Q & A with Bar Rescue's Jon Taffer: "Everything is to Make Money"
Jon Taffer laying down the law on the set of Bar Rescue.
The bartenders at Champs are in trouble. Big trouble. They've been significantly overpouring the cocktails, says Jon Taffer, star of Spike's new show Bar Rescue. To him, that's stealing, and in an act of public humiliation, he forces every drink slinger to apologize to the bar's owner, one by one, on camera. It's tough love from Taffer, who is hopping from barstool to barstool across the country, seeking out poorly performing bar/restaurants and (at least attempting) to make them over into the hottest spots in town.
What qualifies him to be the Gordon Ramsay of the cocktail scene? Quite a lot, actually. As he tells us in the interview that follows, he's been in the bar and restaurant industry for more than 30 years, getting his start right here in L.A. managing the Troubadour and Barney's Beanery, and over time, he's mastered what he believes is the "science" of success.
Taffer doesn't seem to care much about, say, the creativity behind the drink recipes at a bar or even the taste of the food it serves. He's all creating "reactions" and ultimately, making as much money as possible. He knows exactly how to trick patrons into staying longer and spending more, and he's unabashed about his intentions. It's kind of a disillusioning sentiment for those of us who equate cooking with artistry, but frankly, restaurants are a business, and shouldn't somebody be thinking this way?
Jon Taffer: I opened my first bar that I owned in 1989. The first one I ever owned was in downtown St. Louis. But the first bar management job I ever had was here in Los Angeles in 1978 at the Troubadour. Then I ran Barney's Beanery after that, so I learned my chops when I was young, here.
Then I went to the east coast and worked in a bunch of cities there, but I've been owning operations...I've been a consultant since '86, owned my first place in '89, I've won Operator of the Year twice. I've owned up to 17 of them at the same time. I'm pleased to say I don't own any at the moment. [Laughs] But I still consult. I do a lot of corporate consulting work. I've been doing it a long time.
SI: How did the industry become a passion for you?
JT: I went to college for political science and got a bartending job. You know, when I got into this business, I realized that making people smile for a living is actually a pretty cool thing.
And when you look at it past the liquor bottle and you start to really think that the first distiller in America was George Washington, the second public building ever built in America was a bar, independence was discussed in bars...this is a really interesting culture of nightlife. Providing great nightlife to people is sort of a cool legacy.
I got into it when I was young and was really passionate about it, and now I'm somewhat of a nutcase. I'm almost a scientist about the business now. And the science of energy and sales and enterprising, and that's a lot of the hook of this TV show. My sciences.
SI: What exactly do you mean by 'sciences?'
JT: For example, I'm not a chef. I'm an owner and an operator. So I look at food not necessarily as a pretty plate, but as profit. To me, five judges at a table about food doesn't mean very much to me. How much money does it make? That's what it means to me. I believe that a cook in a kitchen isn't producing an entrée, he's producing a reaction. The product is the reaction, the entrée is just the vehicle.
Let me explain what I mean. You and I go out for dinner tonight. You're sitting at a table. The plate hits the table. The food is brought out. And one of two things happens. Either you sit up [sits up], and look at it, and react to it, or nothing happens. And if nothing happens, you're stuck in mediocrity the rest of your life.
See, the fact of the matter is, it's not the plate of food, it's the reaction. The plate of food is just the vehicle. I will design that plate 500 times until you sit up.
He or she who creates the best reactions wins. That's the business. We don't play music, we play reactions. We achieve it through music, don't we? I don't sell beer, I create reactions. I achieve it through selling beer. And there are manipulative ways--behavioral sciences--that we employ to get you to come to my bar, spend more money, stay longer, dance more than you usually would, smile more than you usually would, meet more people than you usually would and have a better time than you usually would. That's the science.
And the way we do it is by understanding that we are in a business of reactions. Everything we do is never the product or the purchase. The reaction always is. It's always a vehicle.
So that being said, I own the term 'reaction management.' It's a trademarked term that I own. And then to create reaction management principles we have something called GROW. Guest Reaction Opportunity Windows. Moments of time when I mesh with you.
Ryan [Taffer's publicist, sitting next to us] comes into a bar and there's a doorman at the door, and he asks for his driver's license. And he's looking at it and he says, 'Thank you, Ryan.' Says his name. Reaction one.
It's a dance club. Waitress aren't allowed to walk the tables, they have to dance the tables. Reaction two.
Beats per minute in music: if they're too high too long you get tired and leave. Too low to long, you get bored, you leave. It has to have the proper cycles.
Then when you walk into the bar, I steer where your eyes go. A designer might want your eyes to move, but your eyes are going to go to the brightest spots in the room. A designer wants your eyes to move to a picture on the wall. I want your eyes to move to my most expensive liquor bottles. I'm all about the eyes.
Then, a menu is one of the most interesting behavioral sciences of all, being involved in loving food. If you box something on a menu, sales will go up 20% overnight. If I shadow something, a chefs special, sales of that item will go up 14-17% overnight every time.
People have a capacity to order the top one and bottom two items on the list by 67%. So, a chef will put together a beautiful menu of great food. Then he'll do something like price an item at $8. I'd never price an item at $8. It's either $7.95 or its $8.95, you're not leaving 95 cents on the table every time. Your perception goes to $8.
We are in the business of making money; so what I'll do is I'll look at a chef's menu and raise the prices. I know the sweet spot of a menu where it lands, a two-pound menu where it lands. I will simply take a chef's menu, move stuff around, box his highest profit contributors, shadow the second most, list properly his third most, do it in appetizers, entrees, desserts, and I'll increase your sales overnight every time. That's the science of human behavior. That's what makes this business exciting to me.
So what I'll do is when you walk in to a bar, I'll steer your eyes to where I want you to look. Now, when you look at a menu, I'm steering your eyes to what I want to sell you. Why do I want to sell it to you? Because it's great, number one. It's my signature item, I put my hat on it. It's incredibly profitable. I know you're going to love it, I've selected it right. By design, I determine what you buy. So that's the science of hospitality. That's the difference between a guy who just makes food and a guy who knows how to sell it.
SI: Can you adapt these ideas for a lot of different places? Because this is a sports bar, obviously.