I have to admit, I had only seen two episodes of Bar Rescue before my interview with Jon Taffer. This sent me into research mode, where I found out that he was about much more than remodeling.
By the time the interview day arrived, I was ready with questions and Jon had the answers as we talked about his show, his books, his favorite bars, and why he has such a big female following…
Marcia Frost: Whose idea was it originally for Bar Rescue?
Jon Taffer: I put together an idea for a TV show that was originally called ‘On the Rocks.’ Through a friend, I arranged an opportunity to do a sizzle reel in California. I got a friend to let me use his bar for an hour. I got a camera guy, a sound guy and a lighting guy. I pretty much went into the bar and interacted with the employees on camera.
That three minute sizzle reel was done and we presented it to three companies in LA and got three different offers – quickly. I was shocked by it, actually. It happened quickly for me.
MF: I certainly notice the similarities to Restaurant Impossible, though it’s a lot edgier. Were you trying to follow that format?
JT: Robert Irvine is terrific and we communicate pretty often and try to get together. I respect and think the world of Robert, but the reality is, I hadn’t seen Restaurant Impossible (laughs) when I put this together. I had seen Kitchen Nightmares, and that certainly was a point of reference.
I’m one of the only people on TV who is not a chef so I come at it as a business man, not a chef. I watched Kitchen Nightmares and I understand when Gordon had tension and emotional peaks, whether they be hugs, good tears, bad tears, tension, that those were the best moments of the show. I understood that certainly, whatever we did on TV had to have moments like that, but the format of Bar Rescue is really true to me, not any other TV show.
MF: You’re actually doing more analyzing beforehand.
JT: Bar Rescue is in real time so on day one I send in my spies and access the operation. Before I’ve done this, I always have demographics in my hand.
I’ve never seen the bar before you see me walk in on TV. I’ve never met the people before you’ve seen me walk in. All of them are real employees. There’s nothing scripted inBar Rescue. About an hour and a half or two hours before I’ll drive around the neighborhood and look at it to see what key concepts there are. I get all the information about an hour before I go on camera. I study it, review it, make determinations to the market.
So, when I sit down in my SUV out front and send my spies in and start watching, I have a good snapshot of the market area and the competition. This is all real. This is all true to me of what I would do to be a decent consultant. The difference is that the time is greatly condensed.
MF: What was your favorite episode to do?
JT: It’s really not about the bars, it’s about the people. I can fix any bar in the world. It’s easy to fix beverage cost, it’s easy to put in interiors, it’s easy to do maintenance, organizing and marketing, it’s easy to match it to the demographic.
It’s hard to change people. The biggest challenge I have is understanding that these owners made thousands of bad decisions that led me to be there that day. And, that’s my challenge.
If I don’t accomplish what I need to on day two, I’m not going to get this done. I have to be extremely aggressive to stay on track. I have to challenge their core beliefs. I have to convince them that they are wrong in the basis premises and beliefs that they had.
I achieve it by challenging your pride, sometimes I achieve it by calling you an ass and getting you angry. Sometimes I achieve it in other ways to bring emotions out, but some point in time, typically the first three days, you are going to develop a little bit of doubt in yourself. When that doubt develops, your brain opens a little crack, and I’m going to walk right in and change the way you think.
MF: I read something about you walking into a bar in Austin full of cockroaches and that it was the worst you ever saw. What keeps you from just turning around and leaving a place like that?
JT: That one is certainly the most memorable.
The owner of that bar was such an ass, forgive me for saying that. He disrespected his employees, he disrespected his customers, he was a bad person.
My first day there, when I found out he wasn’t paying his employees at all, I lost it on the owner. I had a meeting with the employees and said, ‘I don’t want to do this bar for this guy. I’m going to leave and walk out, but if you guys want me to do this for you, I’ll do it, but remember, when I leave, this is the guy you are going to be working for. On the other hand, if you want me to get on the phone and find you guys jobs down the street, I will do that and leave. I’m going to leave it up to you.’
The employees asked me to do it, so I did. You have to be an advocate for someone. In that case I was an advocate for the employees.
