Q&A: Jon Taffer
The parties, the city-wide events, the sponsors, the attendees … there’s a lot of moving pieces to the Nightclub & Bar Show, and Jon Taffer is in the eye of the annual storm that moves into the Las Vegas Convention Center this week. Taffer, central scrutinizer behind reality series Bar Rescue, is this year’s chairman and keynote speaker, but as he relates to Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen, he’s played a major role in NCB since the beginning.
Have you been chairman before or is this the first time you’ve held that title?
I’m one of the six founders of the show. I was on the board half of the 30 years. I’ve been chairman of the board. I’ve been president. I’ve had a management contract. I actually ran it for eight years, then I came back as chairman. I’ve been gone, really, for a couple of years.
Why did you leave, or what allows you to come back now?
I left because my television schedule keeps me on the road so much it was really difficult to operate the show effectively. I left, and I went and did some other things. My television schedule hasn’t changed that much other than my ability, in the eighth season of Bar Rescue, to control the television schedule much more actively. It allows me to block the time necessary to run NCB with the attention that it needs. This year my schedule really changed, not that I’m not making less TV. I’m just making it in a far more efficient way.
How many Bar Rescue episodes have there been so far?
We’re sitting right now at about 169 episodes of Bar Rescue, 20 episodes of Back to the Bar, four episodes of Taffer’s Worst, or Taffer’s Top 10, however you want to call it, and 10 episodes of Hungry Investors, which was something else that we did for Paramount. When you look at Bar Rescue, Back to the Bar and Taffer’s Top 10, we’re approaching 200 episodes now. Seven years. We’re getting into record territory, to be honest.
What do you have planned for your keynote address?
My last book, Don’t Bullsh*t Yourself: Crush the Excuses that Are Holding You Back, made the New York Times’ best-seller list, and it’s been really successful. It’s been really applicable to the management and the people who own and operate bars. So often excuses inhibit our ability to do the things that really grow our businesses. I’ve created a whole new purpose, and my purpose is to destroy every excuse you have in life so it doesn’t work for you any more.
Never complain, never explain.
That’s a good way to do it. There are big fears that hold us back significantly. There’s six of them, the biggest obviously being fear. The excuse of time. The excuse of circumstance: “Oh, it’s a bad time to do this.” The excuse of resources: “Oh, I don’t have the money to do this.” There are really powerful excuses that paralyze us. They destroy lives. They prevent growth. I’m all about killing these excuses for people and trying to make an impact on business.
This is the first Nightclub & Bar Show since the release of that book. You’ve just come off focusing all your thoughts into book form.
The work that I did for the book has really applied to the business work that I’ve done the past few years. In my own brain I’m referring to it often, so it’s been quite an experience preparing that book and going through the process and seeing how much it even applied to myself.
So you’re bringing the enlightenments that came out of that and bringing them to Nightclub & Bar for the first time.
Yes. Well said. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Will you be doing your podcast at the show?
Yeah first ever podcast that I’ve ever done for the convention center, actually. I did Adam Corolla’s podcast from the floor many, many years ago, but this is the first time I’m bringing my podcast to the floor. I’m excited about that. I love this town. I’ve lived here for eight years. To me, stepping back to the Nightclub & Bar convention wasn’t just about Nightclub & Bar. I say this with all sincerity: I am all about promoting Vegas, promoting our city, making our city better. I’ve developed very close friendships with people in the city like (vice president and general manager of Southern Wine and Spirits of Nevada) Larry Ruvo and Scott Sibella (who left his position as president and chief operating officer of MGM Grand in February), and people that are very much into hospitality tourism and related businesses. I see Nightclub & Bar as an opportunity for Las Vegas. That’s where I get a lot of the new energy that I have for the show. I didn’t have that local orientation before, and that means a lot to me, so I want to make this a major, major event for the city, and make it significantly more impactful. That’s a lot of my motivation. I’m going to be reaching out to a lot of local businesses to support me on this, and distributors and hospitality operators, to partner with me on this, and let’s turn this into a significant event for the city. That’s one of my biggest focuses on Nightclub & Bar. The bigger I can make it for Vegas, the bigger I can make it for the nightclub and bar industry. It’s a shoulder-to-shoulder thing. I am so motivated by the local aspect of it, and I’ve never had that local motivation before. It’s changed very much the way I look at it.
