Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013 | 9 a.m.
With nearly three decades of experience as one of America’s top nightlife and hospitality consultants, Jon Taffer has every right to serve up tough love in his “Bar Rescue” attempts to help failing businesses. He is the one last chance most of the businesses have to transform into a vibrant and profitable venue.
Jon has brought his unique, no-nonsense attitude and in-your-face personality to three Las Vegas establishments. Spike TV cameras have covered the invasion and the three, 36-hours-total, around-the-clock makeovers. His renovation juggernaut began at the blues joint Sand Dollar, which he renamed Bar 702, on Sahara and broadened into a gaming bar with local bands.
Then he moved onto the gay bar Gipsy, which he renamed SBLV (South Beach Las Vegas), on Paradise, and now this week starts his third miracle before moving the reality TV show to Atlanta. He’s shooting an incredible 20 shows for “Bar Rescue’s” Season 3, which premiered Feb. 10, and he invited Vegas DeLuxe to watch the incredible transformation of Gipsy.
It’s unscripted, unrehearsed, unplanned and unexpected -- reality TV at its best. The owners have no warning that Jon will burst through the doors, shut it down and reopen 36 hours later with a new look and vibe. He admits that he sends spies in advance to case the place so that he can formulate makeover plans. But there are no extras, no rehearsed moments; it’s all a total surprise.
“Everything is on the fly,” Jon told me. “The unpredictability is the hardest. What should take at least 60 days we cut down to five, and we have to do it without permits. We change everything from the name, the logos, the menus, the lighting, the furnishings, a total renovation within 36 hours all recorded on time-lapse video.”
The show from the same producers of “The Biggest Loser” and “Extreme Makeover: Weight-Loss Edition” is run by Tim Warren, one of my former field producers from “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” His Team Taffer works five 12-hour days on each bar using three handheld cameras and three robotic cameras. His art department works the 36 hours under the glare of cameras.
“It’s like building a whole new place, so the schedule is relentless,” added Jon. He pulls no punches, and his brash approach may ruffle feathers. But he values bottom lines above hurt feelings. “No stone is unturned in my mission to reinvigorate struggling businesses. It’s their one last shot.”
On a cold, shivering night in the shadows of Hofbrauhaus and Hard Rock Hotel near Flamingo and Paradise, I watched as Paul Filipo, owner of Gipsy, and his staff were blindfolded before the curtain was lifted on the makeover. Paul then told the staff that he’d been losing $15,000 a month and had come to the end.
Then, in a surprise to everybody, he fired a bartender to help start the comeback. It was his idea, no set-up, nothing scripted, and no pressure from Jon. It came as a shock to the employee, but the other staff agreed that he had to go if Gipsy was to be a success again. You’ll see it all on the episode when it airs this summer.
Jon, who has 30 years of hands-on experience with more than 800 establishments worldwide, also spearheads the Nightclub and Bar Media Group, which includes the revered annual revenue listings for the Top 100 U.S. nightclubs, and the Nightclub and Bar Convention and Trade Show at Sands Expo and Convention Center in The Venetian from March 19-21. It’s the world’s largest, attracting more than 30,000 owners and operators.
Here is our conversation:
Robin Leach: Jon, when you take on a project like Gipsy, how far in advance do you see it before you push the button on let’s take this from nothing to something?
Jon Taffer: The first time I physically see the building is when you see me walk in on camera. I don’t see the operation ahead of time. They submit a five-minute casting reel, walking through the bar so we see the facility a little bit, and then they have each of their employees speak to the camera for 30 seconds or so.
Those reels are submitted to us, and we look at those as a group and choose where we want to go. Many of those decisions are based more on the storytelling than the bar itself. Is the owner compelling? Is the story compelling? Will the viewer enjoy this? Will they be rooting for this person?
R.L.: When you saw the casting reel for Gipsy, what was your immediate reaction?
J.T.: Well, first of all, it is one of the first gay bars built in Las Vegas, so that catches my interest right away -- when something has lasted that long. It opened as a gay bar in 1977, that is pretty significant, so the historical significance of it meant something to us right away. We heard the story of the owner, who has owned it for 20 years.
He is $2 million in debt and is losing about $15,000 a month; that is pretty compelling. Then when I watched Paul and his cast, I mean they are really a good bunch of guys, and they are in a terrible bind. We felt that the viewer would like the story, as well.
R.L.: In a sense, do you rescue the people and the bar?
J.T.: The answer is yes. This season has been very much that. You will smile when I say this; it is a lot easier to fix the bar than it is the people. Bars don’t have emotions. When you think about the thousands of bad decisions they made before I got there, it is difficult to totally change that process and suddenly have them making good decisions when I leave five days later, but that is why I am so aggressive. The only choice I have is to be aggressive and make them re-evaluate themselves, and sometimes that gets ugly.
Who the heck likes to have everything they believed challenged and questioned? I understand why people get upset, and that is because I am so aggressive -- and I am so aggressive because I have so little time.
R.L.: So, doctor, can you make this loss into a win?
J.T.: I believe I can. We have come up with a unique concept that can be really fun for the city. We have changed the way drag shows and entertainment is presented. We are changing the concept, we are moving dance floors, and we are linking it better to Piranha next door, to create a better “two club, one cover concept” … targeting the gay community. Yes, I am very confident we will turn it around.
R.L.: Once your cameras start rolling, it is really a concentrated period of time -- just a few days to solve the problems of a place that’s been open 20 years?
