It’s just before noon on a typical Thursday in Downtown Santa Monica. The sun is out, and there’s a cool breeze blowing onshore from the Pacific Ocean. I’m at Barney’s Beanery, on the 3rd Street Promenade in Downtown Santa Monica preparing for an interview with one of the true legends of the spirits industry, Jon Taffer.
Most people know Jon Taffer from his hit TV Series Bar Rescue on Spike TV. His depth of knowledge comes from years of hard work and dedication to his craft–dedication that would one day lead to him being one of the most well known and respected stars of transformative television.
Soft-spoken, yet with a presence that commands the room, Jon Taffer is a man that has rescued hundreds of bars, and enjoyed countless cigars along the way. Rescuing bars wasn’t always the plan for Taffer though; in fact, it was more of an afterthought to his main business, which had always been buying and selling bars and restaurants. After years of making the rounds through the speaking circuit for the National Restaurant Association and Bar and Nightclub Convention, Taffer experienced something new- a joy in helping people become successful…and well, it’s a story best heard from the man himself.
Cigar & Spirits: Jon, most people know you from the hit TV Series Bar Rescue on Spike and you’ve recently hit a really exciting milestone. Can you tell us more about that?
Jon Taffer: Oh yeah, the 100th episode. It’s been an amazingly personal thing to me…100 episodes of Bar Rescue, honestly, I thought I’d do a pilot and go home, I really did. When Season One was picked up, I never thought about season two. It never seemed like something that would happen. Season one was 10 episodes, then season two was 10 episodes. Season three was 40 episodes, and season four was 50 episodes. I just finished, and I started in July 2014. Each season I think it’s over, and it just keeps going, and the ratings are strong as ever.
C&S: Would it be safe to say that it’s had a profound effect on you?
JT: The personal part of it is that sometimes you feel as if you’ve been hugged by America. I know it sounds weird, but you do.
C&S: Jon, what was your motivation to save bars, where did the inspiration come from?
JT: That’s really a good question. I didn’t realize the answer to that question until you asked it…Years ago, I started doing these seminars at Nightclub & Bar, and then hotel conferences would invite me in to talk. I would go to Nightclub & Bar or the National Restaurant Association, I would give a seminar, let’s say there’s 100, 120 people in the room. At the end of that seminar, people would run up to me, they’d hug me, they would thank me, they’d send me notes.
I’d hear how I changed their lives, or how I told them to do something, they did it and their business went up. I think I started to get this gratification after those events, to be honest with you. It felt so good because I always wanted to do more of those, teach more people. Those hugs felt amazing afterwards, and the notes. People would say, “You know, Jon, I tried that promotion, it worked great, man. I paid off my debt,” or, “I’m opening another bar,” I want to hear those things all the time. In the seminar, in education, you get immediate gratification from it because you’re looking in their eyes. I sort of got hooked on that, to tell you the truth.
C&S: What’s the biggest challenge with Bar Rescue after all these episodes?
JT: Imagine if I gave you a chicken breast, and I said to you, “I want you to cook it for me 112 different ways.” That’s Bar Rescue to me. You can cook it 10 ways, 11, 12, 13, but at some point, you’re going to start cooking chicken breast the same way you cooked it before. My challenge for Bar Rescue is to make it different all the time. You can’t make it different by design, because at the end of the day it’s the bars that I wind up in and the people that wind up in those bars that create what we get. The challenge of finding newness all the time is not easy.
C&S: That makes a lot of sense. One of the things we see all the time on social media, through your channels, are people asking you to come rescue this bar, or that bar. How do you and your team decide on which bars to rescue?
JT: Great question. It’s a pretty long process. Every season, we’ll get anywhere from 2,000 to 2,200 requests on either my website or the Spike TV website. Each year, we’ll pick three cities or so that we’re going to go to. This year for instance, I know I’m going to go Denver, San Francisco Bay Area, and New Orleans. We pick the cities we’re going to, then we shoot two or three in each city. That’s how the economics work.
