Jon Taffer Gives the Lowdown on His New Spike TV Show ‘Bar Rescue’

Share Button

This Sunday at 10pm, Spike TV will introduce to a broad audience a man who essentially is a doctor. His patients are failing clubs, bars, and restaurants, plus the owners, operator, and staff that are obviously ailing. As the CEO of Taffer Dynamics, Jon P. Taffer is a whirlwind, a guru, a messiah. The show, Bar Rescue, will take its audience behind the scenes of places that have lost their luster or never really got there. Over lunch at the Lure Jon explained his approach to saving the world one joint at a time.

The hospitality business is a no-nonsense, unforgiving world full of dramatic success and failure. It’s a place where egos often crush common sense. Jon comes in almost like an interventionist for an addict, takes the bullshit by the horns, and gives owners what they need (if not what they think they want). The ability to pay bills makes them realize they really want it.

Jon seemed impatient as we waited for our lunch. His eyes couldn’t help but analyze the restaurant and staff. He seemed to restrain himself a number of times, anxious to make a small or large “suggestion.” Lure was noisy with a great lunchtime crowd. Executive chef Josh Capon thoroughly impressed me. Lure itself has been reinvented after the American Eagle fire that damaged it and the Prada store upstairs. Lure stands and serves as a testament to success, as a result of hard work and experience.

I once saw Ted Turner berate an interviewer who asked him if he was the hardest-working man in showbiz. Turner snapped that ditch-diggers work hard, while he worked smart. From what I took away from lunch, working smart and understanding the science is at the core of Jon Tepper’s approach. Proprietors often work hard but are not aware of (or ignore) the science of restaurant and bar operations. Jon is here to show them how to think and therefore do things correctly. The din of the restaurant may result in a misspelling or two; I was also very distracted by some eel and avocado rolls.

Your job on Bar Rescue is as a consultant who goes into failing or underachieving joints and fixes them up. That’s part of what I do. We also develop them, and I’ve owned up to 17 at the same time. I’ve won “Operator of the Year” twice and “Property of the Year” once. I’ve opened and developed bars in cities like Hong Kong, Bangkok, Los Angeles, Evansdale (Indiana), and pretty much everywhere in between. So I’ve had a broad range of experience.

Are you still operating? No — I owned up to 17, but I proudly own none at the moment.

I don’t own anything either. It’s kind of a relief. I rent my shirts. It is! I’ve owned restaurants for almost 30 years, and I’m also president of the Nightclub Media Group. We own the largest nightclub and bar trade show in Las Vegas and the world.

When you walk into a club, or bar, or restaurant and you look around, you’re looking around with a different set of eyes than the owner. How harsh do you have to be sometimes? I have to be really harsh, but let me just say that I don’t believe bars are in the business of selling food and beverage. I don’t think we’re in the business of playing music or doing any of those things. Bars are in the business of creating human interactions. When a plate of food hits the table, several things happen — either you sit up and react to it, or you don’t. If you don’t, that restaurant or bar is stuck in mediocrity for the rest of its life. So we’re not cooking an entrée; we’re cooking a reaction. I don’t play music; I play reactions. I achieve it through music, through the science of beats per minute and content design. I don’t sell cocktails; I create reactions. And my staff doesn’t serve; we create reactions while we serve. I own the term “reaction management” — it’s mine — and we do this speaking from an operator’s perspective … we do this by certain signature trademark things we do that currently nobody else in the world does. We understand bars that create the best reactions win. End of story. I create the best reactions by embracing reaction management, and we have a concept called “G.R.O.W” — Guest Reaction Opportunity Windows.

Can you explain “G.R.O.W.” in a little more detail? It indicates moments of time, touch points; where we inspect human reactions and incorporate them into the business. It could be simple things like saying a name, or sending something to table. Through G.R.O.W., we create “respect” — specific touch points — people will react to. Then the next step is to recognize that those are just words. To execute upon it, we teach our employees to use personal dynamics. We hate the word “uniform” and anything to do with the word “uniform.” The first thing we teach is that employees present their personal self dynamically. The second thing we teach is mechanical dynamics, and I’ll describe that to you in the simplest of senses. Pick a high-end steakhouse: lights are low, waiters walk slow. Pick Denny’s: lights are bright, waiter walks fast. That waiter walks a little bit faster in a steakhouse, and that steak isn’t worth $60 anymore. Turn the lights up the slightest amount, change the hue; that steak isn’t worth $60 anymore. That’s the science of hospitality. The third element we teach are interactive dynamics. We train our staff to look at people, really look at your tattoo and say, “Wow, that’s cool man. Can I see that?” If you were wearing cool shoes, we would zero in on what’s important to you. You’re better dressed in my places, and you’re funnier in my places. So by employing these sciences, we create human reactions by design, by chance.

