Swanky Bubbles was once an effervescent hot spot on Philadelphia’s Front Street, but that was years ago. In fact, the last time the bar was consistently busy was roughly 2004. Today, the concept is dated and the décor is beyond showing its age, with tattered carpet and torn seating. Beyond that, the place is schizophrenic: The Asian motif on one wall gives way to the exposed brick prevalent in the City of Brotherly Love’s Old Town neighborhood, the enormous food menu runs from sushi to lobster mac ‘n cheese and the voluminous drink menu is equally diverse and confusing to guests.
The venue has indeed lost its shine, its focus and its crowds, and it’s losing money. Owners John Frankowski and Ryan Dorsey agree that they’re in trouble, but can’t seem to agree on why. Frankowski is an MIA owner, showing up at the bar one or two days a week, while Dorsey uses the place like a personal playground for him and his friends, often comping food and drinks for the ladies. The lack of leadership — and lack of tips when Dorsey comps — is stressing the staff and draining the coffers. Swanky Bubbles risks becoming just another piece of Philadelphia’s history when the owners appeal to Jon Taffer and the Bar Rescue team for a lifeline.
The problems facing Swanky Bubbles are pervasive, running from the front to the back of the house. While the décor is in need of an update and an upgrade, the traffic flow in the 1,250-square-foot space is less than optimal. The primary offender is the large, cumbersome bar itself. Designed by an artist, it’s an odd, swooping wooden structure that looks something like a shellacked wave (for lack of a better descriptor) with eight oversized barstools in front.
The backbar is a bartender’s nightmare: barely wide enough for one barkeep to stand, let alone work or pass by a co-worker. There is no room for adequate bar-station setup, and the backbar shelving, which resembles cave-like openings, is practically empty of bottles. Faced with dwindling cash flow, Dorsey has not allowed managers to maintain par levels on bar stock, so they’re not able to make most of the drinks on the oversized drink menu.
The small kitchen is no match for the oversized menu of diverse food items, and the kitchen staff is a tad short on skills and fresh ingredients. Ingredients, such as jarred sauce, are used, and food-safety practices are lax on several fronts.
But the real problem lies with the co-owners. Frankowski, a seasoned nightclub operator, was busy with other projects. Dorsey, who was brought in to manage the venue day-to-day, was known to hit on female patrons and behave more like a rowdy guest than a manager, a pattern that ultimately turns off customers. He lacks accountability, and managers, bartenders and staff were frustrated and feeling helpless.
What’s more, the combination of a murky concept, a massive food menu, a bar that can’t deliver, a room with poor traffic flow and outdated everything has reduced not only the number of guests coming through the door, but the number of women. “When women come to bars, the men will follow,” Taffer says, noting that the dollars also follow.
With four days to fix the failing Champagne lounge, Taffer brings in the big guns. Chef Brian Hill, a 20-year veteran of the culinary scene who has opened and run restaurants in several top markets, reviews the menu and takes to the kitchen. There he focuses the cooks on proper food-safety and sanitation practices and goes to work revamping the menu.
Elayne Duke, a lead mixologist with the Diageo Reserve team, checks out the bar and the bartending staff. She finds the back stations unworkable because of a lack of space and product, and bartenders in need of sharpened skills. She goes to work quickly on renovating the drink menu and training the staff.
Meanwhile, Taffer talks tough to Dorsey and Frankowski, sharing candid notes from the staff about the problems they see with the owners. He asserts that Dorsey “crosses the line” by flirting with female guests and demotivates staff by comping drinks and food, thereby denying staff their tips. Chastising Frankowski for not paying closer attention, he challenges the men to take control of their business or risk losing it completely. “We heard it was going to be painful and, believe me, it’s not comfortable,” Frankowski quips. “But we have to put on our listening ears and absorb all we can.”
One lesson Taffer drives home is the need to make the bar welcoming and comfortable for female guests. His research shows that the majority of area residents are single, meaning the partners are in a prime location to attract a crowd to fuel their business.
Taffer then walks them through the problems with the bar area. Its design, he explains, prevents efficient drink making, which means lost profits, and also prevents interaction among guests, prohibiting the energy that is the key to any bar’s success. The final step in the turnaround will focus on remodeling the bar to solve those two problems.
Taffer’s excitement at trashing the outdated Swanky Bubbles concept and literally trashing the bar — allowing staff to take swings at it with sledgehammers — is obvious. The "Bar Rescue" renovation team makes fast work of transforming Swanky Bubbles into Sheer, a female-friendly concept involving new flooring, seating and a sleek bar design. Warm, honeyed wood finishes and red leather barstools provide a sophisticated feel. The backbar area is widened, with ample bottle display shelves and two well-equipped drink-making stations, resulting in an efficient and attractive bar. The backless barstools allow for more seating and more interaction among guests, driving up the energy and the check averages.
Bartenders and servers are excited about having adequate spirits to prepare the pared-down selection of cocktails, and kitchen staff welcomes the pared-down and focused food menu. The reveal of the new concept is applauded by patrons, comprised on approximately 66% females, which is a vast improvement over Swanky Bubbles' crowd.
For their part, Frankowski and Dorsey seem to understand that the business requires more attention. Dorsey grasps that it’s a business — not his personal playground — and directs his attentions to guest service. The result of the physical transformation of the space and new focus of the owners is an increase in female patrons and revenues.
Will the fix last? That depends on whether the tag team of Frankowski and Dorsey can stay the course and give the venue the leadership and management it needs to succeed. As with any business turnaround, the commitment of management is crucial to its success.