‘Bar Rescue’ visits 2 Austin nightclubs

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Roaches. Mold. And the scent of cat pee.

Before a recent visit from Spike TV’s “Bar Rescue,” Austin’s Headhunters was the worst bar in America, host Jon Taffer says.

“It’s repulsive,” he told me just hours before crews gave the place a top-to-bottom makeover. “This is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen.”

The lack of cleanliness, Taffer believes, is why the bar at 720 Red River St. was struggling, attracting just a handful of people each night.

Figures from the state comptroller’s office show beer, wine and mixed drink sales in November — the most recent numbers available — totaled just $5,472, tens of thousands of dollars less than its neighbors along Red River and East Sixth streets.

Clearly, Headhunters needed a savior.

One of “Bar Rescue’s” producers happened to stumble across the nightclub while in town for South by Southwest, owner Steve Ricci said, and offered a helping hand. After mulling it over for a few days, he said yes.
“It was a hard sell because my staff is very Austin,” Ricci said. “They’re very anti-corporate, but they were excited to get exposure on a national show.”

Before renovations could get started, Taffer says the place had to be fumigated. There was a major bug infestation, and many of the show’s staffers refused to set foot inside.

In one stomach-turning scene from the show, which airs at 8 p.m. Sunday, Taffer discovers a dead roach floating in a bottle of liquor.

Even with all those nasty bugs, the bar’s past few health department inspections went pretty well, city records show. It got a 100 — a perfect score — during two inspections in 2010. In 2011, it received a 94. And last year’s scores were 90 and 91.

An exterminator was called to get rid of the roaches and estimated the club hadn’t been fumigated in almost five years.

With that out of the way, the show’s makeover team got to work, spending about $150,000 on remodeling. Over the course of five days, more than 100 hours of footage were shot.
“Honestly, I kept nothing,” Taffer said. “Everything was so offensive. It was just incredible.”

What Ricci says was once a bar known for “punk and porn” – events included a weekly “Tata Tuesday” show – was reborn as Metal and Lace, a steampunk lounge combining modern design elements with Victorian-themed touches.

“Most people didn’t even know what steampunk is,” Ricci said. “They didn’t get it. We had to educate folks and show them the positives.”

In addition to reworking the bar’s interior and exterior, technology was upgraded. Computerized cash registers were added, and the not-so-great sound system was replaced with the latest, greatest technology.

New drinks were added to the menu, as well, and those roach-infested liquor bottles were, thankfully, tossed and replaced with new, bug-free ones.

“It would have taken me five months to do what they did in a week,” Ricci said.

The target audience, Taffer said, is “artsy, affluent urbanites” ages 25-39.

“I couldn’t do anything regular,” he said. “I knew that whatever I did, it had to be hip because that’s what Austin expects. It had to stand out in a crowd. The city, I think, will embrace this.”
The extreme makeover has brought in a number of first-time customers, Ricci said, but it also drove off some regulars — and even a few employees.

Still, Ricci says he plans to keep Metal and Lace as is, for now.

“We didn’t sell out,” he insisted. “We just took advantage of an offer that was too good to resist.”

The story’s different at another Austin club that “Bar Rescue” visited. The Brixton, at 1412 E. Sixth St., was briefly rechristened as Rocket Room 6, but owners decided they weren’t crazy about all the changes made by the show’s producers, choosing to scrap pretty much everything and revert back to the bar’s original name.

By Gary Dinges