'Bar Rescue's' Jon Taffer Isn't Afraid to Call Founders on Their B.S.
If you know anything about Jon Taffer, you know he likes to yell. On his hit Spike TV show, Bar Rescue, where Taffer parachutes into entrepreneurs’ struggling bars to turn them around in three days, he is a looming, at times obnoxious presence -- a man whose eyes bug out as he berates incompetent owners and employees. “I watched you pick up raw chicken all night with your hands and then touch cooked food!” he yells, grabbing and throwing a handful of tortilla chips for emphasis as the guilty party trembles before him.
Onstage at conferences, where Taffer, 64, gives keynotes about how to take control of a business, he yells during much of his presentation. Even his new book’s title screams from the cover: Don’t Bullsh*t Yourself!: Crush the Excuses That Are Holding You Back.
But therein lies the paradox of Jon Taffer. Having spent parts of two days following him around -- to his office for meetings with a small group of longtime employees, eating expensive Wagyu beef on the Vegas Strip, flying to a distillery where he’s developing his own line of whiskey, driving around with his personal L.A. limo driver, meeting his Hollywood producer and his publicist -- I never once saw him yell. (Though he does curse like a sailor.) Nor does anyone around him seem to be braced for an obscenity- laced outburst.
So finally, I just ask. “You seem like a nice person,” I say. “Can you explain to me where all the yelling comes from?”
Taffer goes quiet while he thinks. We are hurtling through the cold air at 30,000 feet in his tan-on-brown corporate jet -- a twin-engine, 1999 Hawker 800, with a custom leather interior modeled after that of a Bentley motorcar. For the past two days, he’s had a quick answer for everything. But this one stops him.
“I don’t know where the yelling came from,” he says at last. “I don’t really yell in my personal life. Honestly, Bar Rescue is such a bizarre environment because there’s a clock ticking. Not counting the construction, I have three days to save somebody’s life. It creates this level of frustration that’s pretty abnormal. If I don’t get him or her to listen to me right now, I’m a dead man. So I talk very loud to make sure he or she does listen to me. Because I know what it’s going to take to make this person a success.”
He takes a sip of his ever-present diet soda. Out the window, there is smoke evident in the atmosphere from a series of western wildfires. It bends the morning light and creates an eerie glow.
“See, everybody says they know everything about success. There are a million self-help books out there. But after 155 bar rescues, I know more about failure than any businessperson you will ever meet. I have experienced failure that is inconceivable, people who are so foolish, so far in debt. And I see it week after week after week. After 155 bar rescues, I have found a common denominator of failure. And it’s so freaking simple: The common denominator of failure is excuses.
“Whenever I ask someone, ‘Why is your bar failing?’ I get a million excuses. They say it’s Trump. They say it’s the euro. It’s construction on my street. It’s wintertime. It’s this. It’s that. They never say they’re failing because of themselves. Not once has someone ever looked up at me and said, ‘I’m failing because of me.’”
Taffer himself could have easily made excuses. His early life furnished him with plenty of reasons to justify a lifetime of failure or mediocrity. And perhaps that’s why he’s devoted so much effort to his latest push -- an ambitious plan to move beyond bars and nightclubs, and establish himself as a more all-purpose self-help guru, a one-man crusader for America’s fledgling entrepreneurs. But as 155 often contentious, messy and flabbergasting bar rescues have taught him, getting people to listen isn’t always easy.
“If I can make them own their failure, I can get them to own success,” he says. “If they don’t own the failure, they will never get there.”
Jon Taffer began his life as Jonathan Peter Cass. His early years were not always kind.
When he was two years old, on Christmas Eve, Taffer’s 34-year-old father died suddenly of a heart attack, throwing his family into disarray. Taffer and his older brother went to live in a large apartment in Westchester, New York, with his mother, Yvette, and her parents.
Taffer’s grandfather was an entrepreneur named Saul Suslock. Born in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrants, Suslock was given a printing press when he was 15 years old. That gave him an idea: For a slight fee to merchants, he began to print advertising flyers and insert them into the papers his parents sold on their newspaper stand. In time, he added more stands, and then hired kids from a boys’ club to leave circulars under doors in apartment buildings in Brooklyn, in the process essentially pioneering direct mail.