MF: What do you think about your high female viewership?
JT: It’s incredibly flattering to me.
MF: Are you single? Is that it?
JT: No. My wife has been on 17 episodes with me. She was my spy the first two seasons. Now she gets recognized so she can’t be my spy anymore. We even tried changing her hair color, but she still gets noticed. My daughter, who’s 24, did a couple of episodes as a spy for me.
Here’s what my conjecture is. My show is about 36% females, which on Spike is unbelievable. No show has ever done that on Spike. I’m not a player, I’m not a bar guy. They’ve seen me put my wife on the show, they’ve seen me put my daughter on the show. They can see that I’m a family man. Women who watch a lot of episodes know that I get furious when owners rob women of their dignity. It infuriates me. It’s not about sexual harassment. I take it further. I have always had a policy in my company of human beings. No one is to rob anyone of their dignity. Ever. That’s more than sexual harassment – that’s respect.
MF: Can you tell me a little about your new book?
JT: I’ve had books on the market — B to B books — for close to 20 years. Raise the Bar comes out October 8th and I’m really excited about that. It’s the first time I’ve written a book that isn’t B-to-B. It’s really written for people who watch Bar Rescue. I’ve written it in a way that I’m purposely hoping to inspire people. I’m hoping the book does that.
MF: What’s your favorite bar to go to?
JT: That’s the great thing about the bar business, there’s different bars for different things. When I want to go out and have a wonderful upscale bar experience, there’s only one bar in the world that touches this for me. It’s called £10. It’s in the Montage Hotel in Los Angeles and I believe it’s the world’s finest scotch bar. You drink out of crystal glassware. You drink the finest scotch. The ice is minerally balanced to the ice that you’re drinking. The water is imported from Scotland. It’s the same water that they use in the production of the scotch so when it melts it doesn’t change the flavor of the scotch.
It also has tableside mixology. It’s incredibly unique. The mixologist comes to your table and talks to you and determines what kind of juices and things you like and determines based on what they have there now. He goes back to the bar and loads the cart and brings the cart tableside and prepares the drinks for you.
For sheer fun I still migrate to Barney’s Beanery Bar in Los Angeles. It was in an episode of Bar Rescue. I was a manager there over 30 years ago. When you walk in, the place has not physically changed one bit. It’s living proof that bars don’t need to be new or shiny to be relevant. It’s fun for me to go there because I have a connection from years ago, but it’s just a fun place to go that’s incredibly casual.
For sports bars. I’m a little partial to Blondies in Las Vegas. And, lastly, if I want to have a dining and bar combination, I would say my fourth would probably be LAVO in Las Vegas. It’s a nice bar and a nice place to eat as well.
MF: What’s your favorite cocktail?
JT: My longest standing favorite cocktail is a Godfather. A Godfather is about an ounce of scotch, of course I would take a nice scotch, and the traditional recipe is a half an ounce of Amaretto. I would just have the scotch with a couple of drops of Amaretto on top so I have a dry Godfather.
I’ve been having a blast lately with these Smirnoff flavored vodkas — marshmallow, root beer, wedding cake — there’s about 15 flavored vodkas. They call them the confectionary line.
I have a complete bar at home and I’ve been mixing and concocting, which is something that I normally don’t do. I watch the industry, I know trends, I work with spirits companies. What’s really exciting today in the whole bar business is flavored spirits. Cinnamon flavored whiskies, maple flavored whiskies. I just tried an apple whiskey the other day. It’s fun and it’s added to mixology a good thing.
MF: Tell me about the Nightclub and Bar Show in Vegas, which you run.
JT: We typically have 20-25 celebrities. Last year I cut the ribbon with Toby Keith, the year before was Dan Aykroyd. There are about 800 booths of exhibitors related to the nightclub and bar industry. There’s about 60 educational classes over the three days that are truly the superstars of the industry. Then there’s three days of the greatest parties in Las Vegas. We take in the best venues in town. Diageo will sponsor a party, Anheuser Busch will sponsor a party. There’s a huge nightlife element to it. It’s a heck of an event.
Written by: Marcia Frost, Cocktails + Joints