As reality television continues to evolve and find new subgenres of interest among viewers, perhaps no category of the format better reflects the pursuit of the American dream than business owners and entrepreneurs trying to make it work. Whether it’s the latest innovation invested in by a shark on Shark Tank or Gordon Ramsay taking Amy’s Baking Company to task on Kitchen Nightmares, people like to watch businesses rise, fall, and rise again. It’s somewhere during that fall and second coming that Bar Rescue’s Jon Taffer became “the most censored man on TV.”
Recently celebrating his 100th episode, Taffer looks back on the best and worst experiences from Bar Rescue, Spike TV’s flagship program in which Taffer goes into bars that are within weeks of closing and doing as much as $300,000 in renovations to try to revive business. He reflects on why he has to break people down before he can build them back up, the one time a person on the show made him feel threatened, and the difficulties in preparing chicken 113 different ways.
The A.V. Club: As a business owner, you’re really a student of human behavior in how you decide to renovate these bars for maximum profits—such as how you invented the “butt funnel.” As a TV personality, how do you use the viewers’ behaviors to make a show that’s worth watching?
Jon Taffer: I view my job as a television host and as a consultant actually very similarly, and here’s why: If I was consulting over a normal time frame, which would be 60 to 90 days, I would have the time to hold your hand and change your thinking over a period of time and gradually get you there. But for Bar Rescue, I’m only there for five days. The first day, I’m only there for a couple of hours for recon, and I’m remodeling it for 36 hours, so I’m really only with the owners for two and a quarter days, so I have to make every minute count. As a consultant, I don’t have time for you to think about it. I gotta get you on the bus right away, or I gotta run you over and kick you in the butt to get you on there.
So the pressure as a consultant to come up with the idea, the menu, the food, the graphics, the beverage, the design, build it, and get it all done in that amount of time puts a huge amount of pressure on me and makes every minute really important. And what’s fascinating is that as a TV host, every minute is equally as important. I understand that from a TV position, people wanna see the mental process that the owners and employees go through, not just to see the walls change. Bar Rescue is very emotional because of that time crunch. It’s very possible that in the next five minutes of Bar Rescue, one of these three things could happen: Somebody could cry, somebody could get furiously angry, or somebody could literally jump for joy. Those emotional extremes could happen at any moment. It comes back down to that time pressure that causes that. So there’s a clock ticking in the back of my head at every second. I’m always under pressure.
AVC: Do people gravitate toward the disaster or the redemption aspect of Bar Rescue?
JT: I think the swing is really important. The likable person who is in a bad spot that transforms is the best of all. How about the jerk? The guy you really hate in the beginning of the show that in the end you really like? There’s one that comes to mind: Jerry from Sorties Tavern. It was a hostile takeover. His partners threw him out, he screamed and yelled, and in the end he was a completely different person. And he still is, two years later, a different person. I think those are the ones people like, because we’ve all had those moments in our lives.
AVC: You’ve said, “I can rescue any bar. I can’t rescue any person.” Sometimes you have to extract the owner or the manager from the bar itself to keep it alive. Is that the hardest thing you have to do?
JT: It is, but you know what the hard reality of it is? Typically, you hear them say this three, four, five weeks within closing. So I can look them in the eyes and say, “You know what? If you don’t do what I say, the bank or the landlord is gonna take your bar away from you anyway.” That’s already happening. You can’t change that eventuality. The question is, can you stop it? You hear my point? So they’re at a dead end. In most cases, I’m their last hope, so they almost don’t have a choice. I’ll walk out and they know that. So that’s real. That walkout lives in their brain. They’ve gotta come around at some point, or I will walk out. At the end of the day, I don’t follow the cameras—the cameras follow me.
AVC: As of this interview, 104 bars have been on the show, and 32 have since closed. How do you feel about that success rate?
JT: Let me share an interesting thing: If you went to open a bar or restaurant right now, your odds aren’t 70 percent of success. They’re 15 percent. You’ve got maybe a 15 to 20 percent of making it. About one out of five bars make it to the second year. Now imagine this: I’m walking into a situation where they’re failing, they’re in debt, creditors are knocking on the door. Some of them can’t make payroll. And so from that place, not from zero but from minus 10, taking this place and turning it around at, let’s say, a 60 percent success ratio—I’m very proud of that number. Let me add something else. In places like America Live, where we finished a remodel, you have to understand that some of these places are already in default when I get there. So the landlord can throw them out already, but the landlord hears that I’m coming so they give them more time, because he’s not an idiot. He’s about to get a remodel out of the deal. So in the case of America Live, and one or two others, after we left, the landlord puts them in default to take the space back. A few of those closings are landlord-based, a few are creditor-based, or taxes-based like Downey’s in Philadelphia. When you look at it like that, we’re tracking at an even higher success rate. I’m told we have some of the best business-transformation numbers on TV.
AVC: How do you feel about people who bad-mouth the show after you leave?
JT: Unfortunately, when people look like fools on TV, they start to justify themselves. I’ll tell you something as a TV producer, not a host: I can’t make you look stupid if you didn’t do something stupid on camera. I can’t make you look like a jerk if you were a sweetheart for five days. It just doesn’t work that way. I do portray you as more of a jerk, in theory, or sweeter than you might be, but I can’t change what you are on camera. Either you’re likable or you’re not. You’re either approachable or resistant. People see themselves on camera. They’re ashamed of the things that they do, so they have a choice: Either they accept responsibility for it, or they blame the show for it. It’s a human reaction. I don’t take it personally. If I was in that spot, I would understand. I’d think, “My wife watched that. My daughter watched that. My family watched that.” I can’t stand in front of the cameras and say, “Yes, that’s a true profile of who I was for five days. I’m a jerk!” So I don’t take it personally. In a private room, 95 percent of them would give me a hug and be happy to see me, and I know that. That’s my personal relationship with all of them. The public things don’t bother me.
