| The Real "Reality" Show
Cable TV’s Spike channel features a hit reality show called Bar Rescue. Its
star/producer is John Taffer who is not just another vapid TV host. He is a
legitimate icon in the bar and restaurant makeover business. Each weekly
episode finds Taffer struggling to fulfill the show’s single mission – to save
failing bars, often from their own misguided ideas, and put them on the road to
Taffer may not have peer in reality television but he has a real life one located
in Morristown, NJ. This bar rescuer goes about his work without cameras,
fanfare, or publicity. He has somehow managed to transform an oft failed
location into a successful craft beer pub. Move over Mr. Taffer and meet Dave
Morristown is a community that is home to 36 bars in its downtown section
alone, one of the highest competitive concentrations in the state. Many have
tried to break through in that environment but most have landed on business
boot hill. Case in point is The Side Bar, an annex of the Famished Frog
restaurant on Washington Street, a main thoroughfare in town. The Frog is
owned by a business group that currently runs five establishments, all of which
are flourishing with one notable exception - The Side Bar.
The place itself started life as a cigar bar, not be the best money making
concept in a town that proudly outlawed cigarette vending machines due to
public anti-smoking fervor. The cigar concept stayed afloat for a short time
largely due to a group of lawyers from the nearby county courthouse. Sadly for
the bar but good for the town, crime took a dramatic drop and with it went the
lawyers and their stogies.
Reinventing itself, the place became a small plate, tapas menu, restaurant
featuring bland beer and unexciting drinks. Strike two. Not wanting to give
up, the third incarnation was a sushi bar which promptly went under thanks to
the fact that there were already four such nearly identical places nearby.
Fortunately the bar business doesn’t follow the rules of baseball; three strikes
was not an out. They decided to try again only this time with a new power
hitter in their lineup. Batter up, Dave.
Dobrinsky saw that the main dining/bar area, The Famished Frog, was a very
successful sports bar /restaurant with mass appeal. While some in
management floated the idea of simply making the back bar annex an
extension of the front ,Dave had other thoughts. “Why dilute our winning Frog
formula when something different could enhance the entire concept and help
the organization continue to grow and prosper? Craft Beer might work.”
Craft beer is hot. America’s small and independent craft brewers are
continuing their incredible growth through the first half of 2012, boasting 14 %
dollar sales growth and 12 % volume growth over the same time period last
year. Making that more impressive is that it has been done while sales of the
big breweries have actually declined nearly 4%. Consider this: the second
six months of last year saw 1.3 million more barrels of craft beer produced
than the first six months (6.4 million to 5.1 million). Impressive.
With statistics like these in hand Dave began pitching the idea of a making
the back annex into a craft beer pub. Corporate wheels move slowly but after
nearly a year of waiting Dave was given the green light and a title to go with it
– bar and restaurant manager.
Dave’s goal in creating The Side Bar was simple – “I want it to be the best
beer bar in Morristown, period!” He realized that many of his competitors
gave only a token tap or two over to craft offerings while featuring just about
anything served with a lime or using the word “light”. In contrast, Dave brought
in 10 craft beer taps and over 150 bottles to the Side Bar. With little publicity
or promotion the word somehow got out to the beer community that the Side
Bar was a place to visit for quality beer and food. As Dave said, “I wanted to
create a relaxed atmosphere where the experienced beer lover and the
newcomer to craft beer would not just co-exist but enjoy talking to each other.
I hoped to use that interaction to spread the word about just how great craft
beer can be.”
Morristown generally caters to a mid-twenties clientele that really isn’t savvy
about beer so Dave was forced to create ways to get them to try out that “new”
bar in the back. He began by devoting several lines in the front bar to craft
offerings to let the sports and food crowd experience good beer's siren call.
He booked bands Thursday through Saturdays. He introduced beer sampling
paddles, tasting nights, and seasonal beer specials. Next came an extended
daily happy hour, Trivia Tuesdays, and Poker Wednesdays. Then he started
the establishment’s first ever (and only one in Morristown) “mug club” that gave
members a 30% discount on selected beers along with prizes as their
purchase totals increased. The club proved an instant hit. Within the first
month of its existence it enrolled an astounding 300 members.
In the halcyon atmosphere of all this activity Dave never lost sight of the most
important ingredient in his quest to make the Side Bar the best in town – the
beer. Given free rein to bring in the beers of his choice he welcomed in highly
regarded breweries like New Jersey’s own Kane, Carton, and Climax to add
a local touch. He brought in Belgium ales, German lagers, and Czech wheats
along with the top guns of the American craft brewing industry. He insisted
that each beer be served in the proper glass with the correct pour. Sales took
off to the point where beer actually passed wine and liquor as the largest seller
in both the Frog and The Side Bar.
This missionary of beer was collecting a flock!
Dave’s own drinking roots are in craft beer. He can still regal you with tales of
his home brewing adventures and of his introduction to the “good stuff” when
he first “was shocked to learn that beer could have layers of flavor. The instant
I tasted Sam Adams Boston Ale and Octoberfest I was converted. They
opened up the world of craft beer to me.” And to many others too. It’s no
surprise that one of Dave’s industry idols, Jim Koch, founder and owner of
Sam Adams (Boston Beer Co.) was recently named the single most influential
person in the craft beer revolution.
Dave received both his formal and beer education in Pennsylvania where, like
most college students, he went the route of macro lagers. “It’s a fun beer
state. I love craft beer but I still enjoy a cold Iron City, Straub, Yuengling, or
Rolling Rock – which is now brewed in Newark not Latrobe as it used to be.
The mainstream beers we serve at the Famished Frog are excellent
examples of that style.”
One thing for sure, if John Tapper ever did come to Morristown for an episode
of Bar Rescue one place that won’t need his services is The Side Bar.... it has