Then we’ll look at the applications…We’ll look at the bar, we’ll do a verification to make certain there’s no background issues, they’re not felons or criminals or owe a million dollars in taxes or any of those kinds of things.
If it looks like they’re truly losing money and they’re not criminals, we’ll actually send the producer there, just with a little smartphone or a little hand camera. They’ll shoot a six, seven minute video. All it is is talking to each employee for a second, “What’s your name, what do you do here?”
Then the owner will tell their story very quickly, you know, “My wife and I opened this place, we did this, we did that…” Then my casting team – I used to look at these but I haven’t in about 50, 60, maybe 70 episodes – will look at those and pick the most compelling story. Obviously we want a good story.
If it’s two brothers that are in a bad spot, that’s an interesting story. Two partners who are ready to kill each other, hostile takeovers, husbands and wives who are facing divorce or losing houses…We look for stories that people are interested in from a personal standpoint.
The producers – again, I don’t any more – choose those bars. I show up the first night, and it’s the first time I’ve ever seen or heard of the place. It goes back to that challenge of, “How do you do it new every time?”
C&S: I think that’s what helps lend so much authenticity to the show. The fact that you’ve never seen the bar before that moment when you first walk in really makes you think on your feet. What else goes on, that maybe people don’t see?
JT: What happens behind the scenes is, I’ll show up on set maybe a half hour before I go in to do recon…I get maybe a 60-second brief, something like “Ben owns Ben’s Bar, it’s in Ben, Iowa. Ben owes this amount of money, he’s 60 days away from losing his home, he’s losing x amount of dollars a month.” It’s always the same questions I ask the producers: “What’s on the line? Who owns it? How long have they owned it? Who are their good employees? Who are their bad employees?”
After the brief, I get in the SUV and I do the show. At the end of recon, when I walk out of the bar, we turn the cameras off. I take all the employees, and I stick them in a van in the parking lot. During that half hour, I go into the bar with my art department and I design the bar that night.
The next morning, I’ll do another walk through with the art department. I personally sign off on everything – bar stools, wallpapers, paints, flooring, bar tops, finishes, glassware, recipes, plate appearances. By the end of day two, which is also the stress test, I need to have the logos done, menus done, everything done, so the sign maker can get [everything] printed, laminated and back to us in time. Really, it’s all done in about 24 hours.
By the time I go to bed that night, not only have we shot training, stress test and screaming and yelling at everybody, but I’ve really signed off on everything.
Day three we train, and maybe handle some final sign-offs and technical issues, but by seven o’clock on the third day I send the cast on their way, the staff on their way, and we remodel that night. We remodel it in 36 hours. If we run late, it’s 38 or 39, but no more than that. That’s when I’m wearing my hat on set. You’ve seen some of those scenes where we’re working with the design team. Then, in the afternoon of day five, I spin them around and they see it.
C&S: Wow, so you’re really looking at less than one week for a complete transformation for these bars you’re helping out?
JT: Oh yeah. When you think about how much time I’m with them…I’m really only with them for two, two-and-a-half days. The rest of the time is remodel. It’s not a lot of time to change the way somebody acts.
C&S: Definitely. There is a lot that goes into rescuing a bar, so much so that you’ve actually created a couple of different programs to help these owners, and people that you haven’t rescued, to emulate the successes that you’ve had with some of the restaurants and bars on Bar Rescue. Can you tell me more about those?
JT: Sure. For years I’ve done seminars around the country. I’m fortunate that I’m good at those and I sell out. Years ago I did a rescue tour. The concept of the rescue tour was I would come do a four hour live show. We teach them how to grow their business. I did them in five or six cities, we sold out every one.
Then I said to myself, “OK. I’ve got to put this online,” so I did a video of one of the rescue tours. It was a good video, but training videos and the word training sort of sucks. If I told you, Ben, I was going to put you online to do training videos for an hour, you’d probably be mad at me before you even saw it, just because the word sucks and the perception of it is so terrible.
