Great Neck, NY native Jon Taffer wears many hats. He is an entrepreneur, former nightclub & bar owner, operator & consultant, television personality, founder and owner of his own media company, and author. He is best known as host and executive producer of the documentary-style series Bar Rescue.
Within the greater nightclub, bar and restaurant industry, there is no greater authority than Jon Taffer. With over three decades of hands-on experience, Taffer is a two-time winner of the Bar Operator of the Year award, among myriad of other honors, and his renowned method of management, “Taffer Dynamics”, has become the gold standard of the industry. As chairman of Taffer Dynamics and President of Taffer Media, Inc., Taffer is a highly respected industry expert, management guru and television star as well.
In the summer of 2011, Spike TV (now Paramount Network) debuted Bar Rescue, a documentary-style series spotlighting Taffer as he gives struggling restaurants and bars a last chance to succeed. Focusing on one establishment each week, the series puts Taffer at the heart of the storm: helping to improve every facet of an American restaurant or bar–from theming to staffing, pricing to promotions, menus to music. If there’s anyone who can save it from going belly-up, it’s Jon Taffer.
This month, Taffer brings his decades of industry knowledge to book shelves with: Don’t Bullsh*t Yourself: Crush the Excuses That Are Holding You Back (Portfolio Books). Taffer shows his readers how to take ownership of real issues and address them in a straightforward way.
Taffer is one of only six inductees into the Nightclub Hall of Fame, and also holds such distinctions as “Pub Master” in the United Kingdom with multiple honors as “Operator of the Year” and winner of “Property of the Year”. He was also recognized as “a major leaguer” in Inc. Magazine’s feature, “Angels of the Night”.
Total Food Service had the opportunity to share Taffer’s thoughts on how to succeed in today’s highly competitive marketplace.
How did you get into the industry?
I’m a New York guy who was focused on my music as a drummer in a live band, and was working at a live music venue. Before too long I traded music for management and in my early twenties, I was managing The Troubadour in West Hollywood. That turned into a publishing career running Nightclub & Bar Magazine and its annual Nightclub & Bar Convention and Trade Show.
After 155 episodes, what’s your read on the bars that you go to fix?
When I started Bar Rescue, I said to the network, “Listen guys. I don’t want to be set up with bars that are easy. If I’m going to do this, I want to get the worst disasters in America. Find me stuff that I can’t do easily, give me challenges.” And son of a gun, that’s what they’re doing. I NEVER realized they could be this bad, to be honest with you. You typically don’t see depths of failure that bad in normal life. These people are disasters.
OK, come clean Jon, do the bars know that you are coming?
This really gets me. I’ve done 155 episodes of Bar Rescue. In almost all the rescues I’ve done… they think I’m going to go to one of three bars in the neighborhood. So, they’re not sure I’m walking through the door, but they’re pretty certain I will. You’d think after watching 20 or so episodes of Bar Rescue, they’d CLEAN UP before I come because they know I’m going to go ballistic! And they STILL don’t clean up. I’ve found that it speaks to why they’re failing. Even when you know I’m coming, you still can’t get it together!
Sometimes it’s laziness. Sometimes it’s ego. A lot of the guys think, “I’m the guy Taffer’s going to love. He’s not going to scream at me. He’s going to love everything I do.” A lot of them are surprised to find the opposite. You’d be stunned to find how many people say to my producers and such, “Oh, he’s not going to scream at me. Everything is going to be perfect.” And then I walk into an incredible– excuse my language–shithole. It’s just remarkable. And it happens all the time.
Does it still surprise you how these business owners you are trying to help react to you?
It astonishes me to tell you the truth. Think about it: For some of these people, they’re $900,000 in debt. They’ve lost their homes; their lives are on the line. They can’t afford to buy me lunch, much less pay me a fee for being there! So I show up with a checkbook and 30 years of experience. You think they’d be thanking the heavens. It doesn’t happen that way.
I’ve never gotten over the NFLPA seminar opening a bar that we attended in NYC. We watched 300+ lbs. lineman learning the ins and outs of stealing.
You know they wouldn’t play football without understanding the rules of the game. Same thing with the bar business. You know they should understand the rules of the game before they get in it. These guys like anybody else getting into this business needs to know what they are getting into. There are three or four ways that the staff steals. One of the most obvious is to over pour but you know anytime they flip that bottle over its four counts. One two three four. You can see that 100 feet away. So, it’s very easy to watch and count when your bartenders are pouring and spot check.
