Can the Bar Industry Be Rescued? Naturally, We Asked Jon Taffer

The ’Bar Rescue’ host talks the future of drinking out, filming during COVID, and setting his sights on Vegas during an unprecedented crisis

This week, L.A. County entered the Yellow Tier, meaning bars—the indoor ones that just serve booze—got the OK to reopen their doors after a nearly 14-month COVID-19 closure. It’s probably too soon to fully survey the damage, but chances are some of our favorites won’t be reemerging post-pandemic. According to Jon Taffer, it won’t be all doom and gloom—in fact, the pandemic may change the way some bars do business for the better.

On his long-running reality show Bar Rescue, Taffer has visited nearly 200 bars to whip lazy, incompetent, or clueless owners into shape with an iron fist, a lot of shouting and shaming, and a little help from liquor brands and their ambassadors. You might not always agree with his rebranding decisions—like the time he turned a hilarious-looking pirate-themed bar into something called Corporate Bar—but if you buy into the tenets of “bar science,” he’s the unimpeachable expert.

Taffer got his start in the industry here in L.A. in the late ’70s and early ’80s, managing the bar at both the Troubadour and Barney’s Beanery. He now lives in Las Vegas, which is where he decided to set Bar Rescue‘s latest season (which premiered on May 2). “We didn’t do bars on the strip that are in multi-billion dollar casinos,” Taffer says. “These are family-owned bars around the city that typically serve the hospitality employees who serve the guests in the city.” We confirmed that viewers can expect less yelling and more tears.

To get a bead on what the future looks like for bar owners and bar goers, we talked with Taffer via Zoom from his home in Vegas. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

You must be getting a lot of people coming to you to get a sense of the state of things and to get a glimpse of the future. Here in L.A., it seems like bars have been extra hard hit by bad pandemic conditions that caused the super long closure. 

And you know, I remember, and I lived in Los Angeles for many, many years in Woodland Hills and Beverly Hills and probably most of my life, adult life, I’ve lived there. I remember friends that were in San Diego that said, “OK, we’re allowed to be open now,” with outside seating, but then the fires hit and they couldn’t have outside seating because of the smoke. So there was sort of a double whammy going on at some times as well, but you’re right. It affected for an incredibly long shutdown, which devastated. I’m going to guess, statistically, California, when this all washes out, will have some of the most closures, I think, per capita, probably than many other markets.

In some places, is this going to be like an extinction event for independently owned bars?

I don’t think it’s an extinction event because when you look at where we’re going right now, let’s assume for a moment that Los Angeles or Southern California loses 38 percent, 40 percent of its independent bars, which is a pretty fair assessment. Think about what happens this summer if things open up and vaccines really happen, we bring the marketplace back with 38 percent less capacity. Those that remain become pretty strongly positioned and that opens up opportunity for the future. I have a franchise called Taffer’s Tavern and we’re selling franchises like crazy right now because landlords are aggressive. They want deals. There’s locations available that one would have thought would never have become available. I kind of counted locations in many, many cities and so many see this is an opportunity. I see boomtown for next year in the restaurant and bar industry. I would use the term dormant—I wouldn’t use the term extinct.

People seem to be eager to get back to socializing and a big part of that is going to be getting back to the bar. Things will obviously be a little different at first, but do you think that anything about the ways bars do business will change permanently after the pandemic?

Yes. I’ve studied these things quite a bit this past year. There are certain things that are going to remain. We all love curbside delivery. That stuff’s not going away. So the whole premise of curbside delivery and the conveniences of app-based transactions with curbside delivery or home delivery, these things are going to stay to a much greater degree. The other thing that stays is, imagine if you were sitting in a restaurant a year from now and somebody at the next table coughs. That’s not nearly as acceptable as it used to be. But social behavior with regard to us coughing and sneezing in public and things like that are really going to change.

I see boomtown for next year in the restaurant and bar industry. I would use the term dormant—I wouldn’t use the term extinct.

