From Managing and Consulting, to Publishing and Tradeshows
Jon Taffer is not only star of Spike TV’s “Bar Rescue,” he is a seasoned industry expert who has been rescuing bar businesses for decades
by Jon Shakill
The Rescue Mission
Walking into a dingy, dirty dive bar, that’s not only appalling, but also losing money on a monthly basis, and successfully turning it into a comfortable, classy, and profitable establishment, is no small task. A massive undertaking such as this could easily take 6 months or more to implement and accomplish. But for the expert bar industry consultant and turnaround guru Jon Taffer, serious and impactful progress is made in improving otherwise terrible bars in only 5 days, for the recording of Spike TV’s hit reality show “Bar Rescue.”
According to Mr. Taffer, “What you see on TV with ‘Bar Rescue’ is totally real, it’s what I do. The only difference is that on TV I’m given no time to do it. On top of that, it’s even worse than the normal situations I deal with, because if a bar can hire me, they at least have the money to do that. The bars on the show have no money when I start helping them. The owners’ houses are on the line, they’re sleeping in their parents’ basement sometimes – I mean they are really feeling the pressure. So I’m dropped in, I’ve never met these people before, I’ve never seen the bar before, I stay away from all the casting on purpose. And I’m dropped into these disastrous situations and given 5 days to turn it all around!”
Taffer’s ability to turn trash into treasure is truly amazing, and he has a remarkable talent for putting seedy bar businesses on solid ground within only a few days. Yes, I do realize that referring to these failing and dirty bars as “trash” is not exactly sensitive to the owners, bartenders, and local loyalists who continue to frequent them, but to any objective bystander tuning in from the outside world, it’s not an overstatement. This also speaks to Jon Taffer’s no-nonsense, cutthroat approach, whereby the “sensitivities” of the respective bar owners and workers are his last priority when employed to overcome long odds in a cramped timeframe.
“There’s an intense pressure I feel when doing this because the clock is ticking in the back of my mind every second,” Taffer explains. “It’s like taking a normal deadline and moving it up 80% or 90%. It creates this intense pressure upon me, which tells me that there’s no time for notes, there’s no tomorrow, I have to do everything right now! So if I have to get in your face to fix it, so be it! I have to put every problem to rest right away and move on. That pressure is what really drives the show.”
The concept behind “Bar Rescue” starts with failing bars submitting requests for help to Spike TV. After a bar is selected, Jon Taffer and a chosen team of bar and restaurant experts commence on the first stage of the rescue, which is a reconnaissance mission.
Setting up pre-approved hidden cameras within the bar, Taffer and his team are able to view the behavior of the owners, workers, and guests in hopes of identifying possible deterrents from profit. Then a “recon specialist,” either Jon’s wife Nicole, daughter Samantha, or others chosen based upon expertise, will enter the bar as unidentified patrons. They will then order food and drink from the menu and asses the overall experience, and after about an hour report back to Jon.
Then the fun really starts, with Taffer basically blowing down the doors after hearing a “less than rave” review. Upon entering the establishment, Jon immediately finds the bar owner and gives them an ear full about what he has been witnessing on hidden cams and through recon.
Jon explains to me that “The first thing I have to do is make the owner of the bar look me in the eye, and tell me that they are failing because of their own actions – not because of Obama, or Congress, or Greece for Christ’s sake! The fact of the matter is, you can pick the worst day of the recession, and there are bars all over America succeeding, so why not them?”
Reflecting on his experience in doing the show, and further explaining his no-nonsense attitude, Taffer points out that, “Something I’ve learned is the common denominator of failure. Something that’s common between any failing bar, restaurant, or business, is a failing owner. The common denominator of every failing owner is excuses, and they don’t feel like they’re failing, because it’s always something or someone else that’s to blame. I want them waking up in the morning and feeling like a failure, because then they’ll do something about it!” He continues on, “I find that fixing businesses are easy, but fixing people is tough. So I need to get people to act differently, to see things differently, and to perceive things in a different way. My job is to change what they’re doing drastically, or they’re going to fail.”At this point in the show, after the bar owner faces a serious confrontation from Jon, the transition process abruptly begins. There is no time to waste as evidenced by Jon’s determined urgency and lack of patience. The tensions run high in the dramatic real-life situations perfectly made for TV. The owners and bartenders, though working for failing businesses, don’t take kindly to outsiders telling them what to do.
Upon Jon’s return the following morning, the bar’s owner— often having sobered up in more ways than one— opens up the books and the operation. Taffer analyzes the accounting, and also provides a few reports of his own that have been prepared specifically for the bar, showing factsdriven ways to improve. Simultaneously, members from the crew of experts begin to retrain bartenders in more efficient mixing techniques, chefs in managing the kitchen, and even DJs in providing the right energy levels depending on the establishment.
Plenty more confrontation ensues, as the difficult decisions have to get made, and have to get made right away. These are often “life or death” decisions for the fate of the bar businesses on the show, though owners and employees are often reluctant to take Jon’s advice, leaving the industry’s expert consultant dumbfounded.
Taffer takes the job seriously, and points out that “I’m always trying to do what’s best for the organization, because at the end of the day – the way I am – if I don’t leave them in a better place than when we started, I can’t live with myself. I’m really a no bullshit guy, if I think they’re making a huge mistake, I’m going to tell them so.”