I wanted to reinvent training, so I went into production and I spent almost $2 million, threw [the program] away five times, and then came up with something that was really significant. I called it Taffer Virtual Teaching.
While I was developing TVT, I realized as at the time president of NCB, knowing so many bar operators, that 80 percent of them don’t have P&Ls or any financial information to help them, so I created a free app called BarHQ. I spent a fortune on that.
BarHQ has 80 promotions in it. You push a button, the promotion comes down, you pick the graphics, you pick the dates, it goes to your social media pages, it goes to your employees’ social media pages. It’s a pretty amazing program, it does all your scheduling, all your employees, all your revenue tracking, all of these things, and it’s completely free.
Between BarHQ and Taffer Virtual Tteaching, I’m trying to help the industry that I love for free, or for pennies. I’m really into it, guys. It’s an amazing way for me to help people in another place that I’ll never get a chance to go to.
C&S: When you get mad on the show, is that an act, or is that really your reaction?
JT: When you start to hurt people’s lives, put people in danger or otherwise impact people in a way that reaches past the four walls of the business that’s where I start to get upset. The thought that I could send somebody’s child into a building where they trust you, and you make them sick, is unfathomable to me. I’m livid when that stuff happens. That’s really genuine, especially when I know they know better. There’s a lot of single moms in our business because they can work days, nights, flexible hours, half-shifts, things like that. I don’t like it when they’re disrespected. It really fricking bothers me…when people allow their employees and customers to get sick, that stuff is just uncontrollable to me. That’s when I start throwing things and going nuts, and I think it’s justified.
C&S: Absolutely, totally agree there. Now, I want step outside the realm of bars and spirits for a second, I hear you’re quite the cigar connoisseur?
JT: I am. My father used to smoke Romeo and Juliets (sic) when I was a kid. Of course, when I was a kid, they were illegal as hell to bring them in from Cuba. He had a guy in New York who would ship him the cigars and – this was even pre FedEx – he would get the labels in the mail a few days later in a separate envelope, the bands.
He’d go back into the cigar box and he’d put the bands on every single one because he was so proud of them. When I was about 10 years old – I love my father – I went to his humidor and I pulled out one of his Churchills. I went out in the bushes in front of my house and started puffing it.
He caught me, and he was really a little angry at me. Sometimes he’d cut his Churchills in half, and he was a little angry at me, so he said, “You want to smoke a cigar? Let’s smoke a cigar.” He sat me down, he pulled out a nice big Churchill, lit it up well for me, put it in my hand and commenced to sit there and puff with me until I got incredibly sick.
C&S: That’s not a good start [laughing]
JT: [Laughing] That’s how he ensured that I’d never hit his humidor again, but he was wrong. Once I hit 16 I hit that humidor pretty often. I’ve always loved cigars, guys. I love the taste of cigars. Over the years I’ve forgotten some of the ones that I’ve enjoyed. Years ago, I used to get hooked on cognac cigars, which I really thought were wonderful.
All types of flavored cigars, actually, were really fun to me, and then of course, traditional cigars, Cubans…I like heavier cigars, and when I don’t have a real cigar in my hand…I have an e-cigar in my hand. There’s one in my hand right now, because I can’t puff a real one around here.
C&S: You recently got started with an e-cigar company, correct?
JT: I did, and I love it. This is, I think, a great time for cigars.
C&S: Absolutely, especially with talks of Cuba opening up, we believe we’ll see another cigar boom coming up, similar to what we had in the ‘90s.
JT: I totally think so. There’s so much fun stuff out there. Dare I say, stepping out of the box a little bit, but the Flathead I think is a lot of fun. I like the fact that great traditional cigar-making is now being looked at almost as craft beer and craft whiskey is. That, to me, is really exciting.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the big guys, but I think we’re at the edge of something that could be really terrific in the next few years. That’s what I find exciting.
