Chilleen's on 17 -- way up 17, in Black Canyon City -- is still open, which is the first thing you'll notice about it if your previous experience with Bar Rescue was Tempe's Rocky Point Cantina closing almost immediately after being transformed into Havana Cabana. The second thing you'll notice is that it looks like a Bar Rescue success story -- it's awash in theme and wood, and everything goes together, and the people who come to meet me are much, much more telegenic than I am.
Donna and Aleah Chilleen tell me it mostly was like that before. And after watching Rocky Point Cantina try and fail to turn into a completely different bar over the course of a long weekend, it seems clear that that's why Chilleen's on 17 -- previously Kid Chilleen's Badass Barbecue -- still exists.
We Aggressively Approached Them
"We aggressively approached them," Donna tells me. That meant putting a professional submission video together, with videos and photos and a rough draft of the episode's story built in.
"We had to just keep telling the same story over and over again," Aleah says, "because they wanted to see if we really needed rescued, and if we really needed help or not.
"They wanted to see if we would be good television or not, since that's what the show's about . . . Luckily, we're a very drama-filled place as it is, so we didn't really have to do much acting."
The drama the show homed in on was the older Chilleens' alcoholism, which on Bar Rescue gets so out of hand that Jon Taffer deploys a breathalyzer; the heroine of the episode is their daughter Aleah, an industrious, smiling whirlwind who cleans up after them while she attends ASU. That part seems about right; she's the one who got in touch with us after Rocky Point Cantina closed, who set up the meeting, who has internalized all the lessons they learned on the episode and the reasons they're different from Arizona's other episode. If she hasn't considered a career in PR, it might be worth her while.
But Donna hardly looks like a problem drinker when we meet. "I haven't had a drink in my bar since Jon Taffer left," she says, by way of an explanation. "I've lost 20 pounds just by not drinking."
We Had a Month's Notice, But We Still Don't Know
One of the surprising concessions the show makes to actual reality is that it's constantly working to convince the bar it's rescuing that it might not actually appear on TV. The list of bars thatmight
appear on TV is just constantly winnowed down until there's just the bar that actually will be rescued, which is still left to wonder just how much will happen until the moment Jon Taffer emerges from his SUV command center.
Of course, the hope is that this will create more reality TV drama, not less. "What happens is they tell you you're one in five bars that are gonna be chosen," Aleah says. "There's a producer and a guy with a camera following around. So it starts off with that, and then if you get chosen. At the back of your mind you're like, 'Okay, we've been chosen . . .' but at the same time, who knows how much money they have? They really could have five different crews."
Whether there were four more cameras filming around Phoenix or not, the Chilleens eventually advanced to the next round, where producers (ostensibly) peppered two finalist bars with hidden cameras. "They even left some of their things there," Donna tells me, pointing to a discolored corner of the ceiling.
"So you still don't know," Aleah says, "because what's hidden cameras in two bars?" She says Kid Chilleen's could be certain it'd been selected until the moment she saw Jon Taffer's SUV idle into their parking lot.
I Wouldn't Say It Was Made Up, Just Encouraged
"Obviously they persuade you, like, 'If you want to be rescued . . .'" Aleah says. The elder Chilleens' drinking problem was the hook of the show; before they could be saved from it, they had to highlight it as an issue. "So obviously, my parents were drinking a lot, and they were doing a lot of shots, and they were really drunk by the time Jon Taffer walked through the door.
"But that was so that he could rescue us, because that is a problem that we've had in the past. So people are like, 'Oh, that part's staged,' and I'm like, 'It wasn't really staged.' Obviously, it was encouraged to drink and have a good time, like he normally would, but who wants to go do that on national television without some sort of incentive to really push yourself to do it?"
I ask if it was heightened, maybe, or at least exaggerated. "Yes and no," she says, looking at her mother.
"I normally don't drink while I'm working, so that thing was kinda pushing it, and they did the drink count on me, and kind of focused on me because I'm so animated, so --"
"--she's more of a fun drunk; my dad just sits there and doesn't do anything--"
"--but they focused on me so they did a drink count on me, which is good because it was very entertaining to say the least."