Eventually, Suslock’s marketing firm was bought out by a Park Avenue advertising agency. There, according to Taffer, his grandfather had a hand in creating such memorable ad campaigns as “Eastern, the wings of man” and Volvo’s “Seventy percent of Volvo owners are college graduates; the other 30 percent are just damn smart.” (Suslock is also credited with helping to popularize the first wetting baby doll, the Betsy Wetsy.) Frequently, young Taffer would go to New York to visit his grandpa at the office. It inspired him.
“I was surrounded by these overachievers,” he says. “I wanted to be the same.”
Taffer got his first chance at age 8. While attending the then-kosher Camp Winadu in Pittsfield, Mass., he created his first company, Aardvark Enterprises. It was a hospitality outfit, providing back massages and delivering soft drinks to counselors’ bunks. “I’d buy a can of Coke for 10 cents, and I’d sell it to them for 50 cents. And I had eight or 10 kids who worked for me,” Taffer recalls. That summer he made $300; the die was cast.
But then tragedy struck again. When Taffer was nine, his paternal grandfather suffered a fatal heart attack while the two were watching TV news coverage of astronaut John Glenn’s history-making splashdown.
Being around so much death only jumpstarted Taffer’s desire to live. “It scared the shit out of me,” he says. “It made me feel like I was in a hurry. I felt that maybe I didn’t have 20 years to get from point A to point B. I had things to do.”
As he got older, however, his hardships continued. He was a disinterested student, a wayward kid. Worse, his mother’s second husband was violent, he says, and the divorce was ugly. And while his mother’s third husband, Lester Taffer, brought some measure of stability to the household by adopting Jon and giving him his name, Taffer still had to cope with his mother.
Her name was Yvette Suslock, a beautiful, redheaded former model and performer. “My mother was tough, and she could be violent. She was a narcissist, and she would kick your ass,” he says. “I realized that if I didn’t learn how to manipulate my mother, there were bad consequences for me.”
It fell to Taffer to try and figure out what she wanted from him; the answer was to be cute and humorous. He did imitations of Al Jolson and John F. Kennedy -- a boy of 10 years old, performing as a way to keep the peace. “I had to be able to break her dark moods,” he says. “It had powerful consequences on my day if I did not.”
Today, whenever Taffer lectures in one forum or another, he almost always mentions a management term he has trademarked: “reaction management.” The concept speaks to the idea of success being predicated upon one’s ability to read and manage the reactions of others. A restaurant doesn’t deliver a plate of food, for example; it delivers a customer’s reaction to the food. Know how to generate the right reaction, and you’ve won your customer. Taffer, as it turns out, was uniquely suited to flourish in that environment.
“I grew up learning how to manipulate people,” he says. “I guess you could say I learned to make it work.”
Taffer’s jet descends steeply to land at a private airfield in Fallon, Nev., about an hour from Reno. We are met in a pickup truck by a master distiller named Russell Wedlake, who drives us the few miles to the Frey Ranch, located on 1,200 starkly picturesque acres. Here, the ranch grows and malts its own grain and then feeds the by-products to dairy cattle on a nearby ranch. It brings back the manure to fertilize the wheat, rye, barley and corn crops that go into making seven distinct whiskeys.
Taffer owns a percentage of the business, and he’s coming to check on his investment. That doesn’t mean he plans to partake, though. “I grew up in the bar business,” he says. “If I was a pharmacist, I wouldn’t do drugs, either. There has to be one person in the room who is completely sober, who is responsible for everyone else.” Instead, he bought in because working with so many bars showed him a fresh opportunity: The price of small-batch malted whiskey is trending ever upward, as consumers develop a taste and supplies of aged spirits dwindle.
And besides, he says, a large man dwarfed by rows and rows of wooden barrels, “my interests encompass a lot more than just bars.”
It was the bar business, however, that gave Taffer his start. After a short stint in college -- he followed a high school girlfriend to the University of Denver but wasn’t interested in getting a degree -- Taffer struck out for Los Angeles. His plan was to try to make it as a rock drummer. Music had long offered an escape and a release for him; as a teenager, he’d play at home in the basement for six hours at a stretch. It seemed like a good outlet for his ambition. He wanted to give it a shot.
That said, Taffer didn’t go heedlessly. Before moving, he also took a bartending class, figuring that would help him make rent, at least early on. Soon he landed a job as a doorman at the storied Troubadour in West Hollywood, where greats like Elton John, James Taylor and Tom Waits cut their teeth.