How did you come up with this concept? Over the past thirty years, I’ve mastered the science of behavioral characteristics — behavior and changing human behavior. For example, people know that if I box something on a menu, the sales of that item go up 20% overnight. I know that if I shadow or highlight an item on a menu, the sales of that item go up 14-17% overnight. I know that people have a 6 to 7% proclivity to go to the top or bottom items on the list of a menu. So I can take another chef’s menu, and not change one word or one price: all I would do is move something around because through laser tracking I know where the virtual speed spots are and where your eyes will land. And I will change the entire sales mix of this business and increase revenue by 8%, and knock a point and a quarter off the speed cost over-frickin’-night, and I do it all the time.

And we’re not just talking about failing restaurants; we’re sometimes talking about successful restaurants that might want to be more successful. We’re talking about the science of hospitality in a deeper sense. I know through laser tracking the sweet spot of a one-bundle menu, a two-bundle menu, and a three-bundle menu. I know that if I put an item boxed on one side of the menu verses the other I’ll have a 3-4% increase in sales. I can take a chef’s highest-profit contributors by dollars, not percentage points, box them, shadow them, highlight them, move stuff around — I would increase his revenues by 8, 14, 15% overnight and drop a point and a quarter off his food costs. Nobody else in the country does this. Every time I go to restaurants, the greatest chefs in the world have lists. Then they price a menu item at $8. If it’s $8, it’s $7.95. You give the guests a price value relationship that’s $7. You never cross the dollar threshold. Once you cross the dollar threshold, you stop at the dollar point, you go right to 95 cents. Every time a chef sells an item at $8, or $9 or $10, he’s leaving 85 cents on the table. There’s no difference in guest perception. If you’re going to charge $9, then give back the nickel and pick up the perception of $8.95. But never stop at the dollar point. That’s the difference between someone who makes food and someone that knows how to sell it. I know how to sell it.

With the average restaurant, what percentage is profit? You’re talking about real big numbers — 14% and 17% — and the profit margin in a restaurant is smaller than most people think. It varies depending on the concept, but it averages around 12%. These days a great restaurant can profit 20 cents on a dollar; a marginal one can profit 4, 5, 6 cents on a dollar. There’s not a lot of room for mistakes, right? So if I can take two or three points off that scale, that’s a big hit annually. Let’s say you go to a restaurant, and you order three menu items. For the appetizer, I get 95 cents from you. Entrée I get another 95 cents from you. Then the next thing I do — and here’s science — there’s a shrimp cocktail on the menu, and my regular shrimp cocktail is 5 pieces, for $7.95. So my king cocktail is 7 pieces at $9.95 and it’s your best value. The 7/11 knows how to do that; they sell 64-ounce Coca Colas all day long. But we don’t, so we’ll do a number of things from a science standpoint. We’ll box and shadow, but then we’ll create two-size appetizers, and I’ll find that roughly 27% of guests will upsize: I just picked up another $2-$3 from you. Next I’ll bump it up to 95 cents, now I’m up $4 on you. Next I’ll add add-ons on the menu; Red Lobster makes a fortune with “add lobster tails” for $9.95. Next I’ll make sure there’s larger steaks, and up-sell opportunities and categories, I’ll make another $4-$5 in your entrée selection. Next, wine. Everybody sells wine in the same wine glass; I’ll introduce two sizes of wine glass. I’ve even done it in five-star restaurants — a larger wine glass matters more to the executive core. Fifty percent of guests will order that larger glass. By the time I’m done, I’ve added $3-$4 for the check average — and I’m just starting. That’s what I do. It’s the science of hospitality. And personally, I don’t think that it’s design-based. It’s science-based.

