From Swanky to Spiffy

Two things invaluable to any bar owner are the all-important “buzz” about their place and the ability to keep it fresh — from the décor to the drinks to the food. When John Frankowski and Ryan Dorsey heard about Spike TV’s “Bar Rescue,” the unscripted show starring Nightclub & Bar Media Group President Jon Taffer, they saw their opportunity to score some buzz as well as a makeover for their 11-year-old bar.

Bar Rescue

Nightclub & Bar Media Group President Jon Taffer and the Spike TV crew mix it up with the owners and staff while filming an episode of the upcoming reality TV show, "Bar Rescue," at Swanky Bubbles in Philadelphia.

Once a hot spot on Philly’s Front Street, Swanky Bubbles definitely had run its course; Frankowski openly admitted the Champagne concept was passé and the business was stymied. I visited the day Taffer and the Spike TV team were filming an episode of “Bar Rescue,” and with one foot barely in the door, it was evident: This place needed help.

We all know it’s a rare bar that looks great in daylight, but from the ratty carpet to the tattered seating upholstery, the wear and tear of more than a decade was painfully noticeable. The other disturbing element was the mishmash of décor styles: One banquet featured a pattern of Chinese letters, which looked odd opposite an exposed brick wall that spoke of the venue’s location in the heart of the City of Brotherly Love. However, the problem that really stood out was the bar itself.

Designed by an artist, the bar was a curvy, swooping wooden structure, with oddly sized backbar shelves in what resembled cave openings, but the framing reminded you of blue waves… it’s difficult to describe, but you can check it out in the photos above. Feeling a bit like I fell down the rabbit hole, I checked out the bar setup and was astounded. The distance from the bar itself to the backbar was so narrow, there was no room for the necessary under-counter setup and no way two bartenders could possibly pass one another. So while the décor definitely was out of touch, the bar absolutely was not functional. In a word, the whole place was bizarre. Not to mention, the food menu was massive and lacked any cohesion, running the gamut from sushi to mac ‘n’ cheese.

Bar Rescue

Enter the Taffer team. With Chef Brian Hill and Diageo mixologist Elayne Duke, Taffer dissected the business by tossing the existing food menu of so-so sushi and assorted odd items and replacing it with dishes Hill concocted from existing ingredients. Then, Duke revamped the drink menu and retrained the bar staff. With the cameras rolling, the entire Swanky Bubbles staff was undergoing an intense program; Taffer was barking orders and giving encouragement as the Spike TV team scurried around. There was no time to lose — at midnight, a crew would come in to completely remodel the place.

Frankowski and Dorsey were milling about, giving interviews to the media and surveying the training. At one point, Dorsey jumped behind the bar to try his hand at mixing one of the cocktails — apparently, it was the first time he’d been back there in a few years. And while he came out smiling, the “Rescue” process wasn’t all fun and games. In fact, at times, it was downright painful. Trust me, Taffer isn’t one to mince words, and part of the process involves him taking full control of the bar from the owners so he can fix it. While Frankowski said it was tough but exciting, his partner Dorsey admitted to being, “Oh, a little stressed,” to which Frankowski quipped, “You gotta drink the Kool-Aid, man. You gotta believe that it can be turned around, and this unbelievable crash course will mean this space is again a premier spot in Philly.”

I can’t give away much more than that, but tune into Spike TV this summer to see how the rescue panned out, and check out for exclusive coverage of each episode. Frankowski and Dorsey definitely got the buzz they wanted — local media was out in droves — as well as the remodel they craved. For me, I got to see what happens on a television show set and watch a bar turn-around up close. But what I’m still curious about is what became of that strange, swooping bar… NCB

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