Vv Magazine’s Libby Roach sits down for an exclusive interview with Bar Rescue’s Jon Taffer about Toronto’s nightlife scene and what it takes to successfully run your own bar.
Jon Taffer is the host of the wildly popular Spike TV show Bar Rescue, and a new spin-off, Hungry Investors. With Bar Rescue currently going into its 84th episode, Jon is known for his blunt approach to dealing with clueless staff and never pulling punches with under-achieving bar owners. While he comes across as a man you most likely don’t want to meet in a dark alley, in real life he’s just a big ol’ teddy bear. Jon is in town for the Restaurant Show at Direct Energy Centre, so I bent his ear on the Toronto scene, the popularity of Bar Rescue, and what trends he thinks will be popping up in the near future.
Vv Magazine: Welcome to Toronto! Have you had the chance to check out our bar scene?
Jon Taffer: Thanks. No, just arrived last night. Years ago I did a project underground near the Sheraton Centre — I think — but nothing recently.
Vv: It’s our weirdo liquor laws, isn’t it? You know, we don’t have happy hour here. It’s sad hour only.
JT: Yes, you can’t stand at the bar, you can’t sit at the bar, but on the East Coast it’s even crazier. In Nova Scotia, it’s crazy — if you have 16 bar stools, you can’t stand at the bar. If you have less, you can’t sit at the bar, but we have lots of crazy stuff in the States too.
Vv: What would you say to someone who is looking to open a bar?
JT: At the end of the day, it’s about people. I can go to a Sheraton corporation and serve thousands of shareholders, or I can go and change a family’s life. We’ve shot 84 episodes, and these people are in trouble. They’re living in their parents’ basement. They’re in the hole hundreds of thousands of dollars. And I’m running about an 80% success rate. That’s the sweetest thing for me. Probably the most rewarding work has been Bar Rescue. At the end of the day, it’s all about people. Contrary to popular belief, the bar industry is not inherently profitable. People think $7.00 for a drink that only costs them a dollar — how do you lose money? Well — rent, utilities, insurance, electricity, payroll — bars will make, in this part of the world, 12-15% profit. If your beverage costs are a little high, you’re losing profit. If your labour costs are high, you’re losing profit. If they’re both high, you’re losing money. It’s a tough business. If you’re going into this because of social motivations, don’t. If you’re going into this because you like beer or wine, don’t. Yup, because I don’t drink. For 20 hours a day, it’s really hard work. People steal from you. You have to control it minute to minute. So No. 1: make certain you are doing this because you love business, not being in bars. Second, I would encourage them to work at a bar, particularly if they haven’t bartended before. Work for three months and figure out how to pour a drink, talk to servers, do transactions — that’s how you learn the heart of the business. If you’re willing to put your butt on the line and drain your life savings and not work for 60 days behind someone else’s bar then I seriously question your commitment in the first place.
The other point I would make is that we have two sets of assets: experience and cheque book. If you don’t have the experience, you’re going to make mistakes. If you don’t have a lot of experience, then you better have a big cheque book because you’re going to run over budget. Things are going to take longer. You’re going to open off-season instead of on. Either you need a lot of experience or a lot of money.
Vv: What’s the next big trend for bars?
Jon Taffer: The kind of trend that I think is happening is twofold: This past year had the largest graduating college class in history. So there’s an influx in 21 to 27-year-olds demographically coming into the marketplace. That means smart bar owners are going to skew to that market for a while. They can get a good six to seven years out of it. And as an end result, bars are going to be more youthful and a little less expensive. They’re going to target the 25-year-old more than the 35-year-old. The orientation towards mixology, to premium brands — that fits a 30-year-old demo. It doesn’t fit a 22-year-old demo. So I think there’s going to be a shift in the industry to seize that young audience. I see the explosion in spirits continuing. I think we’re going to see more unusual flavours — like cinnamon tequila or Malibu Red — similar to how coffee flavours exploded. Mixology is a stuffy word. You expect to pay $3.00 more for the drink and wait four minutes longer for it. At the end of the day, it’s still a vodka-orange juice. I think mixology is going to become more “funology.” I think it’s going to be a lot more approachable, less stuffy, and less expensive.
Feature image: Emilio Gonzales
Would you open your very own bar after reading “Interview: Bar Rescue’s Jon Taffer”? Let Vv Magazine know why or why not in the comments below or tweet us your answers on Twitter @ViewTheVibe.