A moment in the sun for MoonRunners

kjahner@newsobserver.comAugust 17, 2013 

Some families might not be too keen to watch a brother and sister swear at each other on television as they try to rescue their failing family restaurant.

But the family that owns a Garner bar welcomed a couple hundred people over to their place to watch it all go down on multiple flat-screens. They even held raffles and giveaways during the commercial breaks.

The episode of Spike TV’s “Bar Rescue” featuring the transformation of Garner’s Character’s Quarters into MoonRunners Saloon premiered Aug. 10. Owner Charlie Alexander said the event drew 250 people, with a lively atmosphere to watch the family’s flaws dissected by the show’s blustering bar expert and star Jon Taffer.

“The atmosphere in this place was phenomenal. Having everyone come out and support us,” said manager and co-owner Guy Wavra, Alexander’s son-in-law. “It was a great night for us, it really was.”

He also admitted: “Any time you watch yourself on TV it’s kind of a weird experience.”

Conflict

The owners, blunt, straight-talking Long Island natives like Taffer, have consistently said they had nothing negative to say about the experience. The show vividly depicted a family struggling to make a bar work, and in return they received a free makeover, publicity and crash-course expert advice on how to fix their business.

The relationship between Wavra and his sister Alex Basso-Wavra, a waitress, was on prominent display. The episode showed Basso-Wavra making several blunders and Wavra profanely chewing her out, bringing her to tears at times. Taffer criticized both her errors and Wavra’s training and abrasive managing.

“Obviously any time you’ve got 30-plus years of experience telling you there are things you can do to improve, you take notice of that,” Wavra said.

While one bartender overwhelmed by the pace of a stress test was let go, Basso-Wavra remains at the restaurant, and Wavra said their working relationship has much improved, adding that “nothing is fixed overnight.” Alexander noted that “they’re siblings,” and said he knew that the show, by nature, wouldn’t sugarcoat anything.

“It’s tough to hear the things that are said, but it’s a reality show,” Alexander said.

While the family vouches for its reality, a previous episode of the show featured a Raleigh bar and brought accusations of actors and coaching. A manager at Cashmere – rebranded Dual Ultra Nightclub – on Glenwood South insisted that producers coached bar employees to get them to say certain things. The owner acknowledged that different takes were used and that it was “exaggerated, but mostly it’s true.”

Wavra said he couldn’t speak to other episodes of the show, but said in this episode, “nothing was scripted, nothing was staged, nothing was prompted.” Some scenes involved second takes because cameras didn’t catch the original exchange. But he said the emotions and conflicts were real.

“I think that’s what made our show so successful and generated such support,” Wavra said. “I think that’s the reason ‘Bar Rescue’ liked it.”

‘Characters Assassination’

One aspect of the show was definitively real: the rebranding.

The episode – later named “Characters Assassination” – hammered the bar’s original theme. With servers dressing in random costumes and a yellow logo with a goofy font that seemed to imply a child-centric establishment, the image of Character’s Quarters confused a lot of people. Taffer called it “stupid.”

During the show, the family said its retirement plan was losing up to $3,000 a month and they had invested about $350,000 in the venture.

Taffer insisted the Yankees go with a more southern bar theme. The show installed a new name and logo, wooden paneling all over the bar, themed décor, and new moonshine cocktails. Gone was the cartoonish veneer on a site along U.S. 70 that has confused drivers as several bars opened and closed in recent years.

Alexander praised Wavra’s work creating an entire moonshine cocktail menu, including apple pie and peach pie moonshine drinks. He said he can’t find another bar in the area that goes through the process to get genuine moonshine approved by the ALE and ABC board.

“They’re serving flavored moonshine you can buy in stores,” Alexander said of places like the Foundation in downtown Raleigh. “I don’t see them going through the process (to get real moonshine). It wouldn’t be worth it for them. This is our theme, our brand.”

Local craft beers and a few southern-inspired items now grace the slimmed-down menu, though Wavra said much of the food remains the same.

Sustaining a publicity-bump

While some bars rebounded after their “rescue,” others have failed anyway, though some did so undoing makeovers and disregarding advice. And in some drowning bars, it stands to reason that less than a week of training – with trainers at least partly focused on providing good TV – might fail to permanently fix all potentially fatal flaws. But MoonRunners believes it doesn’t fall in that group.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a flash in the pan,” Alexander said. “We really don’t have any worries about (people coming back). They’re gonna. I don’t mean that to sound cocky, but it’s what we’re hearing in the dining room, that people are going to come back because they are enjoying it.”

Wavra said business has been up since the rebrand and suspects a post-show publicity bump will help even more. And he, too, thinks the bar can pass the ultimate test: keeping customers coming back after the fanfare has died down.

“We’re here. We’ve survived through some tough times. Most people would have shut their doors,” Wavra said. “If you can’t get people to come back you shouldn’t be in business.”

Jahner: 919-829-4822

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