Why Do Some Bars On ‘Bar Rescue’ Still Fail After Being Rescued? — A Talk With Jon Taffer

“You’re talking to a guy who buys and sells restaurants and bars with no connection to them,” Jon Taffer tells me over the phone. “They don’t live and breathe. They don’t have blood. It’s a business. It has bricks and mortar around it.”

I’m on the phone with the legendary Jon Taffer. We’re discussing why some of the bars that have recently been forced to shut their doors after being featured on Bar Rescue. I apologize for asking about his failures instead of focusing on his successes, which he politely tells me that he doesn’t mind:

“Can I be cocky for a second? If I hit a home run 80 percent of the times, and you want to talk about the 20 times I miss swinging the bat, I’m okay with that. But, I hit it 80 percent of the time. So I have no embarrassment talking about the other 20 percent.”

Here at BroBible, we love Bar Rescue. As a man who has perfected his outrage and takes B.S. from no one, Jon Taffer is our idol. He is a consummate professional in the service industry and an endearing showman on television. A few years ago we declared Bar Rescue “the perfect reality show” and we still stand by it. Now in a 40-episode fourth season on Spike TV, we still regularly tune-in to see the drama of Taffer rescuing a wateringhole that’s on its last legs.

But Bar Rescue has weathered a roller coaster of bad press lately: The show’s “most expensive rescue ever” at LA Brew Co in Los Angeles was a flop and Silver Spring’s Piratz Tavern recently closed its doors after two tumultuous years since they tore down Taffer’s renovations a few hours after he left. Part of the viewing experience is wondering whether Taffer is able to truly turn a bar around after the episode aired, which makes stories of failures like LA Brewing Co and Piratz Tavern so fascinating to fans.

A few years ago we had the opportunity to interview Taffer about what goes on behind the scene at the show. With Bar Rescue’s cycle of new episodes ending this Sunday, I asked him about why some bars still fail after being rescued. Here is our conversation:

I want to start with some of the Bar Rescue failures that have been in the press lately. What happens in these situations? 

You know what’s amazing? I have an app on my phone because of all the cash registers I put in these bars all report back to us. I know everybody’s sale every day right on my app. What’s remarkable to me is LA Brew Co… I put in $125,000 draft beer system in that bar, as you may recall. It was the most expensive remodel I’ve ever done because the place was so large. The night their show aired, they did over $10,000 in sales which is a record for them.

You know what really gets me? They never used that draft beer system once. They never even turned it on.

You also put in a brewing system as well…

I gave them all the tools and they never turned on the brewing system. I turned on the brewing system, I gave them five different brands, we created the labels, the recipes. It’s computerized, all they had to do was pour the damn hops into the pan, add the flavor, push a button, and five days later they would have had beer! But they never did it. It’s remarkable! It’s like buying a car, putting the best sound system in it, and never turning it on.

After you did the rescue, everyone seemed pretty excited about it. Did you think that was the way it was gonna pan out? Did you think they were generally invested in the business and bettering themselves?

I don’t want to be insulting because I understand that everybody has their shortcomings in life, we all do. But the fact of the matter is I gave these guys every button, all they had to do was push ‘em. And the beer system was idiot proof, the draft beer system — Smart Brew, it’s called. It’s idiot-proof. You push a button and it does it. You have to not be an idiot to want to use it. Ya hear what I’m saying?

Homebrewing is really not that hard. 

Imagine this for a minute. Your family’s in debt a million dollars – your sister is crying, your brother is crying. Your nephew is crying. Everyone is saying the family has gotten hurt and wants to turn it around. Some guy Taffer comes in, gives him a multi-hundred thousand dollar remodel — a brand they liked, a draft brew system, self-dispensing Pour My Beer tables and they never did anything to save themselves. It’s a sad story.

I actually read an interesting theory about what may have happened with LA Brew CO. I’m curious if you think it’s in the realm of possibility: Bar Rescue comes in and gives them what they need to be successful. With that huge investment, it minimizes their outstanding debt in the event of the sale, where they go from the potential of having to sell the business a million dollars in the hole to six hundred thousand dollars in the hole. Do you think there’s any legitimacy to this theory?

Yes, that actually happened one other time in Bar Rescue. What happened were the tenants owed the landlord money and after I remodeled the bar, he realized he should rent this for twice the price so the tenant was in default, he threw out the person I rescued, put somebody else in it twice the rent. In their case, you might recall in the episode with LA Brew, they did talk about selling that and half the family wanted to sell it and half the family didn’t.

So after I built their beautiful bar, I think you might be right. They can say to themselves now ‘We should get something for this, look at this! It’s beautiful! It has a draft brew system, it has a dispensing system, it has Taffer’s name on it — now I bet we can sell it.’ Maybe it’s as simple as that. If that’s the way they felt as a family, you know what… they should sell it.

How frustrating is that for you though? You put in all this time and work into their business and all they’re going to do is leverage it or turn around and sell it? Do you feel like you wasted your energy?

You’re talking to a guy who buys and sells restaurants and bars with no connection to them. They don’t live and breathe. They don’t have blood. It’s a business. It has bricks and mortar around it. If it serves the family to sell that business, so be it. I’m there to rescue a bar but I’m there to help the situation and if they sell it when I leave, repay their family debt, and move on, I helped the situation, didn’t I?

Yeah, I guess you did that the long run.

So at the end of the day, I got to leave them in a better place.

That’s a positive way of looking at it. I guess the Bar Rescue viewer experience is a little different — “Jon Taffer rescued this bar and I want to visit it but it’s shut down and out of business now. That sucks.”

