Have a Drink with ‘Bar Rescue’s’ Jon Taffer

It’s one thing to give someone’s backyard a TV makeover, it’s quite another to make over a person’s business, saving one’s livelihood in the process. Spike TV‘s new entry, Bar Rescue, offers the usual plethora of free goodies: new signs and decor, menus, bar & restaurant equipment. However, with all of this swag the recipients — owners of fast-failing bars — also get a hard-nosed bulldog named Jon Taffer for five days.

Before a revolving team of world-class chefs and mixologists go to work rehabilitating an establishment’s last legs, Taffer, a renowned bar & restaurant makeover/re-branding specialist, takes charge. With his wife Nicole acting as an advance scout, Taffer analyzes the situation and begins to solve problems with owners, management and staff within moments of walking through the door.

As one could guess, this can get quite messy. Bar Rescue’s appeal — besides the great tutorials on the ins and outs of the booze business — lies in the drama that ensues when Taffer begins cleaning house. Whether it be two sisters/co-owners controlled by a male third partner, or an oddly apathetic owner of a biker bar and strip club, there’s always more to these troubled watering holes than meets the eye.

Dead mice behind ovens, over-poured drinks and rancid food take second chair to Taffer’s no-nonsense, in-your-face, soul search-prompting rescue missions. Alec Baldwin’s motivational speech in Glen Garry Glen Ross is kindly compared to some of this professional fixer’s verbal probes. In his thrive-or-fail world, there are no consolation prizes.

Taffer recently spoke to PopMatters about his strategies, favorite moments from this first season, and more. He even tossed in a bartending tip for good measure.

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Given your credentials, your work on the show is akin to Donald Trump going around and helping bed and breakfasts. What drew you to the show, how did you become involved?

My income is primarily derived from the corporate world, from major consulting projects for big companies where my ideas and tactics can impact millions of dollars per month, not thousands of dollars. But I love doing this more than corporate work; corporate work is fun, but when you look in the face of a person (in Bar Rescue), you’re looking at an owner, not a corporate employee. You know, when you can change somebody’s life, that’s pretty cool. You don’t change someone’s life when you’re doing work for a billion-dollar corporation, but you do when you help a guy with a bar in Philadelphia. The chance to do that is very personally rewarding for me, and it’s a lot of my motivation.

I’ve had a great career, I’ve made a lot of money. But to be able to take my experience and knowledge and help people in this way — and have viewers watching this on TV? I can’t get over how many Facebook (messages) and Twitters I got from people in the industry before last Sunday’s episode aired. People were messaging, “Class is starting! I’ve got my employees assembled!”

(Chuckling) That’s pretty cool. I mean, I was an independent owner once; that’s how I started.

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Some of the bar owners involved seem to think that a physical makeover is all that’s needed. What’s the best shock to the system that you’ve delivered?

That’s a tough one… let me answer you in this way: Every failing business has a failing manager, and a failing owner. Changing a failing business is a lot easier than changing a failing owner. I have to change what these owners and managers do, and I’ve learned over the years that if I just tell them to do or not do this or that, after I leave things will go back to what they were before. I’ve got to change the way they think.

The problem lies in that the only way to change somebody thinks, you have to shatter their belief in what they’re doing now. That, sometimes, is pretty ugly. People fight back, they disagree, they dig in their heels. But once I shatter what they believe, there’s all the opportunity in the world for change.

Kind of like throwing somebody in a cold shower.

In a sense. It’s some of the realizations that happen in Bar Rescue. Renee went through that very heavily at Angels — which became Racks. I happened to see her last week, for the first time since shooting that episode. She’s changed her life; she will never have managers like she had before, or get hooked into the loyalties and “charity mentalities” that affected her business. It’s pretty powerful to see.

On the other hand, the two young sisters from the episode about Kilkenny’s… they didn’t change anything. When one watches that episode, it’s pretty easy to see that the manager, Carlos, was a disaster. And he had a hold over them; no matter what I did, I couldn’t break it. When I left, Carlos still remained. I changed their business, but I failed when it came to breaking this influence he had over them.

Is that the closest you’ve come to getting punched on camera?

Oh, no. There’s been a few… the last episode we shot was in Boston. I’m not going to tell you his name, but a professional hockey player, one of the top ten fighters in the history of the NHL — I threw him out of his own bar. You’re going to see things happen later this season that will make (Carlos) seem like nothing. In episode 108, we were at a place in Yorba Linda, California. This guy was an ex-baseball player from New York. Within minutes, we were screaming and yelling at each other. I thought we were going to have to get extra security on the set for the five days I was there. I’m saying this with a smile on my face, but I’m being very sincere when I say that you’ve seen nothing, in regards to the stress level in some upcoming episodes.

The show is very fast-paced, and there’s some time lapse involved. What memorable scene or situation do you wish could have made the editing cut?

There are many, many scenes I wished we could have kept. When we shoot, we have six or seven cameras going for five days, roughly 12 hours a day. I’m on camera about eight, ten hours a day. When we’re finished, we have 400-plus hours of video. There are two producers that sit in our control room during the shoot who watch various characters and things that are going on. They’re called story producers, and they’re key to the show’s success. There are certain bar employees who are more interesting… there’s a story, a human dynamic going on with them. A bartender who’s been terrible, but turning into a hero; or he’s a political nightmare, or has a lousy attitude. Or he might have a great attitude; he might be a catalyst for change. The story producers watch those people very carefully, and make sure they get the camera time to tell their story.