It was at the Troubadour that Taffer learned the skills he’d build upon for the rest of his career. After two years at the door, Taffer was promoted to manager -- where he became responsible for what had been a disorganized, poorly run staff. “Employees would raid the refrigerators and take food home every night,” he says. As manager, he had to stop it. “It’s not easy to look a co-worker in the face and say, ‘Hey, you know that steak you’ve been taking home every night for the past six months? Well, you can’t take it home anymore.’ That was a real challenge for me. It was the first time I ever had to say no to people. The Troubadour taught me how to have a spine.”
At the Troubadour, Taffer also learned the importance of walking the walk, he says. “I always dressed differently than the people in the room. I walked with a certain confidence. In a live bar situation, you don’t have time to earn respect. You need to project it.”
Taffer left the Troubadour to manage another L.A. landmark, Barney’s Beanery, a bar and burger joint frequented over the years by Hollywood’s famous and hip. Looking back, his big break came at age 24, when he was recruited by a headhunter for a 26-week management training program run by the East Coast steak-and-seafood chain Beefsteak Charlie’s, and then hired to manage a Fort Lauderdale location.
“At Beefsteak Charlie’s, I learned how to run a business. Before that, I was nothing but a glorified host. Beefsteak Charlie’s taught me corporate structure. It taught me butchering and salad bars. I never realized that when you butcher the side of a cow, your yield is going to be monitored by corporate, so I’d better damn well yield 97 percent of that meat, which means I can’t have a pile of fat when I’m done,” he says. “There was so much paperwork associated with purchasing and requisitioning and receiving and labor management and revenue.”
Then, at 27, he was hired by Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel to be beverage manager. Like a real-life setting for the movie Dirty Dancing, Grossinger’s sprawled across 1,700 acres and had three nine-hole golf courses, a ski mountain with lifts and the first snow-making equipment in America. The staff lived on the premises in hotel rooms. An average of 3,600 people were served at every meal. Taffer eventually became the resident manager, the resort’s highest-ranking nonfamily member. And once again, it was his toughness that served him.
While at Grossinger’s, Taffer was tasked with changing the entire employee culture, and to do it he employed some of the lessons learned at the Troubadour. Like many family-owned destination resorts of its kind, Grossinger’s had a history of providing employees with free use of facilities and cheap perks, like $11-a-week housing and three meals a day. These were costing the company a fortune, Taffer says. It became his job to carry out a very unpopular policy change.
“I was brought in to be a no-man instead of a yes-man,” he says. “The employees started calling me ‘Gus,’ as in gestapo. But I saved the company millions.”
And so a pattern developed in Taffer’s life and career. He was the enforcer. The no-man. The guy who got things done.
In 1983, the same headhunter called again. “He knew I interviewed well, and he always got the commission,” Taffer says, laughing. This time, a controversial developer and contractor named J. Leon Altemose wanted someone to oversee the building and opening of “the largest nightclub in the world.”
Pulsations Nightclub was located in Glen Mills, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia. At 15,000 square feet, it featured 10 levels, 11 bars and 12 VIP hotel rooms. “It cost me $16 million to build. It had a spaceship in it -- 27 feet in diameter, nine feet tall, weighing seven tons -- that flew into the room on an I-beam track and deposited a $400,000 robot on the dance floor,” Taffer says.
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On opening night in 1983, tragedy struck when a 470-pound light fixture fell 40 feet to the dance floor. One woman was killed, and five were seriously injured. “I learned that night that when you have 11 injuries and 14 ambulances answer the call, the television stations are there before the ambulances,” Taffer says. Despite reaching out-of-court settlements with the victims, the club continued to operate for 13 years.
That same year, Taffer moved on to his largest job yet, with a company that managed hotels around the world. One of his major innovations was to bring name-brand restaurants into hotels, making hotel dining into a premium destination experience instead of merely an in-house food service for overnight travelers.
Though he was well-compensated, Taffer became fed up with the slow pace of corporate business. In 1986 he started his own B-to-B consulting company -- and landed his old company as his first client.
