'Bar Rescue' gets the boot in Silver Spring after Piratz Tavern renovation goes bust
By Tim Carman
March 14, 2012
Michael Couey is better known around Piratz Tavern as One-Eyed Mike. He says he lost his left eye in a sword-fighting accident in 2006 as part of a promotional mall stunt for "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest." The sword, he adds, not only took an eyeball. It temporarily took away his ability to work, which would eventually cost him his job and then his home.
Piratz Tavern, the divey, grog-heavy pub in Silver Spring that opened in January 2007, would come to Couey's rescue. It offered One-Eyed Mike a job as a server, but just as important, Piratz gave Couey a platform to continue playing out his pirate fantasies without making the employee feel self-conscious about his eye patch, which was now more than a costume accessory.
Not to be too blunt about this, but Couey was a pirate caught in Jon Taffer's crosshairs. Taffer is the tough-love host of "Bar Rescue," the Spike TV reality series that takes dying pubs and bars and attempts to reverse their fortunes. The program aims to save these moribund watering holes by modernizing their operations and ditching their dead weight, such as employees who view the workplace as their own private pirate ship.
"This is a place where [staff] comes to play pirate every day," Taffer told a Gazette reporter last month when his crews hit Silver Spring to save Piratz from Davy Jones's locker. "It's like kids in a sandbox."
Taffer's solution -- a temporary one as it would turn out -- was to transform Piratz Tavern into the Corporate Bar and Grill, complete with a logo of a faceless, clean-cut businessman in a suit and tie. The menu, once a sprawling, multicultural affair that embraced pirate-themed dishes and Jamaican jerk chicken, was reduced to a trim, 12-item list of starters, salads, sides and sandwiches. A new menu of designer cocktails, none of them rum-based, incidentally, outnumbered the available entrees, six to three, all the better to capitalize on the large profit margins of mixed drinks.
The staff was stripped of its pirates' scarves and wenches' bodices and ordered to wear black pants, white shirts and sweater vests embroidered with the Corporate Bar and Grill logo. Likewise, the tavern's Halloween-like ambiance of skeletons, Jolly Rogers and stuffed parrots was stripped down to a steel-gray-and-yellow environment, as enticing as an office cubicle. The walls were decorated with framed motivational posters, such as the one titled "Sacrifice," in which a stern boss stares down at diners under the caption: "All we ask is that you give us your soul."
It was the drab corporate world of Dilbert, not the high-flying Donald Trump version, and it didn't sit well with either the old Piratz staff or its regular swashbuckling crowd, whose philosophy is to escape from the ordinary, not embrace it. On "While You Were (Out)" notepads placed on every Corporate Bar and Grill table, customers expressed their displeasure: "I hate the business theme," one wrote. Added another: "You ruined our Piratz Tavern." A number of regulars also started posting to a Facebook page, "The Soul of Piratz Tavern," to express their outrage. One even coined a new "curse" word: "Taffer (v): 1) To screw things up so badly that you have the uncontrollable need to conduct a human sacrifice."
Co-owner Tracy Rebelo knew what she had to do: reclaim her bar, even before the Piratz Tavern episode airs on Spike TV, likely this summer, as part of the program's upcoming second season. She and her husband, Juciano Rebelo, plan to relaunch Piratz Tavern Thursday after a considerable renovation to undo the previous remodeling undertaken by Taffer and "Bar Rescue."
"I think that they really, really underestimated and, to a certain extent, disrespected ... who we are and the community that we serve," says Tracy. "I think Jon Taffer and his crew did not really research or understand what downtown Silver Spring is... . They were thinking that there's this huge corporate clientele. Well, this is not K Street or Bethesda."
Counters Taffer: The owners never had any desire to embrace his concepts. "The reason why they didn't? Candidly?" the host says in a phone interview. "They want to be pirates."
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Tracy Rebelo will tell you that she and her husband had their reasons for jumping on board with "Bar Rescue," despite the dangers of turning their beloved pirate pub over to a stranger, who could, by contract, do anything he wanted with it. She and Juciano, after all, do not draw a salary from their business, which they say earns just enough to cover the bills. The couple live with Tracy's parents; they also have a daughter who's fast approaching college age, and they can't afford her higher education. They figured Taffer could seal the leaks in their listing ship and make it profitable.
