A couple of weeks ago I got to sit down with Bar Rescue's Jon Taffer during the Nightclub and Bar Show and chat with him about everything from energy drinks (they must be well-flavored) to the new season of the show. We even talked about his first business working as an agent at summer camp and getting jobs for other campers while taking a commission on each job. Yeah, you wish you'd thought of that.
One thing about Jon; there are no short answers. Mostly because there aren't many questions that you can ask him that he doesn't see coming or hasn't thought about. That's his job, to know what you want before you know you want it and he's the master at it. From spreadsheets that cover every possible aspect of running a bar, to marketing methodologies that are tested in a way bordering on OCD, he has this business wired. He's fun to talk to, very approachable, and often sounds like a NASCAR driver the way he can drop a brand name in to almost any conversation.
To wit: My first question was a simple, "How are you?" and you'll get to see how it goes from there. You'll also get to find out everything you wanted to know about Season 2 of Bar Rescue before everyone else!
Rick from Cocktail GoGo (CGG): Hey Jon, how are you doing?
Jon Taffer (JT): Thank God for 50 Cent's [Street Kings] energy drink, I'll tell you that. Yesterday I had to get up and do a morning show, where I can show clients products, starting at 5:30 in the morning and I didn't end my day until 3:30. This one is actually good, they have grape and mango and I can drink it. It got me through the last three days.
CGG: Do you take a vacation after this?
JT: No, I'm back to Bar Rescue [Season 2] after this, we have to do six more episodes. That takes me through the end of May and then I take a little vacation.
CGG: Thanks for the great segue in to my first question. How do you vet out the actual people that run the bars? I get it that you want a good story, a good bar to save, but are the actual people that you're applying all of this effort to worth it? Is the person worth saving?
JT: I don't actually do it. I'm the Executive Producer of the show. I wanted to have an intelligent show and a real show so when I walk in to the bar to meet these people, it's really for the first time. After the successful first season of the show, we had over 1,000 bars submit to the show for our help. A casting company goes through all the bars and we have to do two in each city because of geographical considerations, I can't pick one in Alberta, Canada. If it looks like we have enough bars in a city to interview, we'll go to that city and the casting company will start the vetting process. We find out if the bar is legal, do they have any tax liens, or fraud?
Next, is the story real? In the end, we have to know that the story is real and that you have a connection to it. Are you rooting for them or rooting for them to fail? We want to know that things are really on the line. Are they desperate? Are their houses on the line? Do they seem like decent people?
After that, we send out a one camera crew and do a two minute walk-through of the place. Then we take a few of the employees, they sit on a stool while the producer asks them a couple of questions. We want to see how they're coming across on tv.
CGG: I bet you're looking for people who are a bit more stubborn.
JT: Sometimes, sure. I don't want someone saying, "Yes, sir! Yes, sir!" the whole time. It's not real. If they fight back and I win the argument, then it becomes real. I want people who are going to be honest with me.
Then we take those casting reals and send them to the network and they're the ones that make the decision. If there's one I don't want to do, I can prevent it from going to the network. Otherwise, I don't want to meet the people, I don't want to see the bar, I want it to be real. We start with a 1,000 and then wind up with 10.
CGG: And you can't send Nicole [Taffer] in anymore, can you?
JT: Yeah, season 2 is a big challenge. They see me coming now. They're cleaning up before I get there, dressing up the place, so we have a lot of challenges this year. For the first time, this year, we're going to bring the audience in to the surveillance truck. Rather than having someone do recon, I'm going to be watching the six cameras from the surveillance truck.
I don't want to tell you too much, but in the last episode, I'm in the truck and my wife is inside and I watched a cook grab a piece of raw chicken, put it down, then grab some tortilla chips and put them on a plate. I'm watching this in real-time! The cook is touching everything, no gloves. My wife has ordered this food! So, I run out of the truck, slam through the doors, run in to the kitchen and shut it down.
I stop everything.
Then, I went in with laboratory stuff and did some samples. The e. coli counts were so high that they couldn't even be measured.
