Shifting into High Gear

When an owner who can’t separate his business from his friendships and imposes no discipline on his staff is combined with a bar concept that’s easily confused with an auto-repair shop and has ticked off the city brass, you get a bar that’s driving the fast lane to failure.

This strange combination of factors has Angry Ham’s Garage in Framingham, Mass., suffering big financial losses, prompting owner Tim Hanna to invite Jon Taffer of “Bar Rescue” to serve as mechanic and get his business back on the road. As he takes the driver’s seat from Hanna, Taffer discovers that the new business is awash in problems stretching from the curb to city hall, from the front to the back of the house.

The Bar: Perception Problems

Are they fixing cars in there? Detailing motorcycles? From the outside, Angry Ham’s Garage looks like either an auto-repair orAngry Ham's auto-parts shop, with no indication that the business actually serves food and drinks. Inside, while the place sparkles like the garage bay of a mechanic with obsessive-compulsive disorder, the décor is an homage to souped-up engines and other manly pursuits. Also in evidence is the collective ego of the three men behind the bar: owner Hanna and friends Lyndon “LB” Byers and Richie Oleson. While the trio conjured up Angry Ham’s together, Byers’ and Oleson’s history of trouble with the law — including DWI offenses — and tempers (LB is a former Boston Bruins player known for his flying fists) prevented either of them from being partners in the business or ever stepping behind the bar. Photos of the three men enjoying their various testosterone-filled pastimes adorn the walls, along with kitschy signs featuring raunchy slogans.

What’s more, the very name is likely offensive to the locals, including the local government. A derogatory slang term for Framingham natives, Angry Ham is off-putting to say the least, although the trio believes it to be tongue-in-cheek funny. Hanna doesn’t quite see that one of the reasons the place is close to empty is that people either don’t understand that he’s serving drinks and food, or the ticked-off mechanic vibe keeps them away.

Beyond the concept, name and perception problems, Angry Ham’s suffers from lack of systems, standards and training for its service staff. And while a highly trained chef mans the kitchen, his frustration level with the staff is so high that he’s morphed into a bona fide “screamer.”

The Challenge: Curves Ahead

While the perception problems are huge, Taffer also must address the lack of systems and standards that are leading to huge financial losses. An audit by BevIntel reveals nearly $3,000 in liquor waste over four days: Drinks are overpoured, enjoyed by the staff after a shift or simply given away to guests. Hanna is less than surprised; the blurred line between friendship and business prevents him from reigning in staff freebies and other register-draining habits. Taffer calls in renowned bar expert and top mixologist Brian Van Flandern, Diageo Global Tequila Ambassador and Michelin 3-Star Mixologist, to observe the staff and craft a solution plan.

In the kitchen, Executive Chef Dino’s demeanor keeps servers out of the kitchen, and the tension is thick. What’s more, former executive chef of Main Street Restaurant Group and noted culinary expert Chef Brian Duffy — one of Taffer’s go-to guys on kitchen faux pas — finds Executive Chef Dino is hoarding thousands of dollars in inventory and working with a menu full of items that simply don’t move or use ingredients efficiently.

The Fix: Get into Gear

Van Flandern makes fast work of training staff, emphasizing the importance of consistent use of drink recipes, proper pour techniques, garnishing and glassware. Amazed that cocktails, such as Margaritas, are served in pint glasses, he schools the bar staff to serve drinks in their proper glasses. He also leads them understand the value of balance in a cocktail. The right combination of acid, sugar and alcohol delivers not only a great drink for the guest, but one that will result in a second cocktail and/or a food order as the palate is opened up and the sense stimulated. The result: a satisfied patron and better check average all around.

Back in the kitchen, Duffy works with Chef Dino to craft a pared-down menu of appealing items that also use ingredients efficiently. What’s more, the pair works on ways to control the stress level in the kitchen through better communication. The staff is trained on the new menu; tasting sessions get them excited about the dishes, and they’re encouraged to ask questions. An HME Wireless system seals the deal by allowing Chef Dino to page servers when their orders are up.

Taffer attacks the public-perception issue on two fronts. As in other episodes of “Bar Rescue,” he finds an owner intensely connected to the name of his bar. But to break through the walls that have grown up around the place because of its name — and the trio’s reputation of brawling and hard living — he forces the issue of changing the name. Presented with an alternative that speaks to the origins of the place but is more approachable to patrons and conveys that the business actually is, in fact, a bar and restaurant, owner Hanna relents and agrees, in writing, to the change. This huge step moves him firmly toward operating the venue as a business, not a den for indulging egos or a haven for friends and family to hang out.

That’s only half of the equation, however. For any bar to truly succeed, it also needs to be in good stead with local authorities and government and have their support. To that end, Taffer brings Hanna and Oleson to meet with two Selectmen of the Town of Framingham; Byers has been absent from the process since the first day, a clear indicator of his commitment to the business. With the issue of the bar’s aggressive concept and off-putting name placed squarely on the table and the plan to move the business in a more user- and Framingham-friendly direction presented, the Selectmen agree to support the fledgling business. The other point of agreement reached is that the combative Byers no longer will be involved.

Now the place has to be detailed, so to speak. To maintain the unique garage feel, which does have merits, Taffer adds red upholstery to the wooden booth seating and breaks up the dining area into four quadrants. Both moves provide previously absent comfort elements, which will invite patrons to settle in and stay longer. A large motorOctanecyle that once sat atop the booth walls — obscuring sight lines between the bar and dining area, thus squashing the room’s energy — is moved to a glass shelf suspended in the windowed corner. This maintains the cycle’s showpiece role without disrupting the flow and vibe of the venue. Finally, a mural of the Framingham town hall adds a local touch, connecting the establishment to its roots.

Outside, a 16-foot metal sculpture of a brunette beauty outfitted in mechanics duds and holding a tray with pizza and drinks greets guests. Created by industrial sculptor Stretch, the figure, along with an oversized pair of utensils and a new nameplate, tell the whole story of the newly dubbed Octane Bar & Grill clearly and with panache.

Results: The Checkered Flag

The re-opening of the venue as Octane Bar & Grill proves successful from an operational standpoint: Bartenders are serving up balanced, properly poured cocktails in the right glassware, and ticket times in the kitchen are greatly reduced, along with stress levels and tension between kitchen and serving staff. On the perception front, patrons — including one of the Selectmen — are pleased with the garage-themed but far more comfortable surroundings and positive nod to their hometown. Sales are up, profits are up and owner Hanna is taking control of the business and managing his team effectively. Octane is shifting into gear for a smooth ride.


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