"We had a standing joke among us: 'What's the worst thing they could do? Make us into a sports bar?' " Tracy says. "We never imagined a corporate bar because I don't think corporate bars exist."
The entire premise of "Bar Rescue" is based on the promise of saving operations such as Piratz Tavern. As the star and host of the show, Taffer cuts a no-nonsense authority figure, the kind of grizzled veteran who's going to hurt you for your own good. He's the founder of Taffer Dynamics, which, according to its Web site, is a consulting firm that "offers a series of Business Invigoration Strategies that ignite, energize, revitalize, refresh and empower your organization."
"I thought this was an angel, a godsend," Tracy remembers. "Finally, something good is going to happen to me."
"Bar Rescue" follows a fairly standard formula: Taffer sends in an undercover operative to assess the bar's weaknesses, which can range from an unruly staff that's pouring too much free booze to an aloof general manager who can't be bothered to do his job. The problems they found at Piratz started in the kitchen (which Taffer says was a complete mess, requiring a professional crew to clean it) and rose all the way to ownership.
"He said I'm the absolute worst manager he's ever seen, that I don't know what the hell I'm doing," Tracy says. "He made it out that I was just partying all the time with my staff, and they were walking all over me."
But the "Bar Rescue" team also conducted research on Silver Spring, Taffer notes, and concluded that the area boasts about 240,000 people during the day, a combination of locals and workers who toil at Discovery Communications, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other offices. The population sinks to about 70,000 people once those offices clear out, Taffer points out; the obvious solution, he adds, is to cater to those worker bees during lunch, happy hour and the early evening, before they head for home.
Late on Saturday, Feb. 18, after a 36-hour makeover, Taffer and team unveiled Corporate Bar and Grill to try to tap into this eminently drillable market. The grand opening crowd was largely composed of guests invited by "Bar Rescue" producers. Any regular who showed up in pirate garb was rejected at the door, apparently in the interest of keeping the one-eyed scurvy types out of camera range.
"Bar Rescue" reportedly spent $250,000 on the makeover, which included the removal and storage of all pirate memorabilia (save for the aquarium with its sunken ship and skull ornaments) and the installation of a sandwich-heavy menu, including an $11 burger and a $13 charred chicken breast with pesto. Crews also installed some draft-beer tables and a Smart Bar system so customers could serve themselves drinks (and populate the all-important front room that faces the street). The only problem was that the "Bar Rescue" team did not secure the necessary permissions from the Montgomery County Board of License Commissioners, which is required for operating the new bar toys. (Notes Taffer: The producers left a list of to-do items for the owners, such as securing permissions.)
The bigger problem, however, was the tavern's new identity, designed to attract Silver Spring's corporate worker bees. The new place seemed to do just the opposite: It became a cruel joke among a number of locals. Posted one member of DonRockwell.com: "A faceless suit for a logo. Could Taffer mock Silver Spring any harder?"
As One-Eyed Mike heard more than one customer complain: "I just spent all day in an office," recalls Couey, who remains employed there. "I don't want to visit a place that makes me feel like I'm in an office."
Tracy Rebelo wasted little time kicking the concept to the curb. In some ways, it was a practical decision, she notes; pirate-themed parties, whether for kids or adults, were difficult to stage in the revamped space, not to mention out of place. In fact, it was a massive kids' party scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 25, just a week after the rebranding into Corporate Bar and Grill, that instigated the switch back to Piratz Tavern. Many staff members simply wore their pirate dress into the evening service, an act of protest against the Man. Little more than a week later, the Rebelos and their employees were starting to dismantle the new place, courtesy of customer donations and money provided by "Bar Rescue" itself.
"We were having an identity crisis," says Tracy. "We were 'Bar With an Identity Crisis,' and that's how we were answering the phone."
Taffer would say Tracy and Juciano Rebelo had a crisis of a different sort: They had a crisis of confidence. He notes that moments after the unveiling of Corporate Bar and Grill on Feb. 18, a staff member told him that, "In the morning these [customers] are going to be welcomed by a pirate." What's more, he says, the owners did not open for lunch immediately after the makeover. "How can you say lunch works if you're not open for lunch?" he asks.
Plain and simple, the TV host thinks it's lunacy to revert to a concept that didn't work financially for the owners in the first place. "They're out in left field," Taffer says. "I think they're a bunch of fools."