Of course, it’s a shame. You know, there are independent websites that track our success. I’ve shot now 87 episodes of Bar Rescue now and we’re tracking about an 80 percent success factor. And when you consider almost everyone tells us how far in debt they are themselves on TV. They tell us they’re gonna close within a few weeks. The fact that 80 percent are open is pretty damn good. So again, my job is to leave them in a better place, if I leave them a better asset and selling that asset is best for the family, then I’ve done my job.

I hate to concentrate on the failures, it’s just that I’ve covered them on BroBible so prevalent lately…

Can I be cocky for a second? If I hit a home run 80 percent of the times, and you want to talk about the 20 times I miss swinging the bat, I’m okay with that. But, I hit it 80 percent of the time. So I have no embarrassment talking about the other 20 percent. I have no hesitancy to talk about the other 20 percent. I talk about it proudly because I know the other 80 percent is in fact there. So don’t think it offends me — it doesn’t. Don’t think it bothers me — it doesn’t. I’m extremely proud of every one of them.

With that, Piratz Tavern just closed down this past weekend…

Jon Taffer: (laughing)

I think it’s conspicuously timed with the episode last week that revisits some of these bars

Well, we didn’t time the TV show around that. That show was shot weeks and weeks before that. And I can’t believe they tied their closing around the episode.

Piratz Tavern is a very interesting one to me.  They turned everything around after you did it. And not only that, but they laid blame to you for their shortcomings in the future and they were very vocal about it to the press too. What was going on there?

Let me share a couple of things with you. Tracy is not quite the fool she comes off as on TV. She was a marketing communications specialist in corporate America before she opened this place. So she’s given a media placement by getting on this episode of Bar Rescue, so her job as a marketing person is to use that platform.

She can say we caused the failure of Piratz but she was $900,000 debt living in her parents basement when I got there. We, in fact, made her famous. People went there in greater quantities because of Bar Rescue as a result of the show. So the fact of the matter is Bar Rescue gave her an additional year of life and she worked it like crazy. She got people to come there.

I want to be specific about what happened there. I created a restaurant for downtown [Silver Spring, Maryland] that would do about a half a million dollars a year at lunch. I had all the statistics in the show: That town is nearly empty at night. I want Piratz to be profitable, to be successful. When I left, within three hours they took the sign down and they never opened for lunch, not once. The concept that I created never opened for five minutes, never opened for lunch. The rebuilt Piratz Tavern ignored lunch, ignored the demographics, ignored the potential of the show and then she suggested that there’s some type of intelligence to that move.

If you had a new bar that was going to be on national television and roughly 300 offices within two blocks, wouldn’t you wait until the show aired? There’s no marketing professional in America that would disagree with you. So what she did with Piratz defies the study of marketing and the practice of marketing. It defies logic and public relations. She wanted to be a pirate and nothing else mattered. So she’s a pirate. She can put on her costume at home now, she can make herself a pirate now in the basement of her parents and think about the $900,000 in debt she has because never once did she even give it a try. And that to me is the absurdity of all absurdities.

I don’t believe that any person who fails at business deserves it — they try to hire people, they try to give people jobs, they try to do a good job. The actions that Tracy took had to end in her failure, there was no other result that was possible.

90% of viewers who watch that episode think the concept of a pirate bar is the silliest thing ever in a Washington D.C. suburb.

Do you feel like an advantage like that where there are some bar owners out there who want to take advantage of the Bar Rescue system?

Yes. We run a pretty tight process. Piratz was the first episode of Season 2. Now we send out applications and verify to make sure you’re losing money. We make sure you’re not a criminal. I send the team in with a cameraman and we interview every employee for five minutes to make sure they are real employees and they all really work there and they’re not actually actors or characters or anything.

Once we know they’re really in debt and they’re real people, we then evaluate the bar and see if we want to do it. In the case of Piratz, they were really in debt, they were a real family, they were colorful, dynamic characters and it was a hell of an episode. There’s no regrets from me whatsoever – it was a great episode and one of our successful in terms of ratings. I just feel bad that at the end of this Tracy put Juciano back into the kitchen and went back to everything she used to do. She’s a bright lady but she acted like an idiot.

The after-story is so interesting because it’s one where I think a lot of people look back at her and are just like… what the hell happened here?

You know what’s interesting? This season I actually did a pirate-themed bar in Hollywood, Florida. It was called Toucan’s Oceanside Bar and Grill and we renamed it Bonny & Read’s. It’s an authentic historical concept based on the female pirates Annie Bonny and Mary Read. It’s funny because I never thought I would do a pirate bar on Bar Rescue for that reason – because of the experience at Piratz Tavern. But I did and it worked fine. It just goes to show what they did was so totally wrong for where they did it.

Seriously. Do a pirate bar in Ocean City, Maryland, not next to an office park.

You know what really got me? If you think it was bizarre to watch, living it was more bizarre. They couldn’t talk un-pirate, they were incapable. When I put them in regular clothes, they couldn’t do it. I had to keep correcting them. They were pirates 24-hours a day. The only things in their cars were pirate clothes. When they had to wear civilian clothes, I had to buy those clothes for them. All they had was pirates clothes. All they speak is pirate. All they live is pirate. It’s bizarre. That’s surreal.

Brandon Wenerd avatar
BroBible's publisher and a founding partner, circa 2009. Brandon is based in Los Angeles, where he oversees BroBible's partnership team and other business development activities. He still loves to write and create content, including subjects related to internet culture, food, live music, Phish, the Grateful Dead, Philly sports, and adventures of all kinds. Email: brandon@brobible.com