With a great deal of challenge, Jon is usually able to move everyone forward on the same page by day 3 of the process. With everyone in the bar now understanding the stakes, they begin to work diligently with a new sense of urgency and excitement about the possibilities that change can bring. From time to time there is still one bad apple that just can’t break from the ways of the failing status quo, and in some episodes, partners or employees have actually been fired from the business as a result. As Taffer mentioned, “it’s totally real, it’s what I do” – turning around bar businesses.By night 3, the bar is opened for a soft re-launch, where the owners, bartenders, and employees are put to the test. They are implored to utilize their new training and outlook to make the customer experience worthwhile, while also implementing the new methods. Invariably there are setbacks and hardships that the crew encounters, and now is when they get the chance to have a professional critique of their performance. After hearing more ways to improve and the team breaking for the night, a construction crew enters the bar and proceeds with a full makeover costing tens of thousands of dollars. New sound equipment is installed, new bar-tops and chairs are put in place, and various other groundbreaking restorations are accomplished.
Upon the owner and team returning after the restoration is finished, the revealing of the new bar – complete with a new name to re-brand the establishment, is unveiled. Having put the team through a grueling 5 day “hell week” of decision making and retraining in order to turn things around, Jon is at this point usually greeted with praise and disbelief. Previously disgusting, dirty, dilapidated bars are transformed into appealing and fun looking establishments. Having convinced the owner and staff of the need for a makeover in attitude, a makeover of the bar interior brings it all together.
After the rescue is complete, the “Bar Rescue” crew returns to the bar a month later to check on their progress. In nearly every instance the bar is left in far better shape and is given a second chance for success. Although, a handful of the rescued bars end up reverting to their old failing ways, they ultimately pay the price of not following the advice of the seasoned and tested Taffer.
Behind the Scenes Q&A with Jon Taffer
Jon Shakill: In a professional consulting business, you may have 3 to 6 months or more to turn things around, whereas with the show this has to be done in 5 days. Is there any real change enacted to the bars on the show? Is it possible to be effective in such a short amount of time, or is it just for reality TV?
Jon Taffer: Well it’s both. To me it’s not really TV, it’s my consulting job just condensed for the sake of TV. I tell my crew all the time that I really don’t give a damn if the cameras are there, this is my reputation on the line, and I have to get to the finish line whether it kills me and you to do it. It’s as real as real can get. These are real bars, with real people and serious problems, and we do everything we can to turn them around.
JS: So how is it more “real” than other reality shows?
JT: Other shows will edit out of sequence, we don’t do that, we shoot and edit everything in sequence. It’s real to me at that moment, it’s not scripted in that way. I have the ability to act as though the cameras aren’t even there, and they disappear to me. I just look at the faces of the people I’m dealing with, and I do my thing. We shoot for 5 days, with about 260 hours of recording time, and it takes us 10 weeks to cut that down into a 42 minute episode – so we get all of the content from real interactions. I think that’s the success of our show, the storyline and the interactions are very real.
JS: Let’s talk about your experience and how it qualifies you as an Industry Expert. What other businesses are you involved with outside of the TV Show?
JT: I’m the President of the Nightclub & Bar Media Group, which includes heading the annual Nightclub & Bar Convention and Tradeshow in Las Vegas, Nightclub & Bar Magazine, and the associated digital properties. I’m also the author of numerous business-to-business books which are available through the bar and nightclub consulting company I own, called Taffer Dynamics. I also recently released my first book for the public. I’ve been doing this business for 35 years now. I’ve owned up to 17 consulting companies over the years, since the first one I opened in 1987 in St. Louis. I’ve helped over 600 bar businesses all over the world. I tell people – even if I was an idiot, you’d think my experience would make me pretty good at this by now.
JS: Are you still very much involved with the Nightclub & Bar Magazine, given the time you spend on the show?
JT: Absolutely, I run the entire company. I’m a founding board member of the company from 27 years ago, and I love it, this is my baby. Don’t get me wrong, I love the TV show and I feel very blessed to have it, but the Nightclub & Bar Group is my baby. When I started the Nightclub & Bar Tradeshow 27 years ago it was 30 booths and about 200 people in the back of the Tropicana hotel. Now there are about 40,000 attendees and hundreds of exhibitors at the Las Vegas Convention Center, so I take a lot of pride in it.
JS: How did you first start to become such an expert in the bar industry, from managing, to consulting, to publishing, to tradeshows?
JT: There’s an old John Lennon quote: “Life is what happens when you make other plans.” I went to college for Political Science, and happened to get a job as a bartender to make some extra money. I’ve been hooked on the business ever since. I started running nightclubs in Hollywood, at the Troubadour. Before I ran the club, I was the booking agent there and I loved music. One day the owner tells me he’s sick of running the place and hands me the keys— he didn’t give me ownership, but he gave me the keys. That’s when I started running the club. I was a musician at the time, and I realized that I loved playing music for an audience even more than I liked actually making it. Watching the reactions of people to the beats is exciting to me, so I’ve been in the bar business ever since. That was 35 years ago.
“Bar Rescue” looks like it’s here to stay a while. To find out when you can catch the show on Spike, visit http://www.spike.com/shows/bar-rescue for the exact show schedule. For more on Jon Taffer visit Raise the Bar and Nightclub & Bar.