Raising the Bar

‘Bar Hunters,’ a new reality show from Discovery Channel that documents the creation of new nightlife businesses, initially seems like a lot of other hospitality-sector rubbernecking programs (think ‘Bar Rescue‘ and ‘Kitchen Nightmares‘). Then Tom Powers, the Chicago-based bar consultant turned host, starts drilling down on the numbers – emphasizing margins rather than aesthetics – and it becomes clear that this is not a program about men shouting at each other. To the contrary, ‘Bar Hunters’ turns out to be a surprisingly deep look at a ubiquitous industry too often and too easily dismissed as drink slinging.

“Bars tell us about where our culture is going,” Powers tells ‘Men’s Journal.’ “Now that customers are better educated about drinking, thanks to the Internet, and there is less of a stigma around the industry, people want to go big with their concepts,” he says.

On his show, which will debut on Monday, October 21Powers encourages first-time bar owners to pursue their dreams but always offers a chaser of business advice. After meeting the Tallis family in Dallas and listening to them talk about their plan to create a “California-style” open-air bar, Powers takes them to a rather charmless Bikini’s Sports Bar franchise in Richardson, Texas, and points out that the bar makes a great deal of money. Alan Tallis, the father of the would-be owners and a former La Quinta exec, ultimately finances the creation of a new bar in an up-and-coming neighborhood instead of investing in the T-and-ales business, but the decision is not made casually. Power’s point is well taken: As cool as it is to own a bar, it is much cooler to own a profitable bar.

“Bars need to be run like a business,” says Powers, a bald bulldog who appears on the show in conservative clothes and the occasional leather jacket. “This is not a party, and anyone who treats it like that will go out of business.”

According to Powers, who spends each episode showing entrepreneurs several locations and discussing the pros and cons of each, bar owners have to work hard to differentiate their businesses. They do this by playing close attention to location (“If you’re not getting people in, it doesn’t matter how many barstools you have,” he says), professionalism behind the bar (“Your staff’s attitude will permeate the place”), and clarity of concept (“Places that appeal to everyone won’t be successful”). That last requirement for success proves difficult for a lot of nightlife neophytes, who may be more excited about having the place than seeing to it that the message it sends remains consistent.

“When I was coming up in Chicago, the market was changing from large kitschy concepts to individually oriented places,” says Powers. “The selection of spirits, decor, and marketing material all need to reflect the same fundamental idea.”

Powers harps on this point when he’s talking about a college bar in Arizona, a dive bar in Pennsylvania, and an Irish pub in Kansas. He wants the new owners he advises on the show – the people who will ultimately decide the future of their nascent businesses – to think critically about the market as well as their own dreams. The show rarely shows him with a beer in hand, and for good reason. Powers is all business.

“Everyone can drink at home,” says Powers, “so execution is everything.” [‘Bar Hunters’ debuts Monday, October 21 at 10 p.m. ET on Discovery Channel.]

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