Look, we’re all sports fans here. Yet no matter how much you support the team, no matter how many throw-back jerseys you own, and no matter how many miles you drove to attend this year’s Bowl in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, we all need a break from sports sometimes.
Often that break involves TV, and for many of us, our regular TV viewing has come to include SpikeTV’s smash-hit reality show “Bar Rescue.”
If you’re reading this Q&A you probably know plenty about this truly spectacular television experience, but for those who don’t, the concept is simple: Basically, the show’s host Jon Taffer (a renowned bar consultant) has just a few days to go into some of America’s worst bars and restaurants (we’re talking real, real crap holes here) and “rescue” them. Rescue them from themselves, and in all likelihood, rescue them from foreclosure.
Think of the show as “Hell’s Kitchen” meets “Scared Straight;” basically, if Taffer can’t help these people, no one can. And if they can’t be helped, ultimately their businesses – not to mention livelihoods – fail.
Yet while the show strikes a chord with just about everyone who has ever worked in the service industry, what makes it a truly unique viewing experience is Taffer himself.
To break it down as simply as I can, Taffer is like that stern parent that we all despised as a kid, but who we’ve grown to appreciate as an adult. The dude is a no non-sense, straight to the point kind of guy, and isn’t afraid to tell some of the folks he’s trying to “help” exactly how he feels about them.
Of course often times “how he feels” involves curse words and threats of bodily harm, yet much like that stern parent, when he makes those threats, he’s actually doing it from a place of sincerity. Watch any episode of “Bar Rescue” and two minutes after the owner is trying to get in a fist-fight with Taffer, they find themselves in Taffer’s arms, bawling their eyes out and thanking him.
Simply put, there hasn’t been a bar or restaurant featured on “Bar Rescue” that hasn’t been better because of the tough love Taffer has brought to it.
And it’s because of all those dynamics that I’ve grown to love Jon Taffer and his show.  Which is why, when I was given the opportunity to interview him just a few days before Christmas, I took full advantage.
Taffer spoke to about the success of “Bar Rescue,” his new book “Raise the Bar'” and how he was one of the consultants who helped create NFL Sunday Ticket (no, I am not making that up).
Before “€˜Bar Rescue” began you had a number of different business ventures and management opportunities. How exactly did you get into the bar consulting business specifically?
You know it’s funny. Like everything in life, one thing led to another. I actually went to college for political science…
Wait, political science, really? What were you hoping to do with that degree?
You know, I was planning to go into politics. I was hoping to changes people’s lives. I guess in the process I did change a few bar’s lives. I had aspirations to change the world. I wanted to really make a difference. Then I started tending bar in college and really fell in love with the industry. I’ve been in love ever since.
Interesting. I would’ve never guessed.
But to answer your question directly, in the mid-1980’s I was Vice President of a hotel company and running about 20 hotels. At the time tax codes changed and suddenly hotels had to become profitable in food and beverage; previously it had been a tax write-off.
I was really good at bars and restaurants and created a consulting company in 1986 to teach mostly the hotel industry how to run profitable bars and restaurants. And that’s how it all started.
I started owning my own bars and restaurants in 1989 and ’90. Then in the early ’90’s I started owning a whole bunch of bars and it really took off for me.
The consulting really took off in the mid-1980’s?
My consulting was wide-ranging – let me make it a little sports-related for you: I’m not the inventor, but actually the creator of NFL Sunday Ticket.
In the mid-1990’s I received a phone call from a company called ComSat; at the time I had won a whole bunch of “Sports Bar of the Year” awards and I had just started bringing my consulting to corporations, not just bars and restaurants.
Well they asked me to do something called “Out of Market Sports Programming,” and they wanted to see if they could sell, say a Dallas Cowboys game in somewhere like, Miami. So they reached out to me and wanted to know a few things:
1. Would bars buy this?
2. What would they pay for it, or could they even afford to pay for it?
3. How would they promote it?
4. And finally is this a viable investment?
So they paid me and I wrote a whole market analysis on how many bars there are, what I believed they could afford to pay for it, what I thought the model would look like.
They liked my work and hired me a second time and said, ‘€˜Jon, tell us what the programming and promotions would look like? What would they need to promote this and make money off this?’
So I then re-assembled a whole new marketing plan of ad-slicks, promotions and what it would take to promote Sunday Ticket. Again, it was called ‘Out of Market Sports Programming.’
This is incredible. How did I not know this?
Then they came back to me a third time – this is ComSat – and said, ‘Jon, who would you sell it to?’ Show me the marketing universe, all the chains, all the people who’d buy it.’ So I made another document.
They then went to the NFL, showed my work to the NFL to acquire the rights. The NFL said ‘€˜Wow, this is really great. Let’s do it ourselves.’ So they then put me on the advisory board of NFL Enterprises and worked for the NFL for two years, helping to create what is now Sunday Ticket.
So this was the Paul Tagliabue era at the time?
Yes, it was. So we rolled it out just to the bar industry; when Sunday Ticket started it was a commercial license, only bars could get it. Then the DirecTV deal was done a few years down the road, either in year three or four, which was when we started doing the consumer licensing.
I won’t say I invented Sunday Ticket, because the idea pre-dated me. But I did create what it is today. That was my involvement as a sports bar owner. And my point is, as a consultant, my work started to get really broad.
