Dive Bard: Jon Taffer Is America’s Greatest Poet of Drunkenness and Failure
May 28 2014
The first bar I ever loved was a decrepit dive in the Adirondacks called the Boot Scoot. I was eight years old. My dad taught country line dancing there, and being of the white-trash persuasion, we had no babysitter. So I spent each night scarfing pizza and slugging root beers while double-chinned Betties and Berthas blew their paychecks on Budweisers. They taught me how to play billiards. They told dirty jokes. Jacqueline, the cook, made me whatever I wanted for dinner each night. On the dance floor, a conga line of cougars held on to my father’s hips as he shimmied the Texas two-step to the tune of Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart.”
Little did I know, all was not well at the Boot Scoot. The business was failing. The owner, an affable guy named Ron, had bought a Porsche that stuck out in the dirt parking lot like a diamond in a garbage heap. The Porsche, it turned out, was the product of some terrible financial decisions that had begun to affect the bar. The only thing that prevented it from going bankrupt was when, one night that summer, the place mysteriously burned down. It was Ron’s good luck that he could collect on a handsome insurance policy. Meanwhile, my dad was out of a job. “My dancing was the only thing that kept that place alive,” he said after the fire.1 But despite his faith in his own fancy footwork, the Boot Scoot had always been doomed, and its decrepitude and illegality were part of what made it so great. If flames hadn’t devoured it, some other tragedy surely would have.
I’m reminded of the Boot Scoot when I watch the Spike TV reality show Bar Rescue. My white-trash child-self grew up into the kind of person who went to Berkeley, eats hummus, and rarely watches television (I’ve never seen True Detective or Breaking Bad or The Sopranos). Yet I love Bar Rescue and its wildly simplistic premise: The host, Jon Taffer, a bullish “bar expert” and the “sixth member of the Nightclub Hall of Fame” goes into a different failing bar each week and tries to turn the place around. He’s remarkably successful. In all, 55 bars have been rescued in just five days under Taffer’s tutelage. The ten that he’s failed to resuscitate, well, they’ve crashed and burned in glorious fashion. In both cases, the result inspires jubilation.
One balmy Wednesday last December, Taffer stood in the dining room of Scoreboard 2, a boots-and-Budweiser dive in Norwalk, California, 20 miles outside Los Angeles. “I want to start by telling you I don’t give a shit about these cameras!” he said. “Saving bars is my life.” It was the second day of filming, and the show, now in its third season, has at times attracted more viewers than Mad Men. The premise of this episode was that Larry Herrick, a salty old grandpa, had bought his daughter, Michelle, this bar six years ago, and it had accrued $374,000 in debt under her management. Larry, Michelle, her husband, Bryan, and the staff were assembled before Taffer on the sticky concrete floor. The air smelled of yeast. Coors logos on the walls had been redacted with electrical tape, debranded for national broadcasting, and a Jägermeister machine behind the bar sat hooded beneath black cloth. Taffer, who wore a dark power suit with padded shoulders, glowered at the family and staff. Behind him, four video cameras rolled. But Taffer had more important matters on his mind than just television. Scoreboard 2 was losing $3,500 a month, he shouted, and at that rate, they’d have to shut down in two months. Could he save them?
Each episode of Bar Rescue follows a strict format: Taffer spends a workweek at a business. On the first day he sends a friend, unannounced and incognito, to test the food, drinks, and service. (At this point, the owners don’t even know that they’ve been selected for the show.) The night before my arrival, Taffer had sent TV personality Maria Menounos and her partner, Kevin Undergaro, to Scoreboard 2. They ordered a strawberry margarita, a whiskey and cola, and chili cheese fries. Before they could finish their meal, Taffer stormed into the bar followed by his film crew and led an impromptu inspection of the premises. Searching the bar and the kitchen, grunting and sweating in his suit, he found that the strawberry-margarita mix Menounos was drinking had expired a year earlier, that the chili was 20 days old, and that bugs were swimming in the whiskey. “Shut this place down!” Taffer screamed. “Shut! It! Down!”
