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?
Squid Ink: How long have you been working in the bar and restaurant industry?
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.
JT: Yes. For example, working for a very high end 5-star restaurant company or working for a sports bar like this. Here I give you a coupon to come in for a free appetizer. There, I'd give you an invitation for a chef's tasting for appetizers. It's the same damn thing. It's just a different presentation. At the end of the day, I have to get people through the door. Doesn't matter if it's 5-star, 4-star, or fast food. There's other sciences even in that. If I give you 20% off something, then that mathematically equals $4 for some things. If I give $2 off, that's twice the redemption, because people react more to dollar amounts then they do to percents.
SI: How do you know all this? How did you find out these statistics?
JT: Well, I've been doing it for 30 years. I work for a database and we've tracked everything we've done for over 35 years. But you know, we study the sciences. For example, Ryan wakes up in the morning and says, 'I want to sell more prime rib than anybody in LA.' You call the restaurant, and they say, 'Best prime rib in L.A.!' You walk in, and they say, “Here for the prime rib? It's the best in L.A.!' You walk to the table, the waitress says 'Have the prime rib, it's unbelievable.' Open the menu, at the top in a box is…
SI: Prime rib.
JT: I raise their sales overnight, just because I want to. And restaurants don't do that. They create a free for all. And a free for all often isn't fun for you. Who wants a five to six page menu? It's tedious work to figure out not only what you want, but maybe what you should have. You want to order what we're good at. So how do I make you more comfortable? That's their baby, make it center stage. I make the menu more enjoyable by steering you.
SI: If you were to break down your top biggest mistakes that restaurants make, what would they be?
JT: Well a) not understanding that we're not in a business of producing products. We're producing reactions. Products are vehicles, as I said. Don't manage it from the kitchen. Manage it from the office. I manage business by the look on your face. I need to watch every plate at every table or I can't sleep at night. If I don't interact with you when you walk in the door I can't sleep at night. If your feet aren't tapping while the music is playing, forget the dance floor, that's a whole separate matter. I have to know these things, and that is my business.
We teach employees three things: personal dynamics, how to present your personal self. When customers walk in, let your personality shine. We teach people to be personally dynamic, not the uniform. We hate the word uniform in every way, shape, and form.
Next is the concept of mechanical dynamics. It's one of the most important sciences above business. For example, go to a fine steak house, pick something everybody wants, lights are low, waiters walk slow. Go to Denny's, waiters walk fast. Waiters walk fast, and that steak isn't worth $60. Turn the lights up high and the steak isn't worth $60. That's the science of hospitality. Slow the pace down in a high-energy night-club and that doesn't work anymore. The pace at which people walk, the movement, all the mechanical dynamics of the business drive energy, drive value. It's subliminal.
The last element that we teach is interactive dynamics, which is the science of making you feel special. If my employees do what they're supposed to do, they'll walk in and say wow that's a really cool tie, those are killer shoes. My people are trained to look at what makes you feel good, and then mention it. So what we do is personal dynamics, mechanical dynamics, and interactive dynamics. We build relationships. The most important thing is understanding reactions.
The next element is understanding the difference between teaching and training. In the industry, we use the word training, but we don't train anybody. Training is behavior modification. If people don't look in your eyes when they talk to you, you can't change that. If people don't have energy, or they talk slow, you can't change that. So we don't train anyone. All we do is teach people how to work in our business. So if you accept the fact that I have to create guest reactions, you've got to have the right types of people In your business to do it, which means you've got to get the bad ones out, and the right ones in.
Another element is understanding where we go in this business. Everything is to make money. Your curb appeal, your logo, where you put your liquor bottles, the color of the menu, price point, the unforms, the shadowing, everything is about making money. The best reactions always make the most money.
Bar Rescue premieres on Sunday, July 17th at 10 p.m. on Spike.
Follow Ali Trachta on Twitter @MySo_CalLife.