Anyone who has ever spent any fair amount time in a bar has often thought about how great it would be to open their own. Would yours be nautical themed or devoted to your favorite football team? Perhaps an old -imey gin mill or maybe a velvet-roped club?
In the nightclub, bar, and restaurant industry, there is no greater authority than Jon Taffer. For over 30 years, this pub-crawl legend has opened and saved hundreds of bars all over the world. On a break from shooting his 75th episode of Spike TV’s Bar Rescue, he talked with us about what it’s like to get paid to host and co-executive produce one of that network’s most popular shows.
How did you go from consulting to getting your own television show?
I went to college for political science, and I never thought in a million years I’d be in the bar business. As John Lennon said, “Life is often what happens when you make other plans.” I had never planned to be where I am today. I just pursued things in life that I loved at that moment.
“Yup. I’ve got the best job in the world.”
In college, I went to the bar business. I fell in love with it. Then I fell in love with managing bars, then I fell in love with music in bars. I just fell in love with the whole business.
The greatest job in the world is defined by the person who has it, and it’s in the simplest of terms. If you love it, then it’s a great job. Yup, I’ve got the best job in the world. About four years ago, someone came up to me at the luncheon when I gave a keynote speech and said, “You should be on TV.” I was a fan of Gordon Ramsay’s and Kitchen Nightmares, so I went back and I wrote up a little treatment, but I did homework. I found that shows like mine are not documentaries, just story shows. They start with a troubled individual, there’s a story curve, there’s a redemption, there’s a transformation, and various elements of storytelling that happen in these shows. I went to Los Angeles and I shot a 3 minute sizzle reel.
The original working title of the show concept was called On the Rocks. The reel had a camera in my wife’s chest that I actually called the “Boobie Cam” in the original. I wanted to go in and be a spy, but I snuck a little camera between the boobs of her shirt so that she could go in and get me the recon.
The sweeping view from Taffer’s ingenious “Boobie Cam”
I screamed and yelled at employees, that was pretty much the whole video. I brought it to three companies. All three picked up the show or sent me an offer within a week. I was shocked. I did the homework on the three companies, and I choose the company that I thought was best. Four days after I signed with them, Spike picked up the show. From the time period of me having the idea to do the show to the show actually premiering with ten episodes was under a year — which is, I’m told, remarkable speed for the television industry.
On the show you’re always composed, even when you’re freaking out. How do you do maintain composure in those situations?
The fact of the matter is — this is a cocky statement — I understand that I am the best-equipped person in the room. I use the word “equipped” specifically. I have more experience than anyone in the room. I tend to have more confidence than anyone in the room. And the fact is that I have more knowledge than anyone in the room. That makes me very deliberate. I don’t get emotional. You’re right. People think I’m going to have a heart attack! I get mad when I want to because it serves a purpose. You’ve never ever seen me lose it.
Jon confronts bar owner Ami Benari after he calls culinary expert Brian Duffy “Fatboy”
Even at that moment over Fatboy in Denver, I didn’t lose it. I put him in his place in front of his employees. What you didn’t hear in that episode — it’s only 42 minutes long, everything isn’t in it — was before he called my chef “Fatboy,” he called his employees “assholes.” That’s when I called him, “You disrespectful son of a bitch!” I am very quick to stick up for employees, especially employees that people have disrespected.
“If you’re a father and you’re going broke, I’ll try to appeal to your pride. I’ll try to tell you what kind of father you’re going to be. What kind of man are you?”
I have never been angry on Bar Rescue when it wasn’t deliberate. It has a purpose, has a beginning, an end, an objective. If you’re a father and you’re going broke, I’ll try to appeal to your pride. I’ll try to tell you what kind of father you’re going to be. What kind of man are you? If that doesn’t work, I’ll appear to your fears. How are you going to feed your children? If that doesn’t work, then I’m going to start to use other techniques. I might start embarrassing you. I might start degrading you. It’s all extremely deliberate.
The person you’re usually yelling at is not so deliberate. Are you ever fearful that they’re going to sock you?
Never. The closest moment that ever came was behind the bar with Jimmy, that moment when I told him to leave the bar and our mouths were, like, two inches from each other.
Jimmy’s drinking and anger issues threaten the success of Jack’s Ale House in Queens, NY
I think my talent is that I have an ability to relate to people — I feel people when I’m in a room. The fact of the matter is when Jimmy looked at me and said, “Who are you talking to?” I said, “I’m talking to you.” I’m looking in his eyes. For a split second he was going to punch me in the mouth. I saw him drift away in his eyes but then I said something that pulled him right back. I said, “I’m going to embarrass you.”
I don’t let them drift away to anger. I keep them engaged looking in my eyes talking to me as they’re angry. It works for me. Omi, the one in Denver who pushed me, is the only time I’ve ever been touched. I am fearless. My wife can’t believe it sometimes, the things that I will do. I’ve never been hit in my life. I’m a big guy. When I’m screaming, yelling, ranting and raving, my arms are flying, it’s intimidating. I use it purposely.