“Why did you open a bar?” he now asked Michelle. She appears to be a hard 40-years-old and wouldn’t look out of place serving meat loaf from behind a school lunch counter. One of Taffer’s key strategies is to identify the weakest member of the staff and berate and harangue him or her. He would break Michelle down before resurrecting her business.
“I thought it’d be fun,” she said, sighing. Bags hung beneath her eyes; at Taffer’s insistence, the staff had stayed up all night cleaning the filthy kitchen.
“It’s not fun,” Taffer said. “If you like hanging out in bars and drinking and stuff, that’s not a reason to own a bar. That’s like someone with a drug habit opening a pharmacy.”
Taffer then addressed the staff. In addition to Michelle’s father and husband, there were Robert and Corey, both bartenders, and Marisa, a waitress who had been hired three days prior, having no idea her job would include an appearance on national television.
“On a scale from worst to best,” Taffer asked, “how would you rate Michelle?”
“I’d say, um, a four,” Robert said.
“Five,” Corey said.
“I’d say she’s a one,” Taffer said.
Michelle began to cry.
“I will hurt your feelings,” Taffer said, before storming out to take his $200,000 black Mercedes convertible for a spin around town, which he does to relax between takes. “But in five days you’re going to hug me.”
Taffer does not resemble the late Patrick Swayze—his eyes bulge like pinched balloons and his mannerisms call to mind a gorilla—but Swayze was Taffer’s father. Figuratively, I mean. The archetypal bar rescuer is Dalton, Swayze’s murderous-yet-Zen character in the 1989 film Road House. Dalton is the man you pay to clean up bars where “they sweep up eyeballs after closing.” “I want you to be nice,” Dalton tells his staff before smashing a man’s head through a table, “until it’s time to not be nice.”
Taffer’s honesty can be so brutal that it feels like a betrayal. In his own telling, he began his career as a nightlife guru when he was 24, at Barney’s Beanery, a bar down the street from the Troubadour in West Hollywood. He’d recently dropped out of college in Colorado. On his first day at work, the lead bartender pulled him aside and explained, “Jon, we steal here. Each of us takes $100 a night. So if you don’t take your money, the cash registers will be out of whack, and the boss will know something’s up.” Instead of stealing, Taffer told the owner. The entire staff was fired, and Taffer was promoted to head bartender.
In the years since then, he’s built an empire out of good business practices, in an industry where such practices are relatively rare. He came up with the idea for NFL Sunday Ticket, a cable-television package that allows bar owners to broadcast every football game in the country for a single fee. He worked as general manager at a slew of big-dollar clubs like the Whiskey a Go Go in Los Angeles, and he began to buy bars around the country. By the early 1990s, he owned or co-owned 17 different clubs, including Pulsations, outside Philadelphia, where he drew in customers by raffling off free breast implants. (The National Organization for Women picketed.) Other nights, a robot named Pulsar descended from the ceiling and danced lustily with the female customers. “That’s one of two times at a bar that I’ve ever cried,” Taffer told me on set one day. “It was so amazing.”
Taffer distilled his techniques of bar stewardship into something he calls “reaction management,” which he trademarked in 2009. “Running a bar isn’t rocket science,” he likes to say, “but it is a science.” On my visit to California, I had the opportunity to learn more about this science when Taffer gave a seminar at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles. Two hundred successful bar and club owners paid $350 each for five hours of Taffer’s time. He had the day off from filming at Scoreboard 2. “It’s so nice to be here,” he said, welcoming the crowd, “rather than with people who fail every day.”
Pacing the stage with the huzzah of a televangelist, and dressed immaculately in his trademark power suit, Taffer regaled the crowd with his science of how to run a successful bar, a lesson plan that turned out to be barely more sophisticated than a college marketing course. “We don’t serve Budweisers,” he told the crowd, his face reddening with homicidal enthusiasm; “we serve reactions! The Budweiser is just the vehicle for the reaction.” In other words, it’s not the taste of the product that sells; it’s the experience of drinking and dining—and the narrative of that experience—that people buy. He supplemented this theory with hokey statistics, which the narrator of Bar Rescue, P. J. King, also sprinkles liberally throughout the show, and with which Taffer peppers his 2013 book, Raise the Bar. He writes: “Up to 68 percent of customers who see workers goofing off react by telling family and friends about the bad experience and posting about it on social media.”