In eight weeks, these producers will edit down hundreds of hours down to a 42-minute television show. The amount of good stuff that’s lost in these episodes is huge.

There’s a scene with Carlos where I threw him out of the building. There was another deleted scene for that same episode, a classic, when I had it out with Carlos, and the two sisters were watching. It got so heavy that they wanted to run away, get off camera. So they ran next door to El Torito, into the restaurant’s restroom. But they forgot that their wireless microphones were still on. After that restroom door slammed, after this incredible moment of anger and emotion, the first thing out of Alexis’ mouth was, “Wow, I look skinny today.”

It was hysterical, but it didn’t make the show. I’m a co-executive producer of Bar Rescue, so I get to see all the cuts. Maybe one day I’ll make a reel of outtakes and we’ll make an episode out of them.

When it comes to dining or drinking out, do you have a pet peeve — one that others might find odd or petty?

I get incredibly pissed, for a lack of a better term, when people don’t look in my eyes. I went to a movie the other night, and the cashier gave me my change and tickets, and said, “Enjoy the movie.” She didn’t take a second to look into my eyes, and that bothered me, a cashier on the other side of the glass. I don’t believe a business can have a relationship with any customer, will ever be successful, if the staff doesn’t look you in the eye.

Your use of psychology can be inventive, especially when it came to the somewhat unusual episode about the Italian chef-owner of an Irish pub in Philadelphia.

Each episode is based on the people in it… my job is to react to them; I can’t do it the same way. These businesses sometimes can be really cookie-cutter — you can set up two bars, for example, in the same way; but the people are always different. But the way I had to go at Dominic was really different. I went at him hard, and I had reason to — his place was such a mess. But there was something in him, that I saw in his eyes, that was preventing him from being successful. Being a chef or manager had nothing to do with it. I saw this, and had to come up with a way to get him to throw away the past, and embrace the future. Coming up with (throwing old chairs off a balcony), as silly as it seemed at the moment, that worked. Those tears were real.

The story is that his brother had died of unnatural means, and Dominic never recovered. I’m not going to say any more than that about it, but it did happen on a Mother’s Day. And we arrived on Mother’s Day, five years after this incident. It took a day, day-and-a-half for this to come out, finally, at that table. What you didn’t get to see what were some of my tears. It was incredibly powerful for me. Dominic has three young children, a beautiful wife, and I had to do something to get him out of this place he was in.

That was a great moment — and you almost hit a bus with one of those chairs.

I didn’t expect it to bounce so far, to tell you the truth. That shows you how unplanned Bar Rescue is — if it were planned, there wouldn’t be a bus driving by!

Have you gotten used to being a “character” on a TV show yet?

I’ve often been a keynote speaker at conventions, I’ve done a lot of public speaking over the years — but I’m not used to (TV), to be honest with you. I’m not used to people quoting me: on Twitter the other day, someone posted, “You’re not stupid, you’re lazy.” (Laughing) Another one appeared — “If you say it, it’s an opinion; if the market says it, it’s a fact.”

If you knew me, you’d realize that there’s no difference between sitting down with me with a camera, or without a camera. When it disappears, I keep doing my thing.

The show does create one powerful difference, though. Normally, if you hired me to come do this sort of thing for you, it would take two months. I would come in and do my market research, my planning, the budget… I’d know what we had to spend before I got there, et cetera. I’d retrain employees, hire new ones — go through an entire process in re-launching, or re-invigorating your business.

In Bar Rescue, I’m given five days. I’ve got accomplish the same thing in five days, and I take it really seriously. There’s no way in the world I’m going to leave (the owner) being in a worse place than when I arrived. So that puts the pressure on me to not accept any BS. In the back of my brain, the clock’s always ticking. I don’t have a second chance to fix anything; heck, I don’t even have the time to take notes and fix something tomorrow!

That ticking clock is a powerful driver for me; it makes me a little more aggressive than I normally would be.

What’s your favorite drink, and what’s the most common way to screw it up?

Here’s the honest answer, it’s pretty simple — either a scotch on the rocks, or a Godfather, which is scotch and amaretto on the rocks. Now the first way to screw up a scotch on the rocks is with the ice. If the water isn’t properly filtered, the quality of the ice can totally destroy the drink. Remember when (Bar Rescue chef) Josh Capon, in the Kilkenny’s episode, took a towel and wiped the bottom of that ice bin? There was rust on it. If people don’t clean their ice bin, they’re not going to serve a good scotch on the rocks. And you have to serve with it with a fresh twist on top, and in a clean glass.

And the ratio… rocks drinks like a Godfather or a Black Russian typically have an ounce-and-a-half of spirits — vodka with the Russian. They have a half-ounce of a cordial on top; a Black Russian has a half-ounce of Kahlua, a Godfather has a half-ounce of amaretto. The ratio is key. They’re simple drinks to make, but they’re easy to mess up. Nobody thinks about the dirty ice.

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