What’s it like when people run into you? What’s their usual reaction?
Their usual reaction is to yell, “Dude, I love you, dude!” What shocks me is the median age of Bar Rescue is 39. The median income is close to $100,000 a year. Bar Rescue runs 49% female, 51% male. There’s no show on Spike that runs those kinds of female numbers. People come up to me that are 70 and that are 11. I’ve never met a cop who didn’t know me or a fireman who didn’t know me. It’s been unbelievably flattering and rewarding. And my wife has told me it’s made me nicer. Believe it or not. The fact that people are surprised or excited to meet me is about as wonderful as it gets. Any celebrity that doesn’t understand that is an idiot.
On Sundays my Twitter stream turns into a non-stop stream of NFL and Bar Rescue tweets. Who runs your Twitter account?
I have a team of people that I work with. I am on that Twitter page ten times a day, I read almost every tweet, I look at every picture people send me, and I try to answer as often as I can myself. The Taffer Talks that I do are me, one-hundred percent. I want to be engaged with my audience. It’s really important to me. I feel uncomfortable if I’m not. I need to look at people when they’re in a bar. I want to see if their feet are tapping and if they’re enjoying themselves. It’s no different than Twitter. I need to connect, or I feel very uncomfortable.
I own the term “reaction management” — it’s a style that causes you to manage reaction from those around you to your own benefit.
It’s been almost a full year since you released a book. How’s it going?
It was a Wall Street Journal best seller. People love the book, and I’m really proud of it. It’s about my principles of reaction management and how to create reactions in people. It’s the premise that some people get promoted twice as fast as others. Why? It’s about the reactions they create. I own the term “reaction management” — it’s a style of management that causes you to manage reaction from those around you to your own benefit.
What’s your favorite cocktail?
I like The Godfather. It’s a classic cocktail served in a rocks glass. Traditionally, it’s an ounce-and-a-half of fine scotch and half an ounce of Amaretto di Saronno. I don’t like the sweetness of Amaretto di Saronno, so I’ll take nice shot of Johnnie Walker Blue, put it on the rocks, and put maybe two drops of Amaretto on top — and that’s the Godfather.
What’s your favorite city to have a drink in?
There’s some bars in Hollywood that are unlike anything in New York. The Rainbow in Hollywood is like walking into 1972 time warp. It’s bars like Barney’s Beanery in Los Angeles. However, when it goes to great neighborhood bars, you can’t beat New York. There’s two or three on almost every block, and almost any one you walk into is great. I would have to say New York City.
You seem to be a fan of watches. What are your preferred brands?
I am. Yeah, I have Breitling, I have a diamond Mercier, and I have a few from Cartier. I actually bought the last solid gold Roadster that Cartier sold. Just a really special watch. I know it’s the last one they made. I am a watch man. I have about six or eight of them. I also have some antique watches like Hamiltons and such that belonged to my father.
Whenever you’re on the show, you’re dressed in a sharp suit jacket. Do you favor a particular brand?
All my sport jackets are hand tailored for me, and they’re made by a company called Martin Greenfield in Brooklyn, New York. Martin, by the way, did all the suits for Boardwalk Empire. He’s the last full-service tailor house in America. I pick the fabrics, I pick the linings, and all of my sport jackets are hand-made from Martin.
Is there one thing that you take with you when you travel that you can’t leave the house without?
I have an app on my phone called The Sleep Machine, and it does the ocean sounds and thunderstorm sounds and white sounds and all that kind of stuff. I have my Jawbone Jambox speaker. During Bar Rescue, sometimes I work until two, three in the morning. Hotels are noisy experiences. I put my sleep machine on next to my bed, and I don’t hear anything. My brain is almost conditioned to go to sleep because of the sound. I cannot travel without that sleep machine.
Whatever happened to DJ Blue Steel, the “all in” guy?
This is the truth. I’m going to frank—most of the people in Bar Rescue I leave with I have a great friendship with. That hug at the end is real. There are very few people in Bar Rescue that I wouldn’t welcome to my real time.
But he quit. He walked out and never came back. He’s an asshole. I have no interest in ever seeing him again, to be honest with you. He screwed the owner, he walked out on him, he didn’t return his phone calls, he never came back. I have no interest in having people like that in my life. The guys a loser. I’m sorry.
DJ Blue Steel went “all in” and got kicked out.
Are there any online parodies of yourself or Bar Rescue that you find to be particularly great?
On Conan, we did Petting Zoo Rescue. It was the funniest thing that I had ever done, and the reactions were unbelievable. It’s — and excuse my language — it’s fucking hysterical.
Petting Zoo Rescue
Is there anything that you wished that somebody would’ve told you before you got into this industry?
I never thought I’d have a TV show even five years ago, let’s just start there. I think if somebody said to me, “Jon, if you’re successful in the television business, you’re going to be spending 35 weeks a year on the road,” I might have thought twice about it, to be honest with you.
For more information about Jon Taffer and Bar Rescue visit spike.com/shows/bar-rescue.
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