By the end of the seminar, it was clear that the secret of Taffer’s success wasn’t statistics. “Does anyone have a problem with violence in your bar?” he asked the crowd. “Gangbangers, that sort of thing?” A ponytailed man in a leather vest stood up in the third row and raised his hand. He owned a club outside Santa Monica. Taffer’s advice was simple and smart, the result of decades of experience: “The solution? Make every third song you play on the jukebox by a woman. The gangbangers will stop coming. Problem solved.”
It seemed that the vague stats and pseudoscience of his presentation were—as Taffer himself might say—simply vehicles that helped sell a narrative about “Jon Taffer, bar guru extraordinaire,” that he wanted the audience to buy.
The first time I saw Bar Rescue, I thought it was fiction. I suspect many people do, because so many of its episodes are unbelievable. There was the rehab of Piratz Tavern, in Silver Spring, Maryland, where the entire staff dressed as seafarers and spoke like Captain Jack Sparrow—even after Taffer had remodeled the place into a lunch spot for businessmen called the Corporate Bar & Grill. The owner changed it back to Piratz Tavern six hours after Taffer left, and she has since gone on TV and the Huffington Post to say how much she hates Taffer. There was Chris Michaels Ferrell, the bad-tempered owner of Pit and Barrel, in Nashville, who allegedly had a murderous outburst shortly after Taffer’s crew left town. When Wayne Mills, a well-known country singer, refused to stop smoking, Ferrell shot him dead. And then there was the episode starring Dr. Paul Wilkes, a Las Vegas ob-gyn and the co-owner of the Sand Dollar, a putrid off-the-strip blues club, who hit on Taffer’s wife while she was on a reconnaissance mission. “Probably my most impressive trick is, just from looking at the bend of your arm, I can tell what your vagina looks like,” Wilkes told Nicole Taffer while her husband sat out front in a van and watched the incident on a hidden-camera feed. “So if you bend your arm, and go like that, that’s like grade-A vajay.” Taffer charged in, screamed in the doctor’s face, and allegedly spit on him. Taffer’s rage always seems genuine, but here the authenticity was frightening. As a result of Taffer’s intervention, according to a lawsuit Wilkes has brought against Bar Rescue, Wilkes now suffers from “vomiting, nausea, night terrors, and crying spells.”
“Not one word of Bar Rescue is ever scripted,” Taffer told me one day on set. He has suspicious eyes and breathes heavily through his nose. When someone else is speaking, he is a thoughtful listener, looking down at his hands like a prize fighter absorbing the advice of his trainer. When I asked about the Piratz Tavern, he looked up. “Those people were pirates 24 hours a day,” he said. “I’m guessing if you looked in their cars, all you’d find would be pirate clothes. When I asked the owner, ‘Would you rather be a pirate or send your daughter to college?’ she proved herself—she’d rather be a pirate.”
Still, even after I looked up the Piratz Tavern on Yelp and confirmed that it was indeed a real bar, apparently run by pirates, I was skeptical about Bar Rescue’s “truthiness,” as Stephen Colbert might say. Sure enough, one day at Scoreboard 2, a crew member told me that he often coached people on the show to give specific answers—not unheard-of on reality TV, by any means, yet still disingenuous. But as I chuckled, the crew member then told me about Taffer’s response. “You can’t do that!” Taffer screamed, dragging the crew member aside when he heard his cajoling. “Come on, guys! We tell the truth here! This is real!”
It makes sense that Taffer would chafe against the loose standards of “reality” in reality television and fight to enforce a stricter code. His brand and his identify are built around telling the truth in two industries—Hollywood and the bar world—that don’t often want to hear it.
On my final day on set, I attended “the stress test.” The stress test is an exercise in failure during which Taffer and his team invite hundreds of people to a bar—far more than would ever attend—so that Taffer can assess the servers’ skills under pressure. At 9 PM on Friday at Scoreboard 2, a line of 70 people crowded the sidewalk, past pawnshops and boarded-up liquor stores. At the front of the line was your intrepid reporter. “All right, guys!” shouted Michelle’s husband, Bryan, as he burst out the front door to greet the crowd in the street. Bryan has jowls like a basset hound, and they jiggled a bit as he bellowed, “Welcome to Scoreboard 2! Come onnnn in!”