I think table spacing, not to the degree that it is now, not with six to eight feet, but there’s going to be more of a consideration of putting people on top of each other and I believe that’s going to remain. So some very tight, small operations, in, let’s say, a downtown area, they could lose some seating because they pack them in in those kinds of restaurants. I think those things are going to remain. Also, from the back of the house. I don’t see masks coming off people on a cooking line anytime soon. I don’t see any reason to. If a mask makes food safer when we’re handling it, why not? So I think that back of the house, those types of provisions will remain. In Taffer’s Tavern, we have air scrubbing equipment that’s at a higher level than normal. I think that stuff remains. I think when bars put HVAC systems in, they’re going to have better filtering capacities and things like that.

Lastly, I think the premise of washing hands, the premise of washing surfaces, things like this are going to remain in all of our consciousness, and particularly in a restaurant business. We have equipment in Taffer’s Tavern where after you wash your hands, you put them under a scanner and if there’s any bacterial or viral matter on your hands, you get a red light. You got to go back to the sink. Those kinds of things I think are going to linger, and we’re going to see that when we come out of this, there are certain things that are going to be with us forever I think.

What was it like to be on the ground with bar owners in Las Vegas during the pandemic? 

First of all, shooting the show is a whole challenge unto itself, but Las Vegas has been impacted even more than Los Angeles as far as overall unemployment is concerned, because unlike L.A., we have a very singular economy here: hospitality and tourism. So when our hospitality is shut down, we shut down. We were devastated. When you drove down the strip, the casinos were all boarded up. The parking lots were empty. I cried when I saw it. It was devastating to see. So doing the season here in Las Vegas made a lot of sense to me being a city that needed it so badly.

Also, Las Vegas is dependent upon tourism, so having America see Las Vegas [on TV], hopefully many more will come to Las Vegas next year. So I’m doing this really in support of my city but these businesses are sort of different. [The owners] weren’t drunk or fighting with their employees or irresponsible or neglectful or the things just smiling that I normally deal with all the time. On the other hand, they can’t blame everything on the pandemic because we’ve seen bars and restaurants be successful, so they could have saved more money. Maybe they could have remodeled more, they could have done this, they could have done that. It’s still Bar Rescue and I still have to make their business better. But rather than being a season of angriness, if you will, this is a season of a lot of emotion.

For example, a couple of weeks ago, I rescued a restaurant, and the family—a big family with five kids—lost their home three days before, and four young boys were sleeping in a floor in a room above the restaurant. They had nothing, no money, nothing. We put them in hotels and I did everything we could for them. I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag, but that’s the kind of stuff we’re dealing with. It’s an emotional episode for me and a really personal one.

What was it like getting your start on the Sunset Strip in the 1970s? 

I ran both the Troubadour and Barney’s Beanery in the late seventies, early eighties, which was a heck of a time on the Sunset Strip. I also of course knew the managers in the Whiskey and the Roxy, and we would all be in each other’s venues. And I was in the middle of those days, I remember the days of Fear and Black Flag and Adam Ant and all those people in the Troubadour and everybody pogoing on the dance floor. It’s such an important part of culture, certainly there in that area of Los Angeles. It was a shame to see all that stop.

And then you think about all the sound people that didn’t work and the camera people that didn’t work and the tech people that did work and the road crews that didn’t work and the studio musicians that didn’t work. They’re the unspoken industry. I’m incredibly thrilled and personally gratified to be able to get my crew back to work. But nobody’s talking about how that industry has been shut down and completely stifled by this as well. I’m getting on a bit of an L.A.-focused rampage here, but it bothers me a little bit that the entertainment industry has been shut down to the level it has and has not made much of the news at all.

Of course, shooting during a pandemic and getting people back to work isn’t exactly easy.

It’s been a nightmare. I get tested every day. My crew gets tested every day. There are three COVID officers who spray every room before we go in them. There are hand washing devices everywhere. The COVID practices have been really impressive and hats off to Viacom, and a whole industry in a way, that we’ve dealt with these protocols, because they’ve kept us all safe and it’s working. So we have a crew of about 57 in hotel rooms here in Las Vegas. We’re shooting the season here and we’re all in this COVID semi-bubble, because we’re allowed to go to a restaurant. We just do it in very smart ways. And it’s working.

As a person who runs multiple businesses, this was a business you were able to get back online, which must’ve been a huge relief knowing that people are relying on you.

Yeah. And to be able to go back and rescue these people this year, when they needed so much. I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to be able to do this.

Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.