On Location with "Bar Rescue:" Downeyas Irish Pub & Restaurant, Philadelphia

Downey’s Irish Pub & Restaurant had fallen on hard times. Once a highlight of Philadelphia’s Old City, things didn’t go quite so well after Jack Downey sold the bar to Dominic Centofonti.

“There were many, many problems,” Centofonti admits. “Theft problems, structural problems… We had leaking ceilings; we had people taking money, people taking beer out. I’ve been losing money the last three years.”

The downstairs men’s room was infamous, basic food items would run out regularly and the whole place looked like it was about to fall apart. If anything, the personnel situation was worse.

“It’s a free-for-all,” bartender Paul Avenna says in frustration. “There’s no management. Hire a manager!”

Downey’s was circling the drain when Centofonti caught a rope from Jon Taffer’s "Bar Rescue." Taffer, the head of consultingSpike TV logo firm Taffer Dynamics and president of Nightclub & Bar Media Group, created the show that was then picked up by SPIKE TV. Last week, I had the unique opportunity of being on-site while Taffer was filming at Downey’s, so I saw first-hand the drama of turning around a failing bar business… in 72 hours.

It’s not easy, because the first thing Taffer does (after sizing up the situation incognito) is to confront the owner on the first night and take control.

“I ask him if he’s failing,” Taffer says, “he says yes, and I take the keys.”

Taffer and his staff of experts (who he brings depends on the place; here it’s a chef, a bar manager/Irish whiskey expert and general manager) move in, assess and begin training. The production staff takes over the second floor, and everything — everything! — is recorded; Taffer and Centofonti wear mikes the whole time.

By Hour 20, the menu’s been re-done and the bar has been re-focused. Downey’s is Irish. Emphasis on Irish. New dishes (with Taffer’s genius on directing customers’ attention to the highest-profit items in full force) and a new emphasis on higher margin Irish whiskey cocktails. The staff is trained; then they’re sent home as the makeover crew comes in.

Thirty-six hours later, the exterior of Downey’s gleams; sharp new banners snap in the river breeze, the smell of fresh paint is in the air and all of the new chairs and barstools are in place. The bathrooms are sparkling, there’s a new stove — the old one collapsed when it was cleaned — and a new coldbox. The whole place looks brighter. It’s time for The Reveal.

The staff is impressed; heck, the staff is overjoyed. Taffer hands out new Downey’s ties to all of the front-of-house staff — bar manager Tommy Brennan is beaming. They’re ready to rock, and now you see why there are so many long-timers on this staff: They honestly love this place, and they really want Centofonti to make it.

The doors open. People roll in and crowd the bar, and it’s electric. Brennan and Avenna bounce around the bar, smiling, pouring whiskey. Pizzas land on the bar, beers are poured and people are buying each other drinks. It looks like a win… but I’ll be back in a couple of months to see if the rescue took hold and whether Centofonti can keep the place alive and thriving.

Watch for the premier of “Bar Rescue” on Spike TV this summer and for exclusive coverage of every episode on nightclub.com.

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