You became a polarizing figure in some corners of the industry. Are you comfortable with that?
Sure. I’m not a bartender, even though I was 40 years ago. I’m not a server. I am an owner. I’m a business owner. I am an advocate of business ownership. There’s times when that advocacy for ownership causes friction with bartending communities or server communities, but that’s what happens between management and employees. It’s obvious. I am not an advocate for every person in the industry. I’m an owner. I’m an advocate for bartenders being clean, and following proper procedures. Some people don’t like those things. I’m fine in that position. I relish it, honestly. The standards that I fight for protect the very investment that gave those employees their jobs in the first place, and how dare them challenge it. That’s my view.
Did you ever think of what life might been like had you decided to stick with drums and turned down the offer to manage (West Hollywood nightclub) the Troubador?
It’s funny, I’ve thought about that. I was much more into business, so I don’t think that’s something that was even close to happening with me. I loved the business, and I still love music. I have a drum set in my office at home to this day. I play often. I have a drum set at home and guitars at home, Marshall amplifiers and stuff, and I still play often, but I love the business end of it. To me, making music and recording music is great, but playing if for the masses and watching the reaction, and programming it and timing it, and positioning it is a lot more fun. Years ago I owned the only patent ever issued by the federal government—and I just let it expire, so it’s in the records—for the management of music to achieve a desired ambience in hospitality properties. I created a system of color-coding music, categorizing it by energy level, date, type, and creating music programs that would really achieve proper demographic energy and targeting positioning. It managed the beats per minute, the mix, the tempo—all the various aspects of music programming right down to male vocalist/female vocalist, etc. … I’m still very music oriented, still very focused on pace and energy in music and all those things. I think it makes me a better operator to tell you the truth.
Can you give me the elevator pitch for “reaction management?”
Sure. Reaction management is based upon the principle that the people around you make a huge impact on the quality of your life, promotions and the things around you. In reality your manager, the way he reacts to you, will determine your success. You need to be sensitive to managing the reactions around you: attitude, aggressiveness, friendliness, approachability. The fact of the matter is we promote people we feel the best about. We bond with people we feel the best about, and if we can learn to manage the reactions of the people around us through our own temperaments and behavior, we’ll get much farther in life. People are too sensitive about their own behavior. They’re not sensitive enough about the way people around them are receiving them, and that’s the principle of reaction management.
I like what you said about dressing. There was a period in Las Vegas before “tech bro” came into use as a term that people were starting to dress a little better when they went out. All of a sudden there was a takeover of T-shirts and hoodies. It makes a complete difference when you’re dealing with somebody, how you’re dressed. It shows how much respect you have for them.
Completely. Exactly right, and how important it is for you. That’s my criteria.
Do you get physical checkups for blood pressure?
(Laughs) I do, yes. It’s funny, I get asked that a lot. Yes I do.
I hadn’t seen a previous reference, but I figured you must be in good health to continue to proceed at the pace you are doing. Usually that means you have an Italian grandmother.
Yeah, I’m feeling pretty good these days, to tell you the truth. I’m a Russian New York Jew. If we can live 110 years in Siberia, the desert’s a piece of cake. (Laughs)
What is more inappropriate: improper pizza-slice folding or making a drink after touching raw chicken?
Raw chicken. The drink is more optics. The raw chicken will get you sick, man. I draw the line at irresponsibility that gets people sick, and if you look at Bar Rescue and you see the moments when I really get angry, they’re not related to business decisions. They’re always related to responsibility. When people get irresponsible, that’s when I get angry. Touching that chicken is about as irresponsible as a food operator can get, so I think my anger’s justified in those situations.