Basically, the Whole Experience Was Surreal
"We love the show. We're huge fans; we watch them all the time, religiously. So that's what made us think, well let's try it, maybe they'll pick us. And the fact that they did -- we still can't believe it."
What they got was three days of filming and fixes, a series of odd production snags -- at the launch party, someone got the bright idea to snatch up as many Chilleen's on 17 domain names as they could find, with the ill-conceived idea of extorting Spike TV -- and a lot of post-production debris to sift through. And, come April, 30 minutes of name recognition that's still paying off.
"It was totally worth it after that," Donna says. "Like, 'Oh my gosh, that was easy, can we do it again?' We'd go through all this hassle--"
"Even to this day. Sunday I was up here, and people were like, 'Oh, I just came in here because I saw you on the show. Oh, my gosh, we have to get our picture.'"
If We Hadn't Been on the Show, We Wouldn't Be Here Right Now
If you want to leave a restaurant believing in the mission ofBar Rescue
, the new Chilleen's on 17 is a good place to go -- it's where the show should send its skeptics, particularly because the Chilleens remain remarkably clear-eyed about the whole thing. They know it's entertainment, and they know it wasn't a magic bullet, but they're convinced (for good reason) that it's the reason they're still around.
"The economy took a hit and sales were down," Donna says now, recounting the story. "We were doing great the first six, seven years, and then when the economy took a hit we took a hit, and then we actually were still open and still paying all our bills and our rent on time, our mortgage on time, but we weren't paying our property taxes, and then our mortgage company decided to foreclose on us because we weren't paying our property taxes."
It wasn't just the short-term crunch the show solved -- it's driving traffic even now, and when you pass their hilly exit on 17 their billboard (they paid for it) will remind you they're the compelling and telegenic family from Bar Rescue. "They helped us get out of bankruptcy, they helped us have the money to do all the things that we wanted to do, and now we're finally able to do it. Our sales are up 80 percent."
It wasn't a lot of time, but it was enough for a bar that was almost working as is. And they're thankful for it. "They remodeled in the rain. How they painted the building, and did everything in the rain in 36 hours -- they're pretty amazing. And the crew was so awesome; everyone was so sweet. We fell in love with all of them."
Their Episode, I Felt, Was 100 Percent Staged
They were fans of the show going in, and they're a success story today, so I was excited to hear about how the Rocky Point Cantina episode looked to them. "People ask all the time if our episode was staged, and I'm like, 'No, because we didn't need to be staged.' They never had to once tell us, 'Hey, you need to redo that,' or 'You need to redo this,' because we were pretty good about what we were saying. That episode," Donna says -- the Rocky Point episode -- "I felt like was like 100 percent staged."
It's not at all that they can't believe a Bar Rescue wouldn't take; for Kid Chilleen's, it was a calculated risk. "If we don't like the changes, we have to pay to take it back. If it's illegal in any way, we have to fix it -- it'a not up to Bar Rescue . . . So it was scary."
"It's fun comparing notes with the other people who have been on Bar Rescue because it's been phenomenal for us. But Rocky Point -- I just don't feel like that brother had a lot of experience."
And that's where Donna Chilleen thinks the difference is -- at least a large part of it. Good fortune and experience. "If you have no restaurant experience, you either know it or you don't."
"I grew up here," Aleah adds.
"She's been helping me since she was 5 . . . We've all worked. All my kids work here, and my brother, and my mom does the books.
"If you don't have restaurant experience there's nothing Jon Taffer can come in and do and nobody can do anything for you. You have to have the experience."
Two family-owned bars with big financial problems; two visits from a reality show that spends months keeping its patients on edge and a couple of frantic days changing as much as they can. One is thriving, the other isn't around anymore.
The difference is experience, sure; it's the business model and the problems that brought Bar Rescue to town in the first place. It's luck, in some amount. But it's also music. Bar Rescue turned Kid Chilleen's into a better version of itself. They turned Rocky Point Cantina, a half-open music venue, into a bar.