Jon Taffer’s Plan to Rescue Restaurants
We talked with the Bar Rescue host about launching his own restaurant chain, his idea for a new TV show, and how to fix the devastated hospitality industry.
Bar Rescue’s Jon Taffer is known for his strong opinions on bars. He likes them to have the polished look of a high-end chain. He likes to mathematically game out drink specials in order to attract women customers. He’ll conduct undercover missions to investigate pubs that violate health codes, and then storm into the kitchen, yelling, “Shut it down!” He will berate anyone—disorganized manager, unsanitary fry cook—who is not on board with his advice. Some critics argue that he strips mom and pop establishments of their character, but Taffer would say that without his changes they would go out of business.
Taffer’s latest project is launching a new restaurant chain, the first to have his name on it. The inaugural Taffer’s Tavern will open in November in Alpharetta, Georgia, and there are plans for the franchise to expand to other U.S. cities. A press release touted menu items like “Berry-Impressive,” a fruit-infused vodka cocktail that’s served in a French press, and Southern poutine with tater tots and cheese curds. Given concerns over the pandemic, the chain is implementing a set of safety and hygiene measures it has named Taffer’s Safe Dining System™ that features “hand-scanning detection technology to monitor every hand wash for contaminates,” among other protocols.
Read more: The Future of Restaurants
I was admittedly suspicious of a corporate chain like Taffer’s Tavern opening while beloved independent restaurants everywhere are closing, but that’s certainly the way things are going these days. In a recent interview with President Trump, Taffer talked about the sad state of restaurants, saying that COVID-19 is “winding down.” Reports from public health officials say otherwise. Taffer also said that he is "very seriously" looking into running for public office, and Trump assured him he would do very well. I arranged a video chat with Mr. Taffer, and we had a wide-ranging conversation about his new chain, what he would do if he were in charge of reopening restaurants nationwide, and his new TV show idea. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Food & Wine: With the state of the industry, why is now, in your mind, a good time to open a new restaurant?
Jon Taffer: Well, I didn't choose it. I think that the market's disruption, particularly in a Georgia marketplace, is less than many others. But no, I think when you believe in what you're doing, when you have a strong brand, when you know you can establish market curiosity, then that's the time, regardless of what's going on.
You've been involved in the industry for a long time. Has this been a long-time dream of yours, having a spot like this with your own name on it?
Almost two years ago, I identified that in my view, the casual dining model did not work any more for three reasons. One, at the time, we had no labor pool. Two, the labor pool we had was new Americans who often had communication problems, and we're a high-communication industry. So it created challenges for training, etc. Three, minimum wages were going up to, in some states, 600%, with employee tax credit and such. So when you looked at those three things, and you looked at the staffing levels in kitchens and casual dining, it was pretty easy to conclude that this model will not work in this environment. So I said, "Gee, could I create the casual dining model of the future? Is there a way that I can infuse food technologies, cooking technologies, and transactional technologies? And that's how this started.
So it started with me thinking, What does the kitchen of the future look like with a completely different labor model? So there's not a broiler man. There's not a salad man. There's not a cold guy. Cooks move with the product. The product doesn't move from station to station. It is a completely different style of not only product specifications, but cooking technologies as well as processes.
It had nothing to do with COVID. But when we were finished, we found that all of our cooking equipment was inset, built into walls. There were no edges. There were no counter spaces. When we were finished, and COVID hit, we realized, Wow, we have the safest kitchen in the industry. We have less surface area, less exposure to raw proteins—less contact.
So then we realized, "OK, we have something special here. Let's build out the Taffer's Safe Dining System." So we took our inherently safe kitchen and added all of these steps of safe dining from uniform changes, to PPE in kitchens, to machines that verify hand sanitation. You either pass or you fail if you don't wash your hands correctly.
Let's say you were in charge of a federal program to get restaurants back on track. What would you do to help the industry?
As the pandemic ends, the marketplace is going to come back in three phases. The first third is going to be what I call the quick third. They're young. They're millennials. They're fearless. The virus doesn't scare them as much.
The second third is what I call the reserved third. They're going to watch these few weeks in places like New York and cities that are just going to start coming back. They're going to see what happens on social media, on news. Are people wearing masks? Are the numbers going up? Do the environments look safe? If things look good, then the second third will start to come into the marketplace.
The third phase is the demographic that is not going out until there's a vaccine. Period. End of discussion. The problem for our industry is that's where the disposable income is. So until we get to the third phase, we're not going to see the luxury sectors take off like they should.
I think the states, particularly the cities, have done a very good job relaxing outdoor provisions so that restaurants can put more seating outside. That's been very helpful, obviously. But winter is coming, so that's going to disappear. The interior capacity or the ability to use the inside is going to become everything in the next few months.
When we took a look at the cities, I think that allowing outside dining to continue, allowing some tents and structures to be put outside is very, very important. I think that there are other incentive plans that can be done. New York City, for example, can eliminate tolls on bridges and tunnels coming in for weekends to drive restaurant business. That would be very powerful.
I also think that we're going to see domestic travel incentives, and these are things that I would do. I would implement strong business deductions, the strongest we've ever had. I would become a partner, as the government, with anybody who goes out to eat for a business meeting. Two, I would include catering. I would certainly include to-go in that. And yes, I would include alcoholic beverages in that. The next thing that I would do is to create a domestic travel incentive where, let's say, 30% of airline tickets for domestic travel would be tax deductible. So now, the government is providing incentives to get on airplanes. Destinations like Las Vegas, Miami, Bourbon Street, New Orleans. They thrive on airline business and fly-in business. So creating that type of stimulation is also extremely important.