Bartenders, most commonly either give drinks away or simply don’t ring them up. We teach our clients how to get a real feel for average costs. The third thing that they do is and this is really sneaky as they ring up no sale and then drop five dollars in a drawer. Now the register owes them five dollars. So, they count out ten singles from their tip jar. Go to the register pull out two 20s and drop the singles in the register. Put the two 20s in a paper cup and you think they just got singles. But they pulled thirty dollars out of the drawer. So, we teach that tip cups should never be within reach of the cash register.
With the opportunity to have seen hundreds of bars through your career, what is Taffer’s 101 in bar design?
It’s all about flow. A great bar simply has no dead ends because people don’t go to the bar, they flow through. They may linger but they are still passing through. Let’s pretend there’s an attractive man or woman at the end of a bar. It needs to be designed so that you can walk by and keep going otherwise you look like an idiot. So, my suggestion is almost always a circular pattern.
The next design issue is to get the elevations right. I have to get you looking in other people’s eyes and interacting. At an elevated area, you should put people on bar stools, so everybody’s eyes are within 10 inches of each other. That’s how you maximize interaction in a bar.
You then need to work with 42” high stools and make sure that the elevation matches up. Most importantly stay away from low tables.
It’s also essential to decide what the focal point is going to be in the room. It shouldn’t be a bright light on top of the POS station or a bad wall or an ugly piece of art. The brightest thing in a room should be a beautiful Wicker display or an open display kitchen something that merchandises and creates appeal with lighting as a key.
What role does food play on a bar menu?
It is absolutely crucial. Think about it: 10 minutes to look at the menu and order with their first drink. Then another 20 to get the food with a second drink. Then another 20 minutes to eat with another drink. I try to get my clients to understand that selling food is selling drinks.
What advice do you have for food costs?
Food costs should be budgeted at 28 percent with a cap of 30 percent. The key to accomplishing that is to learn how to design the actual graphics of the printed menu. You need to properly engineer the food menu by putting a bold box around each of the highest profit food items.
We have found in our 155 episodes that sales of each of the items that have been boxed can outperform other items on the menu by 20 percent.
We also teach our operators to get the top selling ad margin items on the top of the menu. We have actually been able to change what people order in your restaurant by reengineering the menu by getting rid of a shadow and replacing it with a box around an item.
Should the beer wine and spirits menu and the food menu be on the same menu or should it be two separate printed pieces?
I always find that it’s two separate pieces like the menus we just created for the Famous Dave’s beverage program. When we went to observe, we could see that they would just automatically drop a regular menu on each table when they seated customers. They knew how to expedite food, so barbecue was flying out of the kitchen before they ever had a chance to sell a first round of drinks. We fixed it by creating the right beverage and food menus and supporting it with a Table tent/Point of sale marketing program that got them an order for a second drink before they ever got a food menu.
Now they’re thinking about beverages a minute or two later the server hits the table takes the beverage order and then hands them the food menu. You can clearly see when people are handed a menu with both food and drinks they land on the food first and the beverage becomes secondary. So, our beverage sales went up by 72 percent by changing the service sequence in their restaurants.
I’ve heard you talk about the impact of pricing on eliminating stealing in a bar operation.
Very simple. We suggest that our clients price beverages with 25 at the end of it. $2.25, $5.25, $10.25 because it creates an automatic 75 cents of change and an easy tip for the customer to leave the bartender. We see it over and over again. That’s really powerful it’s a big deal when you start thinking about 40 hours a week and multiple bar staff.
We’ve even seen this approach help us to manage shifts correctly. It’s all part of our on-going strategy of putting the people who work for you in a position to succeed and that restaurant problems are solved with revenue.
Wait a minute Jon, what about focusing on cutting costs?
At the risk of oversimplifying, we all have labor cost issues, high rent and marketing expenses that are too high. I’m pretty sure your utilities are too high as well. Obviously, food and beverages are a floating percentage and they go up and down with revenues. But what I want you to focus on is increasing revenues because the reality is you have far more control over that than you do over your expenses.
So what do you suggest for growing revenues?
