In March 2013, Spike Network featured Zanzibar Billiards on Larimer Street on its popular reality series Bar Rescue. During the episode, owner Ami Benari and the show's host, Jon Taffer, nearly got into a full-on brawl.
"It was hairy for a few moments, because he made me mad," Benari says. Nonetheless, he adds, "we ended up friends. He's actually a very nice guy -- very intense. And I am very intense. When you put two strong personalities together, you cannot help having some fireworks."
As part of Bar Rescue's five-day overhaul in December 2012, Taffer, a longtime bar-and-club consultant who has transformed a number of failing bars on the show, changed Zanzibar's name to Stars & Stripes Badass Billiards.
"In general, we're very grateful; they did a nice job," says Benari. "They could have done more, but they did a nice job. And we're thankful for the exposure and for the advice. Except the name. The name sucked."
Due to public demand, Benari went back to his original moniker. He ignored a few of Taffer's other recommendations, as well. "We're back to free pool," he says. "He wanted me to charge for the pool, but I don't believe in that. I believe in treating my customers right."
Still, Bar Rescue left its mark. "We kept the colors," notes Benari. "We kept the theme." He also kept the new menu that Taffer helped set up. Along with its Mediterranean and American dishes, Zanzibar has what Benari calls "the biggest burger in town," with "half a pound of meat."
The episode became one of the show's most popular because of what happened between Taffer and Benari, and business picked up for the pool hall. "You'd be surprised how many people come literally from all over America," says Benari. "We actually had three international people who came inside because they happened to be in Denver and they happened to watch the show."
His bar wasn't always in need of rescuing. He used to own Tarantula Billiards before opening Zanzibar in December 2009, and by 2011 he was bringing in $38,000 every month. But that year, he got in a near-fatal car accident, and his staff was left without supervision. Customers were getting run off with bad service, and soon the staff was giving Benari less than $15,000 in receipts.
Zanzibar's bar manager contacted folks at Spike, and Benari says they liked his story. He immigrated to Denver after a stint in the Israeli army; as he says on the show, he came pursuing the American dream. He always wanted to be in the entertainment business, but the next best thing was to open a bar.
A year after the episode of Bar Rescue aired, business at Zanzibar has improved. And Benari still adheres to at least one thing he learned from Taffer.
"His biggest advice was, 'Trust your staff,'" he says. "You don't need to run everything yourself; you can delegate. And that was a very important question. Yes, I do delegate. I mean, I'm still in charge, but I listen more."
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.