The next thing is really important as the third step is inventory credits. I would provide some type of an inventory credit to the restaurant industry.
Then the last thing that I would do is I would continue some type of a payroll relief program until the industry got up to previous, comparable industry revenue levels. PPP was a good one. A 13% reduction in payroll tax would be significant if we had inventory credits, domestic travel incentives, and business tax write-off for meals. Sorry again for the long answer.
I feel like a lot of those answers involved getting more and more people back in restaurants, and people traveling more and getting back in airports. Are you concerned about that? How does the hospitality industry's comeback factor in with prolonging the pandemic?
That's going to become a moot point in 90 days. I'm of the belief—and I sit on a board of a hospital, I have pretty good medical information—that we will have a vaccine in distribution before the end of the year. So I think we're talking about a 60-day issue, a 90-day issue. I'll tell you what nobody's really saying. The next thing that people are going to do after they get their vaccine is go out to dinner. That's the next thing they are going to fricking do. So I suggest that come December, January, February—which is traditionally, based upon region, not the busiest time of year for us—I think we're going to have a boom, hugely, first and second quarter.
So imagine this. It's February. We have a vaccine in place. We've distributed a couple hundred million of them. Everybody's coming back out to restaurants. They're reengaging socially. Confidence is building. And we have 40% less capacity as an industry. That's boomtown. That's where we're going, and nobody's talking about that. So I think that your question is an unreasonable one, because it's assuming that this goes on past that point that I don't think it's going to.
I hope you're right.
I am right. By the first of the year, first quarter next year, even opponents say we're going to have a vaccine.
So I think that this article should not only be about what you are doing now, but what you are doing to get ready. And if I'm right and there is a vaccine, whether it's January, February, March, or April, there is going to be a boom, and our capacity is going to be less. As an industry, we should get ready for that.
The pandemic has been especially hard on family-owned businesses. How do you feel about the hospitality industry losing a lot of these family businesses while many chains are doing well?
Yeah, it's sad, of course. On Bar Rescue, and in so much of my life, I help those independent families. There's about a million restaurants across America. About 70% of them are owned by single-unit operators. Those are the Ma-Pas, and we're going to lose a whole bunch of them. It's awful. And what bothers me is it always comes down to resources. The chains had the resources to implement uniform changes, safety changes, put messages on TV of contactless pickup, contactless delivery. They had a chance to leverage their resources and get ahead of it a lot quicker than the independent marketplace did, and that's unfortunate.
You mentioned the PPP earlier. Do you feel like it should be extended?
Here's what I would do if I were President. I would put the PPP back in at about 50% of what it was. I would provide an end-of-year credit. If your sales reporting at the end of the year is over 70%, or 80%, whatever the number is determined for normal revenues, the PPP becomes a loan. If at the end of the year, your revenues are below 60, or whatever the hell the percentage number is of previous years, the loan is forgiven.
Back to your own chain. Is there a restaurant that you're modeling Taffer’s Tavern off of?
It's a little like a Houston's. It's got beautiful woods and finishes and things like a Houston's, but it doesn't have the price point of Houston's. It's a little like a BJ's Brewhouse. It's got a quicker pace to it. Big beer offerings, great food. It's very much like a brew concept, but it's classier than that. So it really has a different market position. I really can't come up with a concept that directly compares to it, honestly. Ale House is probably a good example, better than BJ's. It's a little Ale House, a little Houston's.
Are there any bars or restaurants that have closed during the pandemic that you'll really miss?
Yeah, and I'm working on a new television show where we go across the country and open up some of these historic restaurants that have closed. I happen to be doing a bunch of research on that topic as we speak. I'm talking multi-generational restaurants that are 70, 80, 90, 110 years old that have closed across the country. I don't want to mention any names because there are families and stuff involved in it, and who knows what creditors are reading.
My heart is broken by it. My heart is broken by the disappearance of them. These aren't restaurants. These are legacies. They're our history, so of course I am. It makes me tear up when I think about it, honestly.
So you're in production of that show right now?
No, we're working on the premise now and how we would produce it. In my view, it’s a show that needs to be made. There are a number of historic operations where I'd love to call the family and say, "Listen. It's me, Jon Taffer. I'm here with a checkbook. Let's get that baby reopened."
I'll pick one that's still open as an example. Because, again, I don't want to embarrass anybody. Say Luger's were to close in New York. Wow, OK, that's a big fricking deal. I think there's a reason to save those places, and there's a reason to save those families.
If Luger's were to close, and you reopened it, how would you change it?
Boy, are you getting me in trouble here. I might up the steak spec a little bit, to be honest with you. I grew up on Long Island and used to go to the Peter Luger's on Northern Boulevard. I was 16 years old, with friends of mine, and we would get steaks from Peter Luger's to-go. They didn't even serve them to-go back then. People didn't order them that way. So they put the thing in tin foil. They'd throw it some kind of bag. We'd go out in the car, and we'd eat these porterhouses from Peter Luger like cavemen in the car with our hands because they didn't even have to-go silverware back then.
Let's say one of your own Taffer’s Tavern franchisees was not adhering to your standards for quality and COVID safety protocols. Would you ever put them on Bar Rescue and do an episode on a Taffer’s Tavern?
I don't think I would probably do that. I'd shut them down rather than do a Bar Rescue episode.
You'd shut them down?
Would that be in the contract?
No different than if they changed the burger spec on me, I'd shut them down. Franchisees have a responsibility to operate within the specifications of the franchise agreement. If they step out of that franchise agreement, then they have the liability of the franchise being removed.