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Even as the TV show “Bar Rescue” arrived to film the facelift of his family-owned bar, Charlie Alexander remained cautious.
“I wondered, ‘Are they coming in with the primary focus on the show and getting good ratings, and is the rebranding ancillary?’ ” Alexander said.
But with the business he bought in 2010 struggling mightily, Alexander went for it, and his quirky bar Characters Quarters ceased to be. Now the family owns MoonRunners Saloon. And at least in the immediate aftermath, Alexander couldn’t be happier with the results – even after a dramatic, stressful week of filming.
“It was 180 degrees the opposite,” Alexander said of his fears. “The whole crew was warm and friendly, and (the show’s star, bar expert) Jon Taffer was really concerned with us as people. And I think I’m a pretty good judge of character.”
Taffer boasts 35 years in the nightlife industry and brings in top bartenders, cooks and other hospitality experts to struggling bars, using their expertise – and typically a free top-to-bottom renovation – to improve a bar’s operations and profitability. Characters was one of two Triangle bars chosen from about 30 that applied, Alexander said.
Taffer’s persona – a Long Island accent offering blunt, unapologetic assessments of struggling watering holes – drives the show. But it didn’t phase Alexander and his co-owner stepson Guy Wavra, who runs the bar day-to-day. Both happen to be blunt Long Islanders themselves.
“He’s a really super guy,” Alexander said of Taffer. “I know he can come off on TV as a jackass.”
As it turns out, Alexander and Taffer’s hometowns are just 10 miles apart, and the owners had no problem with straight talk about the bar’s failings. And though family discord among the owners will be on display when hours of footage are reduced to 42 minutes, they don’t mind sharing what Wavra equated to “a therapy session with Jon.”
“I think me and my family are really straight shooters in this dynamic here; there’s nothing really fake about us, nothing to really air out,” said Wavra, who quipped that he’s hired and fired his sister three times. “It’s just the raw emotions of a family trying to make a living.”
The owners and staff said the filming process was intense and stressful.
“When you sign these papers, you are giving up any control,” Alexander said. “You have no control over what is done or how it’s done. You go from owning your own business to being not even an employee; you’re just a pawn for that week.”
The name Characters became a target and, eventually, a casualty, as did the costumes staff wore to work.
“I think we made a mistake with the brand of Characters,” Wavra said of the bar with the colorful yellow logo and goofy font. “I think that was the biggest problem for us, was having to swallow our pride. Characters was confused. People thought it was a kids’ place; some didn’t know if it was a bar.”
The show, which uses local demographic research and expert analysis, rebranded the bar with a moonshine and old-time saloon theme. Moonshine cocktails, wood finish everywhere, old stills in a corner and a wooden porch out front all point to an attempt to give the bar a more Southern feel. The complete renovation came free to the bar in exchange for the drama, as Wavra explained it. “Bar Rescue” put a bow on the revamp by sponsoring a car at the Wake County Speedway.
“Obviously, they get what they want: They get their dynamics – they get their show,” Wavra said. “We get a rebrand.”
As Taffer poked and prodded to find the problems in the business, one bartender would lose her job, though Alexander said he thinks it will ultimately be best for her to get back into her degree field. He wished her the best.
Also, Taffer altered the menu, with some low sellers tossed out in favor of dishes from “Bar Rescue” chefs. Eventually, as with all episodes, MoonRunners reopened to a big crowd with big energy. It too early to tell whether the bar can turn a more-coherent theme, nicer interior and improved operations into more patrons over the long haul. But the U.S. 70 corridor certainly provides traffic flow.
The show’s results in other locations have been mixed. While many succeeded, some bars failed anyway. Breakers in Redondo Beach, Calif., failed after being remade from an Irish pub, for example. Others, such as Win Place or Show in Fairfield, Ohio, and costume-themed Piratz in Silver Spring, Md., cast aside the changes and also went under.
During the filming, Alexander, a fan of the show, said he jabbed at Taffer that, “If this doesn’t work, I’m going to go with a pirates theme.”
Alexander had heard mixed reviews in about 10 conversations with former “Bar Rescue” participants. But with their bar losing $2,000-$3,000 in some months according to Wavra, they gave it a shot. Alexander has put a lot of capital into bar they opened in 2010. The family has no intentions of turning back, either. Neither Wavra nor Alexander understands how people presented with the show’s level of research, data and experience can revert to strategies that had failed.
“I guess you just can’t fix stupid,” Alexander said. “I can’t figure (that) out for the life of me.”
Wavra refers to himself and his family as “Northerners living in the South and enjoying it,” and said he came south to get out of the “rat race of New York.” He hopes his 3-year-old son will learn hard work bussing tables at MoonRunners someday.
Wavra said he’s adapted to the change of pace after a decade of living in the Triangle. And now, with a little help from a fellow New Yorker, his bar has adapted and become more Southern, too.