Taffer Dynamics works with hospitality companies on everything from branding to marketing to development. It’s like Bar Rescue, but without the cameras, and sometimes for entire chains. “We look at everything,” Taffer says. “The signage on the walls, the staff training books, the language employees use, the promotions they run, the way the stores are set up.” Taffer says the company has contracts with Anheuser-Busch, the National Restaurant Association and Lighthouse Payment Services, “an $18 billion a year credit card processing company.” They’re also overseeing the construction of a major luxury resort in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
Once he’d formed his own business, he never looked back. “The ability to accelerate, the advancement -- you can only get that when you’re self-employed,” he says. “I’m not a patient guy by nature. I want to do shit quick.”
Taffer’s jet is whisper-quiet; the ride southward toward San Diego on a cold day is as smooth as sitting in your living room. Taffer is occupying the owner’s seat on the back right-hand side of the plane, beside a handsome burl console with lots of buttons and controls. I ask about the origins of Bar Rescue. It turns out to be a good question.
In 2009, Taffer says, he had just finished giving a keynote address at the annual Nightclub & Bar Show in Las Vegas. He was sitting in the lounge at Caesars Palace when a member of his audience approached. “He was feeling inspired from what I’d said. And he says, ‘You should be on television!’”
Feeling inspired himself, Taffer went home and wrote a treatment. He came up with a show called On the Rocks. “The original concept was a cross between Hell’s Kitchen and Mission: Impossible,” he says, describing something not very different from Bar Rescue. Hoping to move forward quickly, Taffer called a friend of his, a former head of Paramount Television, for guidance.
The two met in L.A. The TV guy eyeballed the treatment. Then he eyeballed Taffer, who was 55 at the time.
“You will never fucking be on television,” the TV guy said. “You’re too old. You’re not handsome. You’re wasting your time.”
Of course, that was just the kind of call to action that spurred Taffer onward. “There’s nothing I love more than hearing someone tell me no,” he says.
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He went out and set more meetings, met more resistance. But when another producer told him he was too old and ugly, Taffer was prepared. He pulled out a photo of his wife, Nicole, beautiful and 20 years his junior. That did it. They were in business.
Over the past six seasons, Taffer and his traveling team of experts -- including Nicole, his resident drink and food consultants and a 57-person production crew -- have rescued more than 150 failing drinks establishments, at a success rate of some 70 percent, according to BarRescueUpdates.com, an independent website.
The show’s mix of insider knowledge, accident-waiting-to-happen format, and often happy endings has made it a hit with viewers. Taffer says Bar Rescue constitutes 16 percent of Spike TV’s entire program load, including regular Sunday marathons, watched by an average of four million people.
But Taffer has even greater ambitions in mind. He’s positioned himself as a business commentator on TV news shows, a social liberal who is a champion of Trump’s conservative economic approach. He’s also working with Dr. Phil on a syndicated daytime show called Face the Truth, due out this year, and he has a pilot deal with Spike TV for a late-night talk show set in Las Vegas, where he currently resides.
Taffer believes his kind of voice is what’s lacking on business television. In his experience, most of the commentators he sees “are journalists. They’re lawyers. They’re analysts. I’m not sure if any of them have owned an actual business. They’re not businesspeople. They don’t speak from the point of business.”
And they haven’t seen failure like he’s seen failure. Over the past six seasons, as he’s crisscrossed the country doing Bar Rescue, he’s had a unique opportunity to see the American economy from the ground. “I’ve spent a week in Youngstown, Ohio. I’ve seen what an empty downtown looks like. I’ve seen what 41,000 vacant residences look like. I’ve seen it in Cleveland. I’ve seen it throughout the Rust Belt. I’ve driven into Des Moines and seen what’s happened to Main Street, U.S.A.,” Taffer says.
“When I see an empty store, I see what was once a family business. And it bothers me. And I am an advocate of small business. The ultimate freedom is to own a business. The ultimate growth is to create something. And without people creating businesses and creating products, we don’t create a future.”
It’s not just about scaring entrepreneurs straight, in other words. He wants to provide support. If he can help small business owners work smart, and overcome their own failings, and believe in themselves, and shake off the naysayers, all the better. After all, Taffer is no stranger to naysayers himself, he says. And as the plane dips, he breaks into a wide grin, his piano key veneers fully aglow in the dramatic, smoke-tinged orange afternoon sunlight.
“My teachers were always saying that I’d never amount to anything,” he says. “I always wonder: Where are those schmucks today?”