Nightclub King Jon Taffer Sets A High Bar
Originally published on Sun December 1, 2013 6:55 pm
Jon Taffer is the king of the bar business. Over the past three decades, he has managed dozens of bars and nightclubs, and is a consultant for bar owners all over the country.
Most recently, he has put his expertise to use as the host of the popular reality show Bar Rescue. Bar and nightclub owners with failing businesses ask Taffer for his help. In return, Taffer brings a team of bartenders, chefs and designers with him to revamp every part of the operation. On the show, as in person, Taffer is a tough, no-nonsense guy.
Bar Rescue is now in its third season, and Taffer has just published a book of bar wisdom called Raise the Bar. He sat down for a drink with NPR host Arun Rath.
On making money in the bar business
It's a tough business. People think it's inherently profitable but it's not. You know the alcohol in a drink is only about 20 percent of the price. So for every dollar a drink costs, the cost to the bar is only 20 cents. But that doesn't include labor, insurance, rent. When you're finished, bars are not inherently profitable. You got to work at them to make them profitable.
On the dual nature of running a bar
It's almost like show business, you know, on-stage, off-stage. When you're on-stage, you're expected to perform in the bar business. You shake hands, you smile, you're all positive energy, you add to your environment. When you walk in the door to the back of the house, that's like a stage door. You're off-stage now. You're a business man, you're in the hospitality business and you're focused on costs, managing your employees, and all the other aspects of business. It's a dual existence, really.
On bars in American history
You know, you got to remember what bars are. The second public building ever built in America was a bar. The first was a church. The first distiller in America was George Washington. Made about 10 thousand gallons of bourbon a year. So bars are a part of the fiber of America. And when they work, they make people feel good. People connect to a good bar, very personally.
ARUN RATH, HOST:
If you're just joining us, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Now for an abrupt change of gear. Meet Jon Taffer. He's the king of the bar business. He's managed dozens of bars and nightclubs, and he's a no-nonsense consultant for bar owners all over the country. Since 2011, he's hosted the popular reality show "Bar Rescue."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BAR RESCUE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Running a bar is not just a business. It's a science. No one knows more about bars science than Jon Taffer.
JON TAFFER: I don't embrace excuses. I embrace solutions.
RATH: Jon Taffer's new book is called "Raise the Bar." He and I shared a drink recently here at NPR West. It seemed to me that running a bar was a pretty straightforward business. I couldn't understand why so many need rescuing.
TAFFER: You know, it's a tough business. People think it's inherently profitable, but it's not. You know, the alcohol in the drink is only about 20 percent of the price. So for every dollar that a drink cost, the cost to the bar is only 20 cents. But that doesn't include labor, insurance, rent. When you're finished, bars are not inherently profitable. You got to work at them to make them profitable.
RATH: Talk - I want to hear about your career before you were doing this show.
TAFFER: You know, I went to college for political science.
TAFFER: These days, I'm glad I didn't go into that business. But I started tending bar in college, and I fell in love with it.
RATH: Well, there's politics to it. I mean, I see that in your program.
TAFFER: No question.
RATH: I know a poli sci degree probably comes in handy.
TAFFER: It sure does, you know, and understanding contingencies - contingency plans. And there's a lot of elements of political science at work in bars.
RATH: Well, there's this great contrast because, you know, outside with the customers, there's this, you know, the smoothness, the beauty of the experience. And in the back, you're like a drill sergeant.
TAFFER: It's almost like show business, you know, onstage, offstage. When you're onstage, you're expected to perform in the bar business. You shake their hands, you smile, you're all positive energy, you add to your environment. When you walk in the door to the back of the house, that's like a stage door. You're offstage now.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BAR RESCUE")
TAFFER: You know, guys, I'm trying to stay calm here. But when I see this, Todd, cockroaches in your flour. If there's roaches in here, there's roaches in the whole (bleep) kitchen, it could be anywhere.
Now you're a businessman. You're not in the hospitality business, and you're focused on costs, you know, managing your employees and all the other aspects of business. It's a dual existence, really.
RATH: So the bars that you've run, what was your favorite?
TAFFER: In the mid-'80s, I opened a bar outside of Pennsylvania called Pulsations. And Pulsations was 56,000 square feet and had a four-ton spaceship that flew into the nightclub and deposited a $400,000 robot on the dance floor. And that robot was leased for the movie "Rocky IV"...
RATH: I remember that.
TAFFER: ...and was in that movie. But when that spaceship came out and that robot came down, customers would cry. It was really exciting. And, you know, I've strived for that ever since. When it works, boy, it's an exciting thing.
RATH: Well, let's talk drinking. We have, you know, as I was telling you before, I'm a scotch whiskey guy. And we - I think...
TAFFER: As am I.
RATH: ...we have some bourbon, though, here with us. So we have a nice bottle. What would you - presentation is important.
TAFFER: It is presentation. You know, that's a nice bottle of Bulleit Bourbon. It's a small batch product. And if you look at the label, it looks like a small batch product, doesn't it?
TAFFER: Small label on the bottom, doesn't have a mass-produced look to it. Suddenly, you have a higher expectation of a product like that. That's good packaging.
RATH: So how do we do this justice in a bar?
TAFFER: Well, you know, you got to remember what bars are. The second public building ever built in America was a bar. The first was a church. The first distiller in America was George Washington, made about 10,000 gallons of bourbon a year. So bars are a part of the fiber of America. And when they work, they make people feel good. People connect to a great bar, very personally.
RATH: You're making me want to drink.
TAFFER: That's a good thing.
RATH: Should we open this up?
TAFFER: I think we should.
RATH: All right.
TAFFER: A Bulleit Bourbon shouldn't wait. Now, as a scotch man, take a good smell of that. Tell me what you think.
RATH: Let's see. It's nice. Not quite what I'm used to, but that's - mm.
(SOUNDBITE OF POURING)
RATH: OK, we're christening NPR West.
TAFFER: Mm. I think you do much better radio after a few glasses of bourbon, wouldn't you think?
RATH: That's nice.
TAFFER: Isn't that smooth?
RATH: That's quite nice, yeah. I want to ask you, I know that you break things down visually. You use, sort of like a schematic of the bar, like how things are laid out. Take a look at our studio here. We like to make people feel comfortable, like they can talk, like you - like they have in a good bar. Do you have any recommendations for how we might...
TAFFER: Well, this is actually a really nice comfortable environment. This is a great space. When you walk in, it's got a hipness to it, it's got an openness to it. So I walk in, I think, OK, this is a pretty cool place. I'm expecting a cool host to talk to. I come into a studio, it's really nice, brightly lit. It's contemporary, has nice angles and lighting in it. You're casually dressed. You're not stuffy. You're smiling and looking at me. It's a nice place to talk on radio, actually.
RATH: All right.
TAFFER: So the reactions are good.
RATH: Well, John, this has been great. Thank you.
TAFFER: My pleasure.
RATH: John Taffer. He's the force behind the reality TV show "Bar Rescue." His new book is called "Raise the Bar."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.