In the old version, the audience already knew what happened, they see me recapping it. This year, you get to see it all in real-time. It's a lot of fun.
CGG: So, that's how you're innovating from season to season.
JT: Right! And I don't want to do 40 Irish Bars this season. When I look at what we're going to do, I don't necessarily focus on the characters or circumstances, I let Spike handle that. I'm looking at the concept. I want to do a dance club, a country bar. I want to do a gay bar. A variety of concepts are what makes the show exciting.
CGG: Yeah, most of America hasn't been to a gay bar.
JT: Yeah, and how do you market to a gay bar? Or a 100% black bar?
We just did our first nightclub episode and I got to talk about the science of the music. Beats per minute, EQing the music, curves of music, butt funnels that cause people to rub together. A lot of fun conceptual stuff this year.
CGG: How did you cut your teeth on marketing to bars outside of what you've normally done?
JT: I've been doing every kind of bar for 35 years. At a Holiday Inn hotel bar, my job is to get 200 35-50 year old divorced women in there.
CGG: I'd just offer them a Cosmo.
JT: That works in some cases! I often say, you never see a bar with 200 women in it go broke.
To me, that's the fun part of the business, the fact that a bar can't be something to everyone. It's got to be everything to someone. The marketing reach, the brand, the entertainment, the uniforms, it has to all match that first communication you receive that sets the expectation of the product and the experience. If that first communication experience is off track with any of the other elements, then it all fails. You'll see a lot more of that dissected this year.
CGG: 35 years, you've done lots of bars and have had a lot of success. Tell me about stuff that has failed and don't give me any of the "There's no such thing as failure" line.
JT: [Laughter] I've definitely had a few. I did a bar, many years ago, in Minneapolis called "Alamo Grill." And I lost $400,000 on this place. I opened it in Mall of America and I did unbelievable sales and lost all of the money. I didn't have my shit together and I didn't have my cost structure together. Now, I had an incredibly successful property and no money to operate it. I then had to go to a partner and gave away 60% of the business for $200K, to get me over the hump. Then did $800,000 over the next year. Had I controlled my costs, that wouldn't have happened. Had I had more capital, it wouldn't have happened.
I've also opened sports bars in certain markets that had no business being there. I gotta tell you, though, I don't miss much. I don't miss much because I'm a nutcase. I do demographic, psychographic, competitive research. There are nine data groups that I do work on before I make one decision. I work on trade market area. Sales mix. If I can move your sales from steak to salad I can knock 3% off your sales cost and add 20% to your top line. Marketing, what's worked in the past? Is it experiential marketing or discount marketing?
I take a marketing conclusion and I turn it in to an objective. I turn the objective in to a strategy and THEN I do a tactic. By the time I get to that point I've spent weeks in 9 data groups. I'm going to be cocky with you, that's why I don't fail.
The big difference between me and anyone else in the business is my insatiable desire to do it right. I can't make gut decisions, people's livelihoods are on the line, I need the data. I'm a nutcase when it comes to the data.
CGG: As a nutcase, can you even walk in to a bar anymore?
JT: Oh, sure.
CGG: And enjoy it?
JT: Ummm....enjoy it? It depends. My favorite operator in America is from the Tao Group. Whenever I go to their venues, I enjoy it. The music is right. The energy is right. The service is right. 8 years in Vegas and they're still #1. They do $60 million in a year, that doesn't exist anywhere else. Greatness is greatness and when I'm around it I have fun.
CGG: Any small bars?
JT: It appeared in one of my episodes. Barney's Beanery in L.A. 100 years later it's as relevant as it ever was, opened in 1920. It's not beautiful, the seats are torn, there are holes in the walls but they have 55 beers and they're full. He doesn't have to remodel and rebrand every five years. I get a tweet from them every once in while, that's their marketing. They're relevant even with all the hip around them. It's what makes a bar great. Do a couple of things REALLY well for a long time.
CGG: Can you educate a market that doesn't understand something like Barney's? Can you open up a Barney's in Minneapolis?