The entire world is shrinking with Facebook and Twitter. Is the science in New York different than the science in New Orleans, or Elizabeth, New Jersey? Do individual cities require different outlooks? This isn’t by city; it’s by socioeconomics and demographics. The fact is an affluent bar in New York is going to have the same type of motivators that an affluent bar in Chicago will. There might be subtle differences — New York is on the East Coast, so the food preferences might be different. But generally speaking, it really goes by who you’re targeting. What are the disposable income levels? Are they men, are they women, are they rock based? Are they culinary based? You have to understand those elements and the food’s relationship to the bar. Most bar operators don’t get that. There could be a destination menu; I come here to eat. Could be a convenience menu; ah, well I’m here, I’ll have something. Or it could be an interactive menu, for boy to meet girl. It provides an opportunity for you to maybe get lucky tonight through a food program, an interactive dining environment. So food is the purpose, and then there are so many sciences involved in just one menu that nobody talks about.

How does that translate to clubs? When we talk about the science of nightclubs, it gets even deeper. Bar height and elevated areas are important — a lot of designers develop elevated areas where they put a staircase on them. You see a pretty girl on the other side of the elevation, so you walk towards her and hit a dead end. I throw a second staircase in there, and people walk through with purpose and everything changes. People don’t go to places and bars — they flow through.

Flow is the most important word. There’s no such thing as an elevation without two staircases. Ever. There’s no such thing as low seating at zero elevation. When people are standing or sitting with their barstool, and their eyes are within 10 inches of each other, that’s gold. As soon as I move those eyes lower or higher, I’m out of gold. I never put the backs on a bar stool if demos are under 34 years old. I don’t care what the concept is. But once they get over 34 years old and there’s a sensitivity on their rear-end, I always put backs on bar stools. Then there’s the science of cocktails. I know that if I sell a cocktail with fresh juice in it, 30% more people will order a food product at my restaurant because it creates gastric juices, and it makes people hungry. Those are the sciences of hospitality that we employ in Bar Rescue, and it makes it really exciting.

In New York, Vegas, Miami, and LA, bottle service is very important. It’s an old concept, but we started it here as a thing to reinvigorate the bottom line. Tell me about your experience with bottle service. Well, I’m going to tell you how I feel about bottle service. I spent a lot of time in Vegas and in major markets. Bottle service is an exclusive thing that’s a luxury. Let’s face it — only certain people can do it. How many bars can sell bottles of Absolut for $350 or $375? That’s a limited world, a limited economic environment. Even in places like New York — and this is a goldmine here in bars and restaurants — disposable income levels are down, average spend numbers are down, so the future of the bar industry is not exclusive. The future of the bar industry is inclusive. So I find that as I travel around the country, the clubs that have the big VIP areas where you can only get bottle service in are being made smaller. And the exclusive areas are opening up because the fact of the matter is profitability has to speak to a broader audience today than it did a few years ago.

Anybody who’s anybody in the restaurant service in this town is being approached about a TV/reality shows. I was approached about it and I had trepidations; I saw what happened to Rocco DiSpirito. It can be a great thing, or it can be a bad thing. What made you decide that reality TV and Spike TV was right for you? Well as you know, I travel all over the world and give about 30 speeches a year. I’ll speak at things like the Canadian Culinary Association, BarFest, Italy, Australia, New Zealand — all over the world. So I have a very public image in that regard. And I gave a speech a few years ago at the Convention for Nightclubs and Bars in Vegas, and somebody came up to me and said, “I want to put you on TV.” And I thought long and hard about it. I’m in a unique situation for a freshman reality show — I’m a co-executive producer of my show. And if you look at reality shows on TV and try to find a host or star who’s co-executive producer of his first show, you’re not going to find that very often. So I was deeply involved in the creation and development of the show.

And why Spike? The thing that’s great about Spike is their edge. Spike is dropping me in the worst situations you can imagine. These places are days from closing. On one of our first locations, the water department came to turn the water off. So these people are fighting for their lives, their houses are on the line, their families are falling apart, they’re ready to kill each other. And I’m given 10 days instead of three months, and it starts with me saying that I have no time to fuck around. Some people will come in as a consultant or a trainer and say, “Don’t do this, don’t do that.” That’s not me. I don’t want to change what you do, I want to change the way you think. The only way I’m going to change the way you think is by shattering the way you think now, and that sometimes is ugly, but I’m in people’s faces and these people are failing sometimes because of the way they think. So I have to shatter it and rebuild it because I only have five days to do it. It creates a very intense situation with some very powerful stories of some real personal tragedies and successes and heroes.