The key in growing revenues is to find things that you can control. It starts with understanding how to keep clean tables turning. That’s controllable by making sure that you have a cooking line that is fully functioning so that food comes out quickly. We teach management how to keep an eye on making sure that the training we are doing is minimizing ticket times and then supporting that with the little things that all add up including everybody is clean and in the right uniform, lighting is set correctly and that we have a handle on inventory and ordering.
I think it is also a key in growing revenues that you focus on a new marketing program by finding a promotional partner who can help fill your restaurant. That requires the ability to develop the discipline to work outside of your business rather than in it all the time.
For a long time all you heard about was liquor liability being a priority. I don’t seem to hear about it the way I used to hear about it.
It’s still an issue and it will always be one. Certainly, there are a number of programs within the industry including the National Restaurant Associations, and ServSafe service program that have done a great job of educating. But the real change is the public awareness today that didn’t exist 15 or 20 years ago. Today people know that getting in your car drunk is just completely socially unacceptable. 15 years ago, it wasn’t perceived as it is today. If you get in the car today and are drunk you’re an asshole. Even if you get home safe you know you’re an asshole. I’ll never ever forget years ago when breathalyzers came on the market. We put one in a bar and all it did was tell people that they could keep drinking.
So if it’s not still liquor liability than what are the challenges that you see for the operator?
The biggest challenges that we face today are more legislative and regulatory. I know that you’re in New York State and I have already seen the impact of a $15 minimum wage and the elimination of the tip credit in Seattle. Bottom line is that it doubles the labor costs for service personnel.
So, the challenge is how restaurants deal with it. For many to survive, it will require limiting service because they have to eliminate employees.
Others will turn to technology including the installation of kiosk ordering systems to reduce labor costs.
As I try to stay ahead of this, I see positive economic indicators with unemployment the lowest it’s been in quite a while. The tax reductions are really giving us an opportunity for revenue to grow. But I am concerned that employees are not as readily available to our industry. So, the labor pool is tightening.
Please give us a read on the tremendous growth in craft cocktails over the last few years. Is it a fad or here to stay?
A lot of it is driven by what I’m going to call individual relevancy. You know today people need to be cool. The introduction of social media has enabled people to get instant relevance. You know I post a picture of myself with this really cool bottle of beer in my hand and suddenly I’m relevant. And a hundred-people liked the picture and share comments. Wow, I want to drink that beer. What’s crazy is that it could be the worst beer in the freaking world. So, reviews and taste tests go out the window. If it makes them feel cool they buy it.
At the same time products emerge and stay hot because you have so many guests looking to make that relevancy statement. Again, what drives me crazy is that often best-selling and highest quality are not the same thing.
What’s your view on the impact that the legalization of marijuana will have on bars and restaurants?
I’ve studied both of these extensively to get a sense of the overall impact. The next scenario to keep an eye on is Nevada. Their law is to permit consumption in a public environment so that’s going to bring cannabis into bars and coffee shops. I believe that cannabis is going to have a negative impact on us in the bar business because cannabis is usually consumed while sitting on your couch. You don’t consume a bunch of cannabis and go out for the night. It tends to turn people into couch potatoes. So, it’s really home delivery that will see the most benefit. I’m convinced it’s one of the reasons that Uber got into the food delivery business.
There’s great anticipation over the release of your book later this month: “Don’t Bullsh*t Yourself” Quite a title!
So for 30 plus years I’ve been in and around many businesses. I keep seeing many of the same characteristics of those that succeed. After 155 bar rescues I’ve seen more failure than anyone. There’s a depth of failure that I’ve experienced with Bar Rescue that I think makes me one of the leading experts in America. I’ve seen people living in their parent’s basement and being in debt for a half a million dollars.
My book shares a common denominator of failure and its excuses. Listen carefully, it’s so simple. If a bar owner or a restaurant owner wakes up in the morning and blames their failure on the president or Congress or immigration or anything they have no reason to change. It’s somebody else’s fault. Yet during the worst of the recession somebody made money. During a snowstorm somebody is making money. So, if somebody is making money in any situation why not you.
My goal in the book was to talk to some of the leading “Bullshit Busters.” People have simply overcome unbelievable odds to survive and succeed.
To learn more about Jon Taffer, Bar Rescue, Don’t Bullsh*t Yourself, and more, visit Jon’s website.