AVC: Perhaps your most famous episode remains Piratz Tavern from season two. They immediately reverted back from your changes despite your insistence that the pirate theme was stupid, and they finally closed for good. Are you surprised it lasted as long as it did?
JT: No, because interestingly enough if you were to ask me, “Who are the best marketers that you’ve ever worked with on Bar Rescue?” I would have said Brad [Bohannan] and Steve [Smith] in New Orleans and Tracy [Rebelo] at Piratz. If it wasn’t for the show, Tracy would have never made it that long, but what she did is she worked it. She worked the media, she worked YouTube, she complained, she said her place works. Everybody wanted to go see the freak show at Piratz. I would suggest that as foolish as Tracy was for changing the name back, it’s unfortunate, because she actually marketed off of it very well. As much as I disagreed with her judgment, I appreciate her talent as a marketer. Tracy and Juciano [Rebelo] just did recon for me on a recent episode. Their daughter, too. You’ll see the friendship I have with them. People need to put it all in perspective. Tracy made a decision about the sign on her building. I don’t take that personally. I wish her the best. Every one of them!
AVC: How often do people come up and thank you for rescuing their bar just because they watch the show?
JT: All the time. I get 40 or 50 emails a month like that. They’re the best part of my day. I gotta tell you, it’s really gratifying. At the end of each episode of Bar Rescue, two things happen: I get a hug and I get a check. And at this stage of my life, the hug means more to me than the check. And I get about 50 emails a month from bartenders who say that they got the courage to open up their own bar because of my show, bartenders that became managers because of the show. I was in the Atlanta airport recently, and a young gentleman came up to me, and I’m standing in line at Burger King waiting for them to call my number, and he’s in a Burger King uniform, and he says, “Can I give you a hug?” I said yeah, and he said he was a dishwasher that was now an assistant manager because of me. “You really inspired me,” he said. And this was a Burger King. Those mean a lot to me.
AVC: You recently caught a lot of flak online from bartenders after a HuffPo interview where you talked about how they should deal with customers and vice versa. They even started a Facebook page called “Bartenders Against Jon Taffer,” which has since been shut down. Anything you’d like to say to them?
JT: No, not really, honestly. I represent ownership and management. That’s what I do. And ownership and management creates standards, and sometimes standards are not agreeable to all people within an industry, and I get that. I stand by my standards and my approach. I don’t know what else I would say to that other than none of it bothers me. I’m a businessman, not a bartender. Donald Trump doesn’t know how to pull wires through a building. Mark Cuban doesn’t know how to coach a basketball team. Hugo Boss doesn’t know how to cut the fabric in a sports jacket. I am a business owner and a business manager, not a bartender or a chef. Those people work for me and with me. I welcome everyone’s opinion, I encourage them to talk about anything they choose, and I take none of it personally. I welcome it all. That’s really the truth.
AVC: Have you ever truly felt threatened?
JT: The closest I ever came to really feeling threatened was Jimmy and I in the Jack’s Fire House episode behind the bar, when he said “You talking to me?,” and I said yes. And while I’m screaming at him, what people didn’t see while the cameras were on our faces in a close-up was that I grabbed his wrist for a second while he was screaming at me. And when you watch people, you’ll see that their pupils will dilate before they get violent just like a cat or a dog will. So you can watch their face and literally see when their temperature goes up, so to speak. So his pupils started to dilate, and I simply put my fingers around his wrist, gave him a quick little affectionate squeeze, and when he felt that it diffused the entire situation. At the end of the day, I know what I’m doing. I know how to look in someone’s eyes and bring them to a certain point. And there’s a purpose to what I do. It’s very deliberate. I appeal to their pride, I appeal to their fear. What are you gonna do when you lose your house? What are you gonna do when you say no to your kid? And if that doesn’t work, then I go into boot camp, and I beat the hell out of them, but if I don’t get them to doubt themselves—then I can’t get them to change. If fear and pride doesn’t work, then I have to beat them up to make it happen, and I have to make it happen or they’ll fail. So it gets ugly.
AVC: Do you have any regrets?
JT: Hmm… No, I don’t. I really don’t. I’m a really happy guy. I have a great career, a wonderful wife and family. I have no personal or professional regrets. I really don’t.
AVC: What about with decisions you’ve made for any of the bar renovations?
JT: I walk into a bar on recon night, at the end of recon when the cameras are off, I design the bar that night. I do it 20 minutes based upon market demographics. Literally 20 minutes. The next day I have to pick logos, menu items, all of that. When I look back at it, sometimes I wish I had more time. But based on the situation—the work that I do, the statistics that I have, and the reactions that I get from the people that I’ve rescued in this experience—honestly, I don’t. Is everyone perfect? Of course not! But I ask you a question: If I gave you a chicken breast, and I asked you to prepare it 113 different ways, that becomes a challenge, doesn’t it? I’m starting my 114th bar rescue, and I can’t do what I’ve done before. People have to understand the creative burden that’s on me to deliver something that works for the market place, the owner, television. And that dynamic gets harder and harder every time. When I look back at it, I’m really proud of what we’ve done.