Located in Chicago’s hip, urban River North district, Blue Frog 22’s potential prosperity suffers from a lack of clear leadership and a misguided concept fueled by inexperienced, squabbling co-owners Mimi Witschy and her son, John Reed.
“When we first opened, we were really busy,” Reed says. But “we were trying not to spend a lot of money when we opened. We were ‘cheaping’ it when we started.”
Although Blue Frog 22 is situated in a trendy area popular with the young-professional lunchtime and after-work crowd, Witschy and Reed decorated their 42,000-square-foot establishment with children’s toys and board games, seeking a friendly “mom’s house” atmosphere. But by not keeping an eye on their surroundings or paying attention to their patrons, Witschy and Reed inevitably pushed their clientele to more fashionable hotspots down the street.
Chicago's Blue Frog 22 awaits a "Rescue."
Influenced by his mother’s dominating attitude, Reed has a hard time keeping his finger on the pulse of his community.
“I was looking for an old-fashioned neighborhood bar,” Reed says, but “being mother and son is hard. You know, I gotta ask mommy what I can do about this beer.”
Because of the duo’s infighting, the bar’s staff has no definitive “top dog” to follow and communication between management and employees no longer exists.
“It’s hard to figure out who is the decision maker,” Milos, a Blue Frog 22 bartender, says. “So decisions have to go through four people, and then what ultimately ends up happening is communication slips.”
Now $400,000 in debt, Witschy and Reed are in need of some serious help to even have a prayer of turning a profit.
Lucky for them, NCB Media Group President Jon Taffer — star of Spike TV’s new reality series, “Bar Rescue” — has the answer.
Taffer’s bark is exactly the kick in the rear Witschy and Reed need to take a cold, hard look at their non-existent management style and off-beat decorating scheme.
“I kind of went into the whole thing with an open mind,” Reed says. “I kind of assumed we’d get yelled at for a day. We argued a little bit. I thought, ‘We’ve been in business for 20 years, we know what we’re doing.’ Then Taffer asked me why he was here.”
As far as Taffer is concerned, effective management is key to an establishment’s success, and exactly what was missing from Blue Frog 22.
“When I see managers fighting like this, it tells me there’s no procedures, no organization and no communication,” Taffer says. “Those are the signs of a failing bar.”
Taffer’s first order of business is to anoint Reed general manager, giving him the power to make all of the decisions concerning the bar and forcing Witschy into the back seat.
“So I’m the old nag that gets put out to pasture,” Witschy says. “Am I useless? I feel like an outcast.”
“The family dynamic is always difficult,” Taffer says. But “they have to start disagreeing with her and thinking as business people, not as family members. I’m guessing Mimi controls and dominates, and nobody has the courage to go up against her. That’s why we have a bar filled with kids’ toys.”
“Mimi and I are a little bit divided on this,” Reed says. “I mean, she’s holding on to everything she knows, and I don’t give a crap. I want to make money.”
Taffer then focuses on the bar itself, turning to experts for assistance: Nancy Hadley, an interior-design specialist who has worked for design company Academy Studios Inc., to revamp the kiddie-pizza-parlor environment; Chef Josh Capon, executive chef of Lure Fishbar and Burger & Barrel in New York City, to spruce up the stale menu; and beer expert Jason Balducci, a sales representative for Left Hand Brewing Company and beer director of The Bluebird Chicago, to update the bar’s less-than-stellar beer program.
Taffer and team realize Blue Frog 22 needs an entire concept overhaul and decide to harness the patrons’ love for their hometown, which can mean only one thing: Go local. Taffer hones in on a local beer and burger theme for the establishment’s new focus and comes up with a name meant to get straight to the point: The Local.
Hadley turns what was once a children’s playroom into a striking blue haven for adults seeking a cold brew and delicious fare. Upon entering the bar, customers won’t be able to miss the giant numbers spelling out downtown Chicago’s zip code and images of the Windy City on the walls.
Capon develops a menu that uses sustainable, organic foods from local farmers, including eight burgers made from fresh, free-range Black Angus beef, while Balducci brings in new tap handles to represent the local beers now on tap. Additionally, knowing that a cold, tasty beer means nothing if it can’t be served quickly in a sparkling, clean glass, Balducci has glass spritzers and a TurboTap system, which pours a pint of beer in three to four seconds, built into the backbar.
The Local gleams after its renovation.
“What we wanted to create for you was a bar that had all the elements to attract the local marketplace: sophisticated and cool,” Taffer says. “A place where the locals go often and come on a regular basis — but because it’s local, because it’s all about Chicago, this is where the tourists will come.”
“I love it! I love The Local logo,” Reed says. “The guy definitely knows what he’s talking about.”
Witschy actually hugs Taffer, which speaks volumes in itself.
“He gave me something. Now it’s my job to do something with it,” she says.
Some patrons aren’t happy with the new pricing structure. A burger now sells for $10 to $12, rather than $6.
“Prices went up a little bit, but they had to, I’m not buying frozen stuff anymore,” Reed says.
Even with a price hike, food sales are up 50% a month after the renovation, and Witschy has remained hands-off.
“[I learned to] pay attention to the trends and the neighborhood,” Reed says. “Don’t be stubborn. You need to react to your neighborhood — don’t be afraid of change.”
“I believe this one’s going to be a big success,” Taffer says.
After The Local’s “Bar Rescue” episode was taped, Reed decided to change the bar’s name once again, feeling he was losing the business of regular customers still looking for Blue Frog 22. An updated awning flashes the cumbersome new moniker: Blue Frog’s Local 22.
Reed is committed to making his venture profitable.
“There’s no way we’re closing our doors,” Reed says. “We’re survivors. That’s what we’re going to do, no matter what.”