C&S: Agreed, there’s a lot of great small batch cigars coming out these days. I love that you brought up craft beer and craft whiskey. What are your thoughts on the current craft beer and craft bourbon scenes?
JT: It’s interesting. I got a little pressure from the craft brewers association because I made a comment the other day and I wasn’t being exact, I was being approximate. I believe in the next few years that approximately 50 percent of these craft brew companies are going to disappear.
What’s happened is, the investment in craft beer has become more about financial investment than the passion of making beer. Because of that, there’s a bunch of them that just aren’t that good. People try them because it’s a hip brand, or a local brand, but eventually they abandon the brand because at the end of the day they don’t love it, even though they want to really bad.
In the distilling world, these are more sophisticated licenses, long return processes. You’re aging bourbon, you’re not brewing it and putting it right in the bottle or the keg and then selling it. You’ve got to age it. It has to be aged just right in the right oak barrels, it’s very much a labor of love.
These small batch bourbons are really exciting. Start to pair them with some of these specialty cigars and it’s almost like pairing a fine wine with a fine dinner when we start to match bourbon to cigars. That’s what I find exciting. I think the pairing of the two is something that people should really start to look at.
If I was a cigar company I’d start to think about, “Who do I pair with?” I’d really start to look at those things, just like wines do when looking for what foods they would pair with.
C&S: Absolutely! How often do you enjoy, let’s say a cocktail or a cigar?
JT: I had an Ashton on Sunday…I don’t drink that often. I work 12 hours a day on set, and drinking slows me down. I don’t drink very much during the course of the week. I got to tell you though, I will puff on a cigar while I’m on set even though I can’t drink.
C&S: Fantastic. Something that I’ve ben hearing more about lately is the emergence of the “mocktail.” Mixologists are now going through a lot of their alcoholic creations and making them non-alcoholic. What are your thoughts on that?
JT: Years ago, that was almost a negative thing, “I’m going to have a virgin cocktail.” Today, if we eliminate the word virgin cocktail and start to call them house punches, house beverages, give them culinary authenticity or credibility, I think it’s exciting. I’m working on a place now in South Carolina. We’re working on trying to create a Carolina punch, which is a non alcoholic, really special punch that you can have with lunch and dinner – non alcoholic. There’s huge opportunity in that, and let me tell you why. This is where my industry sometimes is so fricking wrong it’s absurd.
Listen to this. Out of six people going into lunch will order an alcoholic beverage, six out of seven will order a soft drink. We as an industry, we target the one out of six. I can sell him a cocktail, I can upgrade him, but we don’t have the opportunity to upsell the other five of the six.
The whole fucking thing is backwards. Years ago, I said, “You know what? Let’s target the five out of the six that are drinking soft drinks, and let’s try to make some money.” We put in what we call the premium soft drink program. I did this for a major alcohol chain, and we increased non alcoholic beverage sales during lunch and dinner by 70 percent by understanding that iced tea is the fricking enemy, and let’s put together a non alcoholic program that’s as good as our alcoholic program.
I think programs like that are solid, but you have to present them correctly from a verbal standpoint. Nobody’s going to say, “Let me have a virgin ______.” If they’re going to do it, they have to do it with the right terminology so it’s hip when you order it.
C&S: I love the insight into that, thank you. Anything else that you’d like to point out?
JT: On Taffer Virtual Training, or TVT on jontaffer.com I believe it’s the most incredible product ever developed…What I wanted to do is reinvent teaching, and I did. It teaches you how to make money, but every minute, you’re looking forward to the next minute, because it’s freaking funny. What we did is took the boring type of information that everybody has to learn and matched it up with animations and a humorous approach. The end result is you will learn more in an hour than you’ve ever learned, and smile every minute of it. I’m really proud of it.
C&S: Jon, thank you so much for your time, we really appreciate it.
JT: Awesome, brother, thank you.