Think opening a bar would be fun? Jon Taffer would like you to know that you’re being an idiot. Taffer is the host of Spike’s Bar Rescue—a show in which the bullish Taffer coaxes, charms, illuminates, pleads with, shouts at, and intimidates failing bar owners—often as inept as they are unwilling to change—until they mend their ways. To mark the launch of the man’s latest venture, Taffer TV, in which experts offer subscribers in-depth video tutorials on the bar business, we called Taffer in Vegas for some tips on persuading the seemingly un-persuadable. (Ideally without getting punched in the face in the process.) —As told to Joe Keohane
My parents were absolute 100 percent New Yorkers, and my mother in particular was a difficult woman. She had demands, and things had to be exactly the way she wanted them. If she was in a bad mood, or if I looked at her in a way that wasn’t… advantageous for me at that moment, there were consequences. What I started to do was get familiar with body language and facial expressions. If my mother or somebody around me was drifting to a place that I didn’t want them to be in, I started to learn to reel them back, whether it be with humor or anything else. I learned at a very young age that by manipulating the moods of my mother, and the people around me, I could change my life.
I have never attended a management seminar. I have never read a business book in my life, other than one or two. What I have read are books on body language, and human resources, and understanding personalities. When I went to college, I studied behavior in primates. And we’re not so different from them!
In Bar Rescue, I have five days to turn these places around. In real life I have between forty-five and sixty days. So I have to move fast. The first thing I’ll do is feel out the owners’ buttons. Their pride. If I start to attack their pride—This place is a mess, it sucks—do they stand up like a gorilla, pound their chests, and say, I’m better than this? Does that motivate them to change? Unfortunately, in many situations it doesn’t.
So I switch to fear. What happens when the place closes, what happens when you go broke, what happens when you’re bankrupt? I try to scare the shit out of them. Often I’ll mention the children. Is this the way you want your children to live, are you gonna have the money to send your kid to college? And hope that triggers them to think, Wow, maybe I’m wrongMaybe I need to change things. Because I have to get them to that state of mind.
The third one, and the one unfortunately I use the most, is confrontation. When there’s no choice, I go at them like a classic drill sergeant, and I break them down. I beat and I beat and I beat and I beat on them, until one moment comes when they doubt themselves, and suddenly they say, Wow, you might be right. Wow, I might be wrong. And in that fleeting moment, their brains open a crack, and I walk in.
But here’s where people blow it. You can’t break someone down if you don’t build them up again. In every situation, once I break them down and their minds are open, now they have to realize that there’s benefit in change. Moment to moment they need that pat on that back, they need that encouragement, they need the words from the person who taught them they’re wrong that now they’re right. And when I leave they have to be completely rebuilt and confident, so they can move forward.
There’s nothing worse than not believing in your own boss. That’s the worst of all.
Nobody has ever swung at me. I’ve been pushed, but I’ve never been hit. I am a bit intimidating, but the real trick to not getting swung at—and this is thirty years of bar experience speaking—is you stand so close to the guy that he doesn’t have the room to swing. He can’t wind up. And you notice whenever I get into those heated moments in the show, I’m literally four inches from their faces, my body is up against theirs. They can’t hit me in the stomach, they can’t reach up to hit me in the face. I’m almost, by the very nature of how I stand, defending myself.
A lot of what I do is very deliberate, not emotional, even though it seems emotional. I mean, there are times I get pissed, but nine out of ten times I’m contriving it. Sometimes, after I get them to agree, when I walk out of the room I might wink at or smile at the first person I see, so they realize I’m not angry. I’m doing my thing. The person I was talking to thinks I was angry, and that’s all that matters.
The bar and restaurant industry has about a 100 percent turnover rate. My company, when I had seventeen restaurants and almost a thousand employees, had a turnover rate of under 30 percent. I don’t turn people over. If you screw up, I will tell you, man, but if you prove to me two things—that you’re honest and you care, and that you’re really trying—nobody has your back better than me. I will invest everything I have in you, as long as you show me it’s worth it. But the minute you show me it’s not, man, I will chew you up.
Read more: Jon Taffer On Difficult People – Bar Rescue’s Jon Taffer – Esquire
Visit us at