The crowd screamed like it was racing down Space Mountain. The cameras wheeled and panned and zoomed in on our faces.
“Cut!” shouted a crew guy in cargo shorts. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry; let’s do it again. That wasn’t quite right.”
We repeated this scene three times. I was embarrassed to be at the head of the line.
Inside, the soaring houseflies and sour stink calmed me. I didn’t even mind the black masking tape covering the Coors and Bud wall placards, or that the lights were as bright as a Walmart’s (so the cameras could film more easily). There was no music, because it would interfere with Taffer’s lapel mic. Scoreboard 2 had been turned into a simulacrum of a dive bar, and it was rapidly filling up with dozens of people—dressed scantily, in loads of makeup—who were here for the cameras, not the booze.
But I didn’t care, because I was going to get drunk. “I’ll have two margaritas, two tequila sunrises, and a quesadilla,” I told Marisa when she took my order at the bar. Her first week on the job was nearing its end; she looked haggard and exhausted, and her eyes flared in fear as hoards of people filled the room. My plan was to get wildly hammered with the crowd, because that seemed like the right thing to do when making a cameo on Bar Rescue. A friend of mine was on his way to join me, so I figured I would order extra drinks, just in case.
I got the cocktails quickly, but I was the only one. By 10 PM, the bar was packed with nearly 100 rough-looking caballeros from Norwalk and their pretty girlfriends, while half a dozen cameramen chased Taffer as he ran around barking and grunting and assessing and instructing and critiquing and screaming.
“Who hasn’t gotten a drink yet?” he bellowed, his roar commanding the room’s attention.
“Meeee!!!!” the crowd screamed back, banging their empty fists on tabletops. Michelle, the owner, was nowhere to be seen. Bryan was taking table orders but never delivering them. Robert, behind the bar, was swearing under his breath. Scoreboard 2 was doing exactly what it was supposed to: imploding.
But the angriest customer turned out to be my friend, James, who had met me midway through the night. He’d never seen the show and had little tolerance for the spectacle of failure it presented, much less for Taffer’s theatrics. “I’m going to die if I don’t get a quesadilla,” he said with a roll of his eyes and a look of horror on his face when I told him I’d ordered it more than an hour ago. When I asked Marisa about it, as she scurried past me, she thwacked her head and said, “Oh, shit!” She ran off to allegedly order another, but I feared the quesadilla would never arrive—and it never did. “This is hellish,” James said.
My own weak drinks were now gone, and my unintended sobriety—the result of the glacially slow service—reminded me that Taffer had told me, during an interview we’d done on set the previous day, that he didn’t drink. “I might have about ten cocktails a year,” he said. “But if you notice, I almost never finish one. I’m not much of a drinker, and that’s a good reason to be in the bar business.”
That attitude may be what makes Taffer’s success so peculiar. Bar Rescue is a paean to failure, to excess, to poor impulse control—to drinking culture and its centrality in American life—yet Taffer himself is mostly oblivious to the seedy charms his show documents and dramatizes. He focuses maniacally on success, but the brilliance of Bar Rescue is how beautifully—and truthfully, despite its small deceptions—it depicts failure and the joy and pain and pathos of a life lived sloppily.
James suggested we leave. With no quesadilla in sight, he claimed he was on the brink of “death by hunger,” and I was thirsty. Taffer was still parading around, screaming, and the possibility of being served any more booze seemed unlikely. I didn’t know what was going to happen to Scoreboard 2, but I assumed that the bar, urged on by Taffer’s work ethic and wisdom, would be refashioned as a successful, profitable establishment. Honestly, I no longer cared.
“I hear there’s a party at some place called Smog Cutter,” I told James.
“Jon Taffer would never name a bar in Los Angeles Smog Cutter,” he said as we slipped past the cameras, back into the anonymity of the unlit street. “I’ve been there. It’s a total shithole. Like, impressively so. It’s great.”
“Awesome,” I said, as we loaded into James’s truck. “Party time.”
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