Wow, a very diverse career that obviously ultimately led to “Bar Rescue.” So what was the idea behind that? Did SpikeTV come to you, did you go to them? What was the process there?
Oddly, I was actually a speaker in my industry for a lot of years. I’m pretty darn good at it, and one day someone came up to me and said ‘Jon, you’ve got to be on TV!’ And I put together a three-minute sizzle-reel for the concept of a TV show which originally had a different name. The sizzle-reel was at a friend’s bar; I walked in, screamed and yelled at his employees and that was pretty much it.
Then I – as a nobody in Hollywood – pitched the reel to five different places, and I’m shocked to say that I got three offers, from three different companies. I picked ‘3 Ball Productions,’ signed with 3 Ball and after signing with them, they sold it to SpikeTV in about a week.
So from the time I came up with the idea, to the time we were actually on TV was only about a year, which is actually a really fast turnaround. I feel like I was very lucky, I think my timing was right.
You mention the blow-ups, and as a fan of the show, I think the reason the show “works” is because it’s so relatable. We’ve all worked in the bar industry, all worked in a restaurant, and we’ve all worked for the boss that we either don’t trust or didn’t like. To you, is that why the show works? Because it is so relatable?
I think you’re exactly right. The bar industry is funny – we’ve all either hung out at one, fantasized about owning one, or it just intrigues us. It’s a very sexy business, very social. I can’t believe that all of us in our college days didn’t dream of owning a bar.
I also think the other thing that makes ‘Bar Rescue’ so successful is that there are other business transformation elements as well. I work really hard in ‘Bar Rescue’ not only to tell you what I did, but why I did it. And I’m sure you would agree with this: There’s an intelligence to “Bar Rescue” facts data presented.
The essence is that everybody is intrigued by the bar business, but I’m also going to give you something each week, if not two or three things that make you say, ‘Oh, that’s cool!’ And if you love the business, you want to learn about it, and learning is a big part of ‘Bar Rescue.’
When did you realize you were onto something big? When did you realize that this isn’t just a show that is out there on television, but that it’s something that’s actually reaching people?
About a year ago I was in an Atlanta airport, and it was 6 a.m., between two flights, and I was waiting at the local Burger King counter for them to call my order.
A young 23-year-old kid came up to me and said, ‘Hey are you Jon Taffer?’ And I of course said ‘Yes.’ Well he goes, ‘I’ve got to tell you, you changed my life. Six months ago I was a dishwasher, and you inspired me. Now I’m an assistant manager.’
I teared up and he teared up, and at that point I realized that this was more than a TV show and I’m actually inspiring people.
And thankfully, that happens to me more and more now. I get about 50 e-mails a month, some saying ‘Jon, I listened to what you said,’ and others from people who own a whole other business but did what I suggested.
It’s very flattering, and makes me fight that much harder the next time, to tell you the truth.
You talk about how your show touches other industries, which means that it only seems appropriate that we now discuss your book, ‘Raise the Bar.’ There is a whole chapter where you talk about evaluating employees for your businesses, and I found there to be a sports parallel there too. For you, it isn’t just about bringing in the most talented or experienced workers – “veterans” in sports – but about how personalities mix and match. Care to expand?
Absolutely. We’ve all seen players with moderate talent show incredible heart, and a strange athlete comes to mind when I say that: Think about the movie ‘Seabiscuit.’
There was a line in that movie that got me, and it also could’ve been used to discuss a baseball or football player. There is a scene where they describe the horse by saying ‘It wasn’t his legs. It’s his heart.’ It was a really powerful line. And how many days does a great athlete have that are better than his or her ‘normal’ days?
Of course you can reverse it. How many guys have great skills, great power, but without heart?
So really to go back, those are the greatest moments in sports: When somebody overachieves, and that’s what sports is all about. So is business. It’s a pretty good analogy.
I assume that was the reason behind the book, ‘Raise the Bar’ correct? To touch and reach more people?
I wrote the book in about 60 days, and I did it the way I do seminars. I didn’t want to change what people do, I wanted to change the way they think. And if I can change the way they think, I can’t help but change what they do.
So the book is about picking apart businesses, but picking apart ourselves as people too and trying to inspire people to think a little differently and hold themselves accountable. And I think if I can change their thinking just a little bit, I can change their lives a lot.
There’s got to a sports parallel there.
Sure, how about ‘Moneyball?’ It was all about changing the way people thought about acquiring baseball talent. If we don’t think out of the box, none of that stuff is going to happen.
Alright, the only other thing I would add is that I’ve heard you’re working on both a second book and second TV show? Care to expand on that?
Yes, we’re working on both.
My new show is called ‘The Hungry Investors’ also on SpikeTV, and we start shooting in February. I travel around the country with some partners, looking for restaurants to invest in. And I really put my own money into them.
It’s kind of a cross between ‘Bar Rescue,’ ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ and ‘Shark Tank.’ I’m really excited about it; it allows me to talk restaurants and business in general, investments, returns stuff like that.
And my new book, we’re just picking out a name for it, and it should be out in the fall.
Jon Taffer, thank you for the time.
Thank you!
Aaron Torres is a show writer for Fox Sports Live and a contributor to Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.