JT: Let me explain, "Educate a market." It's not a product statement. It's a concept statement. You don't introduce a concept and say, "Once they understand, they'll come." It doesn't work. When someone says, "I want to educate a market" then I can start counting the days until they close.
With a product, a company can spend $60 million to make you curious to taste their product and it works. When it comes to mixology and great cocktails, make no mistake, a beautifully created cocktail in a creative glass with a creative glass with some height that walks by other tables, it stimulates curiosity and that's one of the most powerful emotions we have in this business. If I can make you curious about something, statistically you're going to satisfy that curiosity. That's a product statement. Everyone wants to taste the new best thing but I'm not sure that everyone wants to go to the new best thing.
CGG: So, what about doing a Prohibition themed bar in say, Modesto?
JT: You know, there's a place in New York where you walk in to the place through a hot dog stand.
CGG: Please Don't Tell.
JT: Right! You walk in, that's a novelty. What I wonder about is if it's like Rainforest Cafe where there's a "been there, done that" mentality and if you get too cute, too trendy, then you fall in to that "been there, done that" scenario. The oldest restaurant in any city is always the steakhouse. It's the longest lasting restaurant in any market and the second oldest is usually the guy with the best hamburger. Trendy bars are just that, they survive until the next trend. Classic lasts forever. I'm a guy who likes to do trendy spots that do dynamic presentation but, you know what? I don't like to step too much outside the main stream of appeal. I'm going to work the numbers for me and trendy is not always working the numbers.
CGG: You're always talking about "reactions." When someone comes in to a bar, you want a reaction. What are some of your favorites?
JT: I own the term "Reaction Management." I also own the term called, "GROW" which is "Guest Reaction Opportunity Windows." One of the most simple reactions that comes to mind is when you are about to go in to a bar, they look at your I.D. Why can't they say your name? "Hi, Rick. Thanks for coming." You have the guests name right in front of you, why not use it as a way to help start the reaction? Really simple, no one does it.
If it's a high energy environment, waitresses aren't allowed to walk to tables, they dance to tables.
CGG: So, everyone's movement has to match what you want the environment for the bar or club to be.
JT: I have a thing I call "Mechanical Dynamics." Pick a steakhouse, any steakhouse. The lights are low and the waiter walks slow. Pick a Denny's, the lights are bright the waiter walks fast. You make a waiter walk fast at Morton's and that steak isn't worth $60 anymore. That's one of the subtleties. Pace, energy, service, eye interaction. I train my staff to look at the ugliest watch in the world and say, "Wow! That's a great watch!"
It's easy to create "Personal Dynamics" which allows the employees personality to come out, not contract. Make people say, "I want to sit at John's station." Next is mechanical dynamics. If it's a high-end concept, you slow down pace to create a perceived value or if you want a discount concept, you speed up the pace.
The third element of dynamics is "Interactive Dynamics." This teaches how to make you more beautiful in my bar than you are some place else. How to make you better-dressed in my bar than someplace else and that comes back to the watch analogy. You train people to do that. My people are trained to say, "Beautiful dress!" or "Great game!" How powerful is that? Let's face it, people go where they feel the best. It's extremely manipulative. My job is to manipulate you to make you feel better.
CGG: It's a social contract, though, isn't it? I know that you're doing this and I'm okay with it.
JT: Exactly right. (He looks at my wife) If your best friend was getting married this afternoon and, this morning, she showed you what she looked like in her dress and it was the ugliest dress you've ever seen. What do you say to her?
WIFE: (laughing) You look beautiful!
JT: That's the social contract.
CGG: Last question. You were hooking up your camp counselors at Age 12. Did you have any other crazy business enterprises?
JT: It was called Aardvark Enterprises. I sold massages and cokes and stuff. I think we got $2 an hour. I got a dollar and a quarter and I gave them seventy-five cents, it was a great business model for me. No, I think that's the funniest one.
My grandmother likes to tell this story: When I went to nursery school I was always the wee troublemaker. They sent me home the first day with the check paper clipped to my collar. I've figured out how to do it my own way pretty much my whole life. I guess I'm lucky, I landed in a good place.