Jon Taffer’s rescue of The Chicken Bone in Framingham, Mass. raises two questions about the bar business: 1) How can a bar making $2 million a year be losing money to the point that the business is facing possible bankruptcy, and 2) What’s in a name?
Okay, the tale of The Chicken Bone’s turnaround via Spike TV’s “Bar Rescue” churns up far more questions than that, but they all stem from those two. To get to the answers, let’s start at the beginning.
Seeing an opportunity to get out of his successful but less than satisfying excavation business, Bill Rodenhiser bought his favorite bar five years ago. The Chicken Bone was a local hot spot with a following loyal to its straightforward combo of chicken wings and live music.
“Anyone who loves bars thinks they can own a bar,” muses Taffer. “But this is a tough business.” Rodenhiser found out the truth of that statement quickly. He was so amped up on the potential of the concept that he opened a second location near Fenway Park in downtown Boston, but his inexperience in the bar business quickly took its toll. The second location closed within 9 months, at a $1.5 million loss. Meanwhile, the losses at the original Chicken Bone were piling up, and its owner had to sell his large home and move his young family to a condo, while doubling up his hours at Rodenhiser Builders and simultaneously trying to micro-manage his bar.
Desperate for help, Rodenhiser reached out to Bar Rescue. With the help of wife Nicole on initial recon, Taffer immediately recognizes that the Chicken Bone suffers from concept confusion. “What does a sign do? It identifies who the place is for and who it’s not,” notes Taffer, pointing out that the Chicken Bone’s sign features a chicken playing a guitar with flames shooting out of it, advertises wings and live music and then says “Families Welcome.” Is it a bar or a family dining spot?
The concept confusion continues inside, where a multi-colored tile floor and colorful wall murals gives a feeling a day-care facility that just happens to have a bar in the middle of it and also hosts live rock ‘n roll and blues bands. A large, multi-panel menu furthers the confusion, especially since chicken wings are relegated to a small box on the back page. Is it a dive bar or a family-friendly place? Are chicken wings important or just an afterthought, despite the name?
The next obstacle to success is Rodenhiser himself. While passionate and well-meaning, his need for absolute control of the business – he won’t even share the chicken wing sauce recipes with the general manager or kitchen manager – coupled with his inexperience means his otherwise highly experienced General Manager, Jeff, has no ability to actually run the business. That scenario has resulted in a revolving door of GMs, with Jeff being the fifth in 12 months. And while Rodenhiser demands control, he has no idea of his hard costs and where he’s losing money because he simply doesn’t know where to look. But Taffer and the Bar Rescue turnaround team know exactly where to look, and what they find is astounding.
Calling in bar expert Michael Tipps, a partner in bar consultancy EST 1854 and former bar manager at The Tribeca Grand Hotel and The Soho Grand Hotels among other top venues, Tipps’ first line of investigation put pouring practices under the microscope. Upon hearing mixed drinks contain 2.5 ounces of spirit, Tipps had to take a moment to regain his composure, but knew he hit on the biggest problem behind the bar (aside from the lack of floor mats – huge liability issue, not to mention adding to barkeep fatigue).
Profits were also pouring down the drain via the draft beer system. Taffer’s legwork revealed that suds were coming out of the tap literally suds; dispensed at 47°, the beer was flat and foamy. The loss? Approximately a third of every keg, prompting Taffer to call for a new glycol cooling system from Lenox Martel.
In the kitchen, things got heated quickly when the sharp eyes of CIA-trained Chef Spike Mendelsohn gave it a once-over. The “top clean” kitchen proved dangerously filthy where it counts – fryer oil was old and full of crud, and gunk was caked in every crevice, even where cooking utensils were stored. He found raw chicken swimming in salmonella-laden juices, the result of over-purchasing practices that meant product spoiled before it could be used. The Chicken Bone kitchen was a food-poisoning catastrophe waiting to happen, and Taffer shut it down for a complete overhaul; a controversial move, given the big Boston Bruins game airing that evening, which would draw a crowd. But weighing the risk of a food-born illness against the evening’s potential sales, Taffer held his ground.
Tipps and Mendelsohn tackled the drink and food menus, each coming back with slimmer, more focused renditions that connected to what the bar is all about: good drinks, good wings and good music. Training the staff on the new drink selection, Tipps focuses on pour control – 1.5 ounces of spirit in a mixed drink, not the 2.5 ounces that had been the norm -- taking the staff through proper free-pour techniques and urging bar manager to conduct regular pour tests for each staff member.
Back in the kitchen, Mendelsohn works his magic. As chef and owner of two Washington, DC restaurants, he knows the importance of cost controls, so he schools the staff on inventory management and cross-utilization of ingredients. He taps into the chicken as the core of the menu, and develops dishes that use it in multiple ways to max out the profitability of the bar’s poultry investment.
Meanwhile, Taffer coaches Rodenhiser on loosening his grip on the business and allowing those with experience to do what he’s hired them to do, namely to run the store. He also takes on The Chicken Bone name, imploring Rodenhiser to let it go. Although Rodenhiser is correct that The Chicken Bone is a local “icon” with a strong following among area residents, Taffer contends that the brand has been considerably weakened by Rodenhiser’s attempt to make the bar “family friendly.” While I was on site during the Bar Rescue shoot, I actually had a chance to speak with some long-time patrons, each of whom waxed nostalgic about their good times in the bar. But, they noted that it’s evolved into a spot where you’re likely to find a group of elementary school soccer players, which takes away from its “dive bar” appeal. Rodenhiser resists, but finally goes out on a limb and agrees to rename the bar.
Taffer conjures up a concept for the venue that actually draws on its roots as a music-and-wings hot spot, and he pulls in designer Nancy Hadley to revamp the space. She goes to town on the multi-colored tile floor and wall mural, and slightly reconfigures the space to be more open and allow for enjoyment of the bands and the action at the bar in the 4,300-square-foot space. Also on tap is a more grown-up color palate in keeping with Taffer’s vision.
The renovation complete, the updated menus in place, the kitchen spotless, the staff trained and the GM empowered – the reopen is still a nail-biter. When the curtain is drawn back on the new sign, Rodenhiser is exuberant: The Bone, with the tagline “Chicken and Tunes,” draws on his bar’s roots and also clearly conveys what this place is all about.
Inside, the blue color of the new logo is evident throughout the space, from wall color and décor (backlight wall sconces featuring a chicken image) to the menu, which offers up blue cocktails such as the Blue Margarita. New glassware, including Samuel Adams pint glasses provided by Boston Beer Company founder Jim Koch himself, helps contribute to both proper pour and proper presentation. The crowd is pleased and the place is hopping.
What’s more, during the grand re-opening, GM Jeff is actively managing the bar, touching tables and keeping tickets moving and staff motivated and supported.
On the cost control front, things fall into line quickly. The new draft system increased keg yield to 98%, while the pared down food menu and efficient use of properly managed inventory increases food profits. Within the first month, Rodenhiser realizes $60,000 in savings; projections are for a $250,000 savings within a year if the team at The Bone stick to the plan as laid out by Taffer.
Rodenhiser is now an involved, engaged owner who knows what needs to happen to be successful and trusts his staff to deliver. While he admits there is still much to learn about the bar business, he is confident he’s on the right track with The Bone and his team.