J.T.: It is actually five days’ work, but we lose 36 hours for the reconstruct, so it’s about 3 1/2 days I really get to spend with them. Robin, that is why I am so damn aggressive because that clock is ticking in the back of my head every minute, and I know as far as changing their behavior, we are fighting an uphill battle.
It is a real challenge, and I have to be extremely aware of their mental attitude and where they are at every moment because if I don’t get them on my bus quickly, I am dead; I will never succeed.
R.L.: Let’s talk about that bus one minute. In terms of the shoots?
J.T.: We are now in Season 3 -- 20 episodes, which as you know is a big order in reality TV. Season 3 is a big season for us. I have just completed my 32nd episode. Thirty-two bars. When we look at the numbers, we are tracking somewhere between 60 to 70 percent success. Our numbers are strong. We start with the bar pretty low. These people are $900,000 in debt and losing $15,000 a month, they have maybe three months worth of cash left, and they are going to close.
Their debt levels are huge, in many cases; they have no credit with vendors, order deliveries or COD. They are running to the supermarket three times a day, as the money comes in, to buy food. These people typically couldn’t afford to buy me lunch, nonetheless a consulting fee. They couldn’t fly me in and pay me. These people are so deep, the bar is so low when I start, candidly I think anything over 50 percent when you start in this big of a hole ain’t bad.
I am so direct because I am cognizant of those five days, and this season has been interesting since we began filming in October. I had a marriage on the line in one, I had a partnership on the line in another.
A couple weeks ago, I went up to Phoenix, and the couple who own this bar are 21 days from foreclosure from bankruptcy court. I walk in and they are so drunk, they can barely talk. I sit with them for an hour and a half to try to help them, get them sober. The next morning they come in, and they didn’t even remember meeting me.
This season has been so much about people and realizing that if I can’t change their behavior, no matter what I do to their business, it is a fail, and I really take that seriously. These people are placing their trust and futures in my hands.
Understand, I am blindfolding them and sending them away and remodeling their bar without their knowledge. They don’t even know what I am going to do, so there is a lot of trust in this. I work hard at living up to that and putting them in a better place when I leave.
I always get that hug before I leave at the end of the episode, and along the way there are many days and moments where the last thing they would do is hug me. Candidly, I will be an ass on Days 1, 2, 3 and 4, knowing that I will get my hug on Day 5 when I am done, and that is my motivation.
R.L.: You turn hate into hugs.
J.T.: I do sometimes, but, son of a gun, I am stuck, Robin. If I don’t get in their face and force them and scream at them and open their brains, I am dead. I will never, ever help them. My motive is noble, but sometimes the tactics get a little ugly.
R.L.: Jon, of the 30 percent that haven’t made it weeks later after you leave them, is there a common reason that they failed after you had rescued them?
J.T.: Yeah, it is really a shame. In many cases, it is emotional. The pilot episode last season is one that many people say was our best ever. When I left, six hours later, they took the new sign down. This woman was $900,000 in debt, living in her parents’ basement with her daughter, lost her house, everything.
When I left, six hours later she took the sign down, they had some vigil around a burning campfire chanting pirate songs, and then the next day turned back to what they started before I got there.
Many of them will change the names back, undo what I did, which is really sort of remarkable. I have got a heck of a track record for 35 years; you would think that they would at least give it a chance.
What is mind boggling to me is, think about this, a bar in Philadelphia called Swanky Bubbles from last season, I remodeled, gave them a new brand and everything. When the television show airs a few months later, as you know, with original and re-broadcast, millions of people are going to see this show, you’d think they would leave it alone until the show aired and get the benefit of it.
That is pretty much Marketing 101, but, nope, about 20 percent of them just revert back to the way that they were. It is remarkable.
R.L.: Within the chaos of this Gipsy makeover, at what point do you begin to see the light that it is possible to save them?
J.T.: With this particular crew, I saw that light pretty early. The operation is a disaster, their systems, their procedures, all the things that make a bar or nightclub great, operationally, are missing there. The place had just unraveled, but the staff are really good guys; they are really committed.
They cry about this place, Robin, they really, really care. It is a remarkable thing, and they really care about the community, and they really care about that whole Fruit Loop area. When I saw the depth of commitment these guys have for this, I realized, “OK, I can work with this. I’ve got to put the right systems and building blocks around them, but the souls of these people are really good.”
Early on, I really started to like this crew, I saw a lot of potential, and that is motivating for me. I knew I could change them.
R.L.: Have you ever told owners to fire themselves?
J.T.: Oh, yes. I have done it two or three times. As a matter of fact, the episode broadcast last week, I pretty much told the owner to go eff himself and put the staff in charge. When I left, we said goodbye to the staff, not the owner. It was the first time in all my years I ever pitted a staff against their owner.
This guy didn’t pay them. They worked for him for years, and he never paid them. They worked just for tips, they had no worker’s compensation protection, they weren’t even legitimate employees, no Social Security, no nothing. This guy was the biggest asshole owner that I have ever met. He just didn’t deserve my support, so I wound up doing it for the staff, not for him.
I said to the staff, right in the middle of the episode, this guy is such a jerk, if you want me to call the bars down the street to get you all jobs and walk out of here right now, I will do it. But if you guys want me to continue to do this remodel and relaunch you, understand that I am going to do this for you, not for him. And then I walked out of the room and let the staff decide, and they asked me to do it for them.
I fight really hard for these things, Robin. It is tough to go through this process for someone who you truly think is a jerk.
Filming is underway at the third Las Vegas bar, and we’ll reveal that location next week when that surprise makeover is complete. We also will follow up with Jon at the Nightclub and Bar Convention as to how all three are progressing.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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