“Bar Rescue,” the long-running docu-reality series on Spike TV, brought host and longtime food and beverage industry consultant Jon Taffer to Denham Springs for the rebuilding of Big Mike’s Sports Bar & Grill, which took in six feet of water during the August flood.
A lyric from the classic 1980s sitcom “Cheers” fits Big Mike’s perfectly, said Joe Matz, whose business Expert Collision also flooded.
“Big Mike’s is a place where everybody knows your name,” he said. “The people here have been like family to me, so I’ve come here just about every day.”
The broadcast is set to air on Spike TV in early 2017.
Owner Mike O’Neal has 37 years of work in the bar business under his belt and his wife Jocelyn has worked 25 years in the food service industry. But the flood left them unsure which direction to take.
“Our house and business flooded, so we really didn’t know what to do,” said O’Neal, just hours before he officially reopened on Oct. 24. “We knew the community was important to us, but we never realized just how important we were to the community, so we felt blessed and realized we had to do everything we can to come back.”
His bartender Emily Ashford had put the story on the show’s website, but O’Neal never expected a visit from Taffer and his crew.
“It was a complete shock,” O’Neal said. “With something like that, you never think you’ll be chosen.”
It marked the 132nd Bar Rescue for Taffer, but the work on the 10,000-square-foot interior at Big Mike’s stands out in the crowd.
Taffer usually leads the charge on redesigns of buildings which are mostly intact when the construction crew arrives.
The crew members, who arrived on a Tuesday, faced a task like none they had ever faced. By Sunday, they had to get through the meat-and-potatoes of rebuilding the popular bar and grill.
“We had to start from scratch and had just gutted this place five days ago,” he said. “Normally, I start with something and remodel and refinish, but this time it was Square Zero – and that made a big difference for us.”
The crew worked around the clock five days straight to remodel the flood-damaged business.
Taffer considers Big Mike’s a classic example of a neighborhood bar, something he employed in its redesign.
“It needs to be warm, with dark and cozy colors,” he said. “It had to have comfortable seating and 25 TVs – this is sports country, after all.”
The sports fascination played an intricate part of the design. The finished product houses an area called the “LSU Room” and a smaller portion called the “Saints Room.”
Both areas house photos and other memorabilia.
The redesign also includes a “Crown Royal” room for the adults, as well as a family area.
“You have two concepts in the bar now – a family concept and an adult concept,” Taffer said.
The popularity of the menu items prompted Taffer not to suggest changes, but it will include several new items.
“The food here is already very good, but we added a bunch of items to give it a little dimension,” he said. “We also added a few features to the signature cocktail program.”
New men items – all at the recommendation of Taffer and his chef, both from New York – include muffaletta pizza, shrimp-and-corn hush puppies, shrimp etouffee dip and a crabmeat burger (a hamburger patty stuffed with crabmeat).
The project cost approximately $750,000, Taffer said.
“You have to realize the kitchen like that will run around $300,000,” he said.
Taffer had previously restored bars in Morgan City and New Orleans in the months after Hurricane Katrina.
An employee from Spirits, a New Orleans bar, saw a Twitter message about Big Mike’s and brought it to Taffer’s attention.
“The guys from Spirits told me the story and here I am,” Taffer said. “So we changed the schedule and here we are, and that’s because we considered it just that important that we come here.”
He brought 50 crew members to Denham Springs and hired 20 local laborers for the project.
Lodging posed a big challenge. A lack of vacancies in the Greater Baton Rouge market forced the crew to commute from New Orleans.
“The logistics of pulling this off wasn’t so easy,” Taffer said.
Taffer had seen images of the damage online and on television, but the imagery did not adequately prepare him for the emotional toll of seeing it up close.
“When I got here Tuesday, I drove to Mike’s house first, so I got to see the community and the total devastation … piles of debris in front of every house,” he said. “You have people living in their driveways because they don’t want to abandon their homes.
“I teared up and this became more about the families than the bar,” Taffer said. “When I heard that Mike’s kids were living with someone else a couple miles away, it also became a mission to get these kids home again.”
Taffer and his crew tabled a season finale in California for the rescue of Big Mike’s. The shuffling of plans also added two weeks to the taping schedule.
“Our schedule changed to accommodate this, but it’s important to me to help out winners like this,” he said.
“Mike is a really good guy in a community that has gone through a tragedy like this, so there’s a lot of personal gratification in doing something like this for me – more about the people than the check, for darn sure.”
Taffer considers Big Mike’s a classic centerpiece for city. The establishment hosts meetings, small banquets, celebrations and political forums.
“The second public building ever built in America was a bar, and the first was a church,” he said. “Bars were called ‘public houses,’ and they were the center of the community … politicians, business dealings, all the things Big Mike’s was.”
“There’s much more to this than just being a bar,” Taffer said. “It’s the hub of the community.”
It also represents one step closer to a return of normal life for Denham Springs.
Taffer said it hurts to see the vast number of businesses that remain shuttered in the aftermath of the flood.
“When I drive through town, I see too many businesses with ‘For Lease’ signs in front of them, and that tells me they’re not coming back – that’s scary,” he said. “If you can inspire people to reopen and you do it a little sooner, it’s a big deal.”
“It takes two or three years to recover from something like this, so if you can expedite something in a couple of months, it’s a big deal,” Taffer said.
O’Neal hopes he can inspire other businesses to reopen and help Livingston Parish move toward a faster recovery.
“We realize there are tens of thousands of other people suffering, so we’re trying to inspire other businesses that may be on the fence as to whether they’ll reopen,” he said. “Maybe this will inspire them to come back. We need to make our community strong again.”
Matz said he’s ready for the reopening, which will bring him one step closer to his pre-flood routine.
“I was spending $500 a week here before the storm,” Matz said. “I’ll probably eat there 31 days straight after it reopens.”