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‘This is why I’m so aggressive’ – John Taffer of ‘Bar Rescue’

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Debbie Flynn (L) kisses Nightclub & Bar Media Group President and host of the Spike television show "Bar Rescue" Jon Taffer as he signs a copy of his book "Raise the Bar" Debbie Flynn (L) kisses Nightclub & Bar Media Group President and host of the Spike television show "Bar Rescue" Jon Taffer as he signs a copy of his book "Raise the Bar" (Getty Images North America/ Ethan Miller)

On Spike TV’s “Bar Rescue,” world-renowned bar and nightlife expert John Taffer wields more than 30 years of industry experience to give failing bars one last shot at success. Taffer and his team perform surveillance on struggling establishments, identify problems and attempt to work with owners and staff to turn the business around.

Alas, as the following Q&A illustrates, not everyone is receptive to his rescue plan. The fifth season of “Bar Rescue” can be seen Sundays at 10 p.m. on Spike TV.

TME: Could you give us a preview of what we’ll see during the fifth season of “Bar Rescue”?

Taffer: There is one episode this season that I have to walk out on. I’ve only done that twice in 139 episodes. Imagine my frustration level because that’s the last thing I want to do. I see that almost as a personal failure. I’m telling you Mike, it will be tough for you to watch but it was tougher for me to live.

TME: I’m guessing that the show is bombarded with SOS messages from bars around the country in danger of going under. What are some of the most common reasons why they’re barely hanging on?

Taffer: The show has become so popular we have thousands of bars signing up to be on “Bar Rescue.” I never knew this depth of failure even existed. The degree to which these people can mess up their lives and their businesses is just remarkable to me. For some of these people, their houses are on the line and they haven’t changed their behavior at all. Sometimes it’s alcohol issues, women issues – sex, drugs and rock and roll. If you have a drug problem, you wouldn’t own a pharmacy, right? If you have a drinking problem, you probably shouldn’t own a bar. In some cases, it isn’t that. It’s just an owner who’s too social. And he hangs out with his friends and runs the place like a party or a basement bar rather than a business.

TME: Sparks fly on “Bar Rescue” and a lot of people watch the show for that drama. Is any of it planned or scripted in advance to stir the pot?

Taffer: No. And I want to be clear, Mike. I say this on my mother’s grave. There is nothing on “Bar Rescue” that is scripted. There are no actors. I’ve never seen these bars before. After recon - which you see me do on camera - we turn the cameras off and put the employees in white vans in the parking lot and I go in and redesign the bar that night. The next day I train the staff and we remodel for 36 hours. I only get to spend 12 to 15 hours with that owner. There’s a time crunch and if I can’t change the dynamic and the way he’s acting, I’m going to fail. This is why I’m so aggressive. If that owner doesn’t get on the bus now, I’m going to run him over.

TME: When you walk into a bar, can you tell immediately if the place is doing well?

Taffer: I can tell from the parking lot outside. I can tell what the kitchen is going to look like from the parking lot. There is so much to tell from the outside with regard to the attention to detail. From the paint to the door to the way it’s set up. Once I walk in, it typically takes about four seconds and three steps and I know everything. There are certain places the eyes go and certain smells that tell me everything I need to know.

TME: How do you deal with a bar that habitually overserves?

Taffer: That’s a real problem and that’s where I go the most crazy. I lose my temper the most over two things: overserving guests or serving food from a dirty kitchen. More than a business responsibility, that’s a human responsibility. To not get you sick and not get you drunk. Those are the angriest moments that I have on the show.

TME: You developed an app called “BarHQ” for bar operators. How does it work?

Taffer: It’s free to bar owners and we have 73,000 bars that use it. It does their schedules for them and tracks their revenues. It does promotions and social media management. It’s a really cool app that I created two years ago, really to give back to the bar industry.

TME: You are so well-known at this point, is it possible for you to go out for a drink with your wife and remain anonymous?

Taffer: (Laughing) We went to a punk rock bar a few weeks ago and we dressed the part. The place was filled with punk rock people and I was trying to be incognito but they still recognized me. It was great. When you’re recognized, they either love you or hate you. I would say it goes well about 90 percent of the time. 

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