aggressive manager and with Gable still on the payroll, keeping the concept and new higher-level service and product levels intact may prove too difficult for the Speed sisters.
“I’m not sure they can keep it together. I don’t know if [Allie’s] personality is right to take control of the business,” he notes.
Though Taffer says bar owners are prone to excuses and often function in a vacuum, there is a chance that with the right amount of gumption, the